You Can't Start the Revolution from the Country Club
August 16, 2012
The current fashion amongst alpha geeks is to reinvent many of the building blocks of the social web. Given that I’ve been obsessed with that particular intersection of technology and culture for a dozen years, I should be unequivocal in my excitement. But this time it’s complicated. Because we’re shutting some people out.
There are a few philosophical underpinnings that have informed the development of blogging and social media since their inception. These core values of the social web can be summed up as three simple goals. It’s important to understand them because they are what’s enabled the social web to be so radically transformative of society and culture.
The Values that Make the Social Web Revolutionary:
- A desire to improve and simplify the experience for writing and creating content online. This is probably the area that’s stagnated most until the recent crop of tools like Medium or Svbtle popped up, though there had been a few small improvements in more limited contexts where people carefully reduced the scale and scope of the messages being shared to 140 characters or a single photo or a simple, gestural “like”.
- An understandable, but still geeky, desire to advance the “open web” in a decentralized architecture that mimics the early days of the Internet. Based on the success of early open technologies like email, this technological desire is a useful way of ensuring that new systems don’t simply become completely owned by corporate interests. Frequently accompanied by a preference open source software, this area of endeavor has been characterized by a constant flow of quixotically unsuccessful efforts (Diaspora, Open Social, etc.) but is recently ascendant again with the excitement around App.net.
And the fundamental value which has given blogging and social media its moral grounding and its most significant impact:
- The urge to make tools for communication and community more inclusive, more participatory and more democratic. To my surprise, this goal has been the part of the social web that has succeeded best, empowering and enriching the lives of many people who aren’t privileged by geography, wealth, inheritance, social standing, or identity. While far from perfect, it’s inarguable that people of many less privileged groups have participated in the social web from the start, and have been able to impact the world around them, and that counts for a lot.
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Revolution
We are in a moment where many of the most passionate technologists in the web world are enthusiastically re-examining the challenges around the first two values of the social web’s creation, the tools and their relation to the open web. My heart is with them, as I used to be someone who helped create both. Anyone who’s still hacking on new blogging tools in 2012 is a friend of mine.
So why do I immediately get itchy when I see the signature design of a Svbtle blog? There is a formidable list of bloggers already on the platform, including friends of mine and people I love to read. Shouldn’t I be happy that anyone is still updating a personal blog these days?
In the same vein, when I look at the sign-up page for App.net, why do I get a creeping feeling of unease despite the presence of a lot of avatars from friends or acquaintances of mine? Isn’t it cool that they’re experimenting with a different model of development?
The answer’s simple: In today’s world, where the social web is mainstream, innovating on the core values of tools and technology while ignoring the value of inclusiveness is tantamount to building a gated community. Even with the promise that the less privileged might get a chance to show up later, you’re making a fundamentally unfair system.
Building a social tool for “just us geeks” permanently privileges the few people who get in the door first, which means you’re giving a huge leg up to those who already have a pretty good set of advantages to begin with.
Closing the Door Behind You
Much of my own success is, as I’ve said, attributable largely to me having gained access to online social networks earlier than most people. Being early and loud will give you a better shot at being heard than anyone who comes after you.
And for better or worse, I’m one of those people who tends to get invited to these private parties early. I feel I’ve earned it, but certainly some of the reason I get invited is that I’m part of the (not-so-)old boys’ club. Which means the only way I can justify my presence and participation is if I make sure to articulate how others can have their own access even if they don’t share my particular set of advantages.
I could give voice to the problems that arise, but unsurprisingly, much of the best writing explaining the exclusion inherent in these new experimental platforms has been done by women, a group woefully underrepresented on all the new tools and services. So I’ll share their thoughts.
Tess Rinearson wrote what I think is my favorite take on this topic, “App.net: The Country Club of the Internet?”. Her argument is concise and cogent:
[I]t’s not yet clear exactly what App.net’s subscription fee will be. But even a very low fee could prove prohibitive for a large segment of the web. And even if it doesn’t, the appeal of this new network seems limited to a specific demographic, at least for now: All of my friends who have backed the site are both white and male. Of course, pockets and bubbles have existed and will always exist on the internet. But it scares me when people start imagining a site like App.net asThe Future of Social Networks, and herald it for its ability to keep “unwanted” people out.
Similarly (and perhaps closest to my heart for its uncompromising framing) is Whitney Erin Boesel’s “Race, Class, App.net: The Beginning of ‘White Flight’ from Facebook & Twitter?” A wonderfully argued, and thoroughly hyperlink-annotated essay, the phrasing that most resonated with me was incredibly powerful:
I’m now wondering if App.net doesn’t mark the beginning of “white flight” from Twitter and Facebook, just as danah boyd (@zephoria) has argued that Facebook was the “white flight” from Myspace before that. Both sites have certainly grown beyond their early-adopter user bases: Twitter had 500 million users as of February 2012, and with 955 million users [pdf] as of June 2012, “everyone” is supposedly on Facebook; your mom is on Facebook (hell, my mom’s on Twitter, too), and there’s even a growing chanceyour grandma is on Facebook (though I admit that mine isn’t). Facebook has become so quotidian—some would even say pedestrian—that as Laura Portwood-Stacer (@lportwoodstacer) argues, not being on Facebook has become the new, cool status marker (esp for affluent white tech people). Given all the cultural and economic capital there is to be gained from participating in social media, however, it wouldn’t be surprising if some people who are ‘too cool’ for Facebook and Twitter are not yet too cool for social networking sites in general, especially sites you need $50, $100, or $1000 upfront to join.
Having been on the wrong side of exclusionary institutions built on ostensibly egalitarian technologies before, the evidence these articles present is simply too persuasive to ignore.
It’s Not Malice, It’s Incorrect Prioritization
Since I have the good fortune to know many of the people working on creating these tools, I can attest that their intent is not to exclude. In fact, I’d guess nearly all of them will say “as soon as we get past the beta period and open up, we want everyone to come in!”
But there’s an aesthetic and editorial sensibility that permeates any defined online community that is almost always inherited from its earliest dominant users, and once it’s established, it’s almost impossible to change. Worse, geeks get so enamored of the first two, admittedly important, core values of the social web that they forget the third, and most socially critical, value: inclusion.
Good social software developers are right to believe that embracing the open web or radically usable communications tools is a fundamentally revolutionary act. It’s a brave and meaningful area of technology to work on. But our reward structures in the tech industry are all built around praising technological innovations or philosophically-correct implementations. We treat social equity as an uncontrollable and indeed, inevitable result of building social tools on the web. But a website doesn’t make the world better just by existing. That’s the kind of worthwhile end result that has to be designed.
Taking It Back to the Streets
There’s no reason we can’t get things right this time. Medium made a few interesting choices early on by featuring content about parenting or childhood memories - fairly universal topics - instead of obscure Mac design nerdery as a starting point. Content aside, any of these networks or services could make a concerted effort to seek out international voices, users of different social strata, and people from outside the narrow conventional political spectrum of their current user bases today. It’d make the products better immediately and in the future.
It’s easy to say “we’ll fix that later”. And that makes sense for any of the bugs that fall into the first two categories of the social web’s radical agenda. You can fix the tech or the user experience after you ship.
But you can’t fix a broken culture once it’s been set on its way. You can’t take the power of privilege away from those who are gifted with it as a network is born. All you can do is try to distribute that power as broadly as possible early on, while your network is still forming, in order to allow for the serendipity and inclusiveness that will let a piece of technology reach its highest potential.
Sure, I know. It sounds ludicrously arrogant of me to make these arguments as if I’m some authority. It sounds delusionally techno-utopian to ascribe this kind of revolutionary social power to a bunch of websites that are today only being used by a couple of geeks. It sounds hyperbolic to argue that the makeup of the community on these sites is that important when their audiences are still so tiny and the tools are still so nascent.
But I’ve been through this phase in the web’s evolution before, alongside some of the same folks who are building these tools today. The last time, the simple tools we all built exceeded our most outlandish predictions of their social impact in every regard. What matters this time is that we learn from what we got wrong before. And we won’t kick ourselves for having bugs in the software, or for not being compliant enough with the technical preferences of a small, geeky crowd. We will regret if we just give power to ourselves and to the existing institutions again.