When I first went to university, I was part of an Actual September, though it took place in October. Going from a dial-up internet service shared with the telephone line to the latest iteration of SuperJANET with its multi-megabit connection to my computer opened many new possibilities for me and my peers.
One of these possibilities was Usenet, which we accessed via news.ox.ac.uk. Being new to this online society, my fellow neophytes and I made all of the social faux pas that our forbears had made this time last year, and indeed in prior years. We top-posted. We cross-posted. We fed the trolls. Some of us even used Outlook Express. Over time, those of us who were willing to make concessions to the rules became the denizens, and it was our job the next September to flame the latest crop of newbies.
The above description is vastly oversimplified, of course. By the time of my Actual September, Usenet was feeling the effects of the Neverending September. Various commercial ISPs – most notoriously America Online – had started carrying Usenet and their customers were posting. Now there was, all year round, an influx of people who didn’t know about the existing society and rules but were, nonetheless, posting to Usenet.
Between AOL and – much later – Google Groups incorporating Usenet into its content, the people who felt themselves the guardians and definition of all that Usenet stood for found that they were the minority of users. Three main ways of dealing with this arose. Some people just gave up and left for other services. Others joined in with the new way of using Usenet. Still others worked in the old way despite the rise of the new way, wielding their ability to plonk newbies into their kill file as a badge of honour.
By now I probably don’t need to ask the rhetorical question: what has all of this to do with twitter? Clearly it has everything to do with twitter. The details differ but the analogy is near watertight. In each instance, we find a community of early adopters for a service that finds a comfortable way to use that service. In each we find that as the community grows, latecomers use the service in different ways, unanticipated or frowned upon by the early adopters. In each case the newcomers outnumber the early adopters by orders of magnitude and successfully, whether by sheer scale or through the will of the owners of the service, redefine the culture of the service. Early adopters complain that the new majority don’t “get” the culture.
Moving to app.net does nothing except reset that early-adopter clock. Any postmodernist philosopher will tell you that: probably while painting your living room lilac and dragging a goldfish bowl on a leash. If app.net takes off then the population of users will be orders of magnitude greater than the number of “backers”. The people who arrive later will have their own ideas of how to use the service; and together will have contributed orders more cash to the founders than the initial tranche of “backers”. I wonder who the management will listen to.
Any publicly-accessible communication platform will go through this growth and change. When I joined Facebook it was only open to university members and was a very different beast than modern Facebook. I would not be surprised to read similar complaints made about citizens’ band radio or Morse telegraphy.
The people who move on don’t necessarily want a changed experience. It seems to me they want a selective experience, and moving into the wilderness allows them an approximation of that. In the short term, anyway. Soon the undesirables will move in next door and they’ll choose to move on again.
I suggest that what’s required is actually something more like Usenet. I run my own status.net server, initially to archive my tweet stream but it turns out I’m not using it for that. If I chose I could open that server up to selected people, just as news.ox.ac.uk was only open to members of one university. I could curate a list of servers that mine peers with. If there are some interesting people at status.cocoadev.com, I could peer with that server. If status.beliebers.net isn’t to my taste, I don’t peer with it. But that’s fine, their users don’t see what I write in return for me not seeing what they write. In fact Usenet could’ve benefitted from more selective peering, and a lot of the paid-for access now has, easily-detectable spam aside, a higher signal to noise ratio than the service had a decade ago.
Another service that has some of the aspects of the curated experience is Glassboard. Theirs is entirely private, losing some of the discoverability of a public tweet stream. In return all conversations are (to some extent) invitation only and moderated. If you don’t like someone’s contributions, the board owner can kick ban them.
So the problem long-term tweeters have with twitter is not a new problem. Moving wholesale to something that does the same thing means deferring, not solving, the problem.
I thought I’d update this post (nearly six months later) on the day that I joined app.net. It’s changed quite a lot—both by adding a cloud storage API and by going freemium—in the intervening time. I remain skeptical that the problem with a social network is the tool, and I also wonder how the people who joined to get away from people using Twitter really badly will react to the free tier allowing the unwashed masses like me to come and use app.net really badly. Still, there’s a difference between skeptical and closed-minded, so here I am.