Why on Earth do we keep putting all our egg avatars into one centralized profit-driven social networking basket?
WARNING: This article asks more questions than it answers.
Twitter is a centralized and commercial communication platform relied on by millions of human beings the world over (and also millions of bots). As a business though, Twitter’s bottom line is steadily plunging toward the gutter.
Like a great deal of over-hyped technology companies who lack a traditional characteristic of business success, the ability to generate meaningful revenue, Twitter is a financial failure right now.
Over the course of their history, it appears that Twitter couldn’t make money if its headquarters were smack in the middle of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
Why should this matter to us, the lowly users of Twitter?
Because their efforts to capitalize the system result in potential unpleasant modifications of the system that are pissing off users, and true competing alternatives to Twitter are unpopular virtual ghost towns.
Why does it have to be this way?
If You Build It
In my own use of Twitter, I am followed by and follow brilliant technologists, programmers, and creative individuals — thinkers and doers who have abilities well suited to forming and maintaining the technical infrastructure and means to sustain alternative decentralized communications platforms.
In one case, someone who I deeply admire — and who changed my life and that of others for the better, built a wonderful real-time chat system called Meatspace Chat. In doing so, Edna Piranha lit a fire that showed how a small group of friends could build and maintain something that people the world over needed and wanted to use every day. You can learn more about that in her awesome XOXO talk.
Is it simple and without day to day grief to perform such a feat? Hell no, and this is something that I truly appreciated about Meatspace when I used it: someone took the time to build a thing that ended up drawing others to it, and became a community that is still in operation today — because of the community.
A genuine curiosity and interest in community is what fuels such feats.
Community is Hard
The dynamics of any community are hard to reason about as we like to say in the nerd realm. Scale this up to global communities and you have a monumental challenge on your hands.
This is not a full on rant against Twitter, and in fact they should get some commendation for building and maintaining a platform on which communities can flourish. Twitter is IRL, and people can be jerks; there is a great deal of abuse taking place on Twitter, and this along with generating real revenue have so far proven to be insurmountable challenges for them.
They have at least tried, but we as users must not be oblivious to the primary goal of Twitter, and that goal is to make money.
Community around profit driven motives is even harder to reason about, and there has been much thought by those far smarter than I on the topic of how to realize the idea of large scale, sustainable, non-profit internet communities.
As an internet old-timer, I find this to be hugely ironic, as the internet I first used in the early 90s was already what we needed in respect to community: a blend of groups without profit-driven motives, working together to share information in the free and open exchange of ideas. The profit motive had not yet cast a shadow over it.
The great fear in those communities of the young internet was that everything would become commercialized and profit-driven; the community spirit and information freedom would take a backseat to money, and things would begin to feel slightly oppressive.
Well, here we are.
What About Alternatives?
The smart folks mentioned earlier who have thought deeply about the need for open and decentralized communication, free from the hindrances of commercialization did more than philosophize about things.
Some started to build based on their dreams, and made them a reality.
Because of the popularity of existing centralized social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and the increasing shift away from traditional old school internet community platforms like Usenet News and Internet Relay Chat, the solution had to be something like the former newfangled tools for communication.
A group of bright young people hit on the idea of replicating the user experience of Facebook, but in a decentralized way, with emphasis on the user owning their own data, and a kind of freedom throughout the platform which is not possible on Facebook or Twitter.
diaspora* was launched in 2010.
One of the first hugely popular examples of a then nascient Kickstarter, the diaspora* project managed to raise ten times more money than it sought, and offered to create an open alternative to centralized social networks.
As an open source project, much effort by folks around the world made quick work of a initial version of the software, and we were off to the races.
The software — being software was not without criticism and flaw, and the team of young and inexperienced leaders of the project saw many difficulties and absolute heartbreaking experiences along the way.
Growth was slow, but there was still traction for diaspora, and in 2012, I even began to host my own diaspora software instance (known as a pod) along with some friends. I still keep an old article about hosting diaspora* on FreeBSD around here for the nostalgia of it all.
I can remember my excitement in using this social network, and for its time, it had a nice group of novel features. The entire experience and feeling of newness of it all reminded me of the internet I discovered as a youngster.
It was good times.
It was great to have friends on there too, but in all honesty the majority of my friends and family were not there, and had no interest in prying themselves away from Facebook to even check it out despite my calls to action.
Everything I am describing and more about diaspora* was wonderfully presented by Katharina Nocun at the 32nd annual Chaos Communications Congress in a talk called A New Kid on the Block. I encourage you to watch her talk if you want to learn more about the seemingly impossible competition of open and decentralized communications platforms with their centralized and commercial counterparts.
diaspora* is still going today, and I still think about checking out now and again while longing for a level of success from it that might never be realized. Of course, the idea that I used it before but do not any longer and therefore am not doing my part to support it is not lost to me.
There are other alternative decentralized systems worth noting here; a few that immediately come to mind:
- friendica is and alternative to those “creepy” social networks that don’t really care about your privacy
- Sandstorm is a personal and private cloud operating system and you can actually run a diaspora* pod among several popular internet applications on it
- Synereo is a fully decentralized and distributed social platform
- Tent Tent lets you use many different applications to access the same data
If you would like to see your own decentralized social networking software represented above, contact me and I’ll be happy to add it.
However, with this wide variety of options comes a common theme: limited success.
What Would it Take?
So the problematic question I and so many others have, and the one touched on in Ms. Nocun’s talk is why can’t open solutions succeed on a large scale?
What is missing and what would it take to make these solutions viable for a larger part of the internet community that has not already happened with projects like Diaspora and others?
In some of my own thinking on this matter, the money aspect is a massive one. Even though Twitter does not make a lot of money, like other contemporary technology companies, it has succeeded in raising a lot of money. A grassroots based social network lacks the cash to adequately market itself to the masses and this hurts growth and popularity.
Trust is also a major aspect to consider. As a non-technical user who depends on another to operate these decentralized social network applications, how can I trust Joe Pod Operator with my cat photos, thoughts on the latest rapper beef, or rants about politics?
This is a valid concern, and to be honest, centralized solutions like Twitter do a great job at availability of their service, and a not too shabby job at securing the valuable (and highly marketable) data their users generate.
That said, in light of the recent news about a potential changeover to an algorithmic timeline, what is happening with your current trust in Twitter right now? Do you actually trust a corporation to keep the best interests of its users in mind over that of its shareholders?
While it’s not clear how much of the Twitter user base includes those who explicitly trust the company, it’s clear that a great deal of people do implicitly trust them because they generate sometimes important data with Twitter.
Some folks rely on it even to help bolster their day to day mental health, and so making Twitter less useful for those people will create some profoundly negative effects:
if twitter becomes unusable, a lot of people’s mental health is going to suffer. trust me.— spooky james (@varjmes) February 6, 2016
I wonder if the Twitter designers and product folks have considered users such as those mentioned by @varjmes above when discussing pending changes.
Popularity is no doubt another massive driver of our persistent clinging on to these social services. Everyone is already on them, right? Well, that did not happen overnight, and it could happen elsewhere, so why is it not happening?
The internet as it existed over 20 years ago was a vastly different place, and our fears that commercialization would utterly fuck it up are now justified by the likes of Facebook and Twitter. They have taken a wonderful dream of decentralized information freedom and siloed the hell out of it in the name of profit.
These social networks are bubbles of convenience — easy to use and popular, but for the small tokens of luxury and illusion of community, we pay a steep price.
That price is the commercialization of your every expressed whim. By now we are well aware that when we use these kinds of services, we are just a product, so why are we shocked when the service reinforces this notion with the ideas of changes we find unacceptable?
More importantly, why in the hell are we still using these services in the first place? Do we sit on the sidelines watching the #RIPTwitter hashtag trending, or do we do something about it?
In response to the #RIPTwitter hashtag, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey says,
Hello Twitter! Regarding #RIPTwitter: I want you all to know we’re always listening. We never planned to reorder timelines next week.
Notice the next week part of his statement — diplomatically dodging the issue by homing in on the specific time-frame in order to deflect from something that is likely to be an inevitability at some point in the not-to-distant future.
I see political office in this dude’s future!