Ello, it's me

I’m sure this has been noted many times, but it strikes me that one of the central conventions of sitcoms is that people have a single location where they tend to meet: Cheers, Monk’s Café, Central Perk, Paddy’s Pub, etc. 
All social-media platforms aspire to be this: the one-stop shop for your connecting-to-friends-and-family needs, your hourly drip-feed of emotional sustenance. And for some that’s how it is: many millions (tens of millions? hundreds of millions?) of people almost never leave Facebook. 
But splitting social time is more the norm, I think — certainly IRL it is. You may have one place where you’re more likely to meet your friends, but it’s probably not the only place. Thus Foursquare: Where are my people hanging out tonight? 
And in a larger sense, what matters is not where we connect, but that we connect, yes? Thus Google integrates chat into mail, and Apple integrates phone-network text messages with their own iMessage network. Thus also iOS’s Notification Center: maybe your significant other sent you an email, maybe he sent you a text, maybe he Skyped you, maybe he DM’d you on Twitter — who cares? The point is: you have been addressed by someone you care about; you want to answer. 
And your smartphone works pretty well as an aggregator of communications — as long as someone initiates contact with you. But — and behold the power of FOMO — what if your friends are having a fantastic conversation on Twitter but you’re over at Ello? Or vice versa? Wouldn’t that be terrible? What if they’re even exchanging thoughts in the comments on someone’s blog? You’ll never find them there
So: where’s Foursquare for social media? Foursquare for online conversations? A heat map of my friends’ social activity? I doubt that any of the existing platforms want to write APIs that would allow that to happen, but wouldn’t it be cool? 

hello Ello

Like everyone else I know, it seems, I’m fooling around with Ello. My first comment there was: “So if I understand this correctly, we’re all going to follow the same people here that we follow on Twitter, and then we’re done, yes?” My next comments were about the peculiarities of the timeline, or more specifically conversation threads, which are not in chronological order. I could try to explain, but it makes me tired. Maybe I’m just old — which leads me to Dan Hon’s really interesting reflections:

It’s really hard to use, and apparently I’m not the only one who finds it that way. It’s opaque and cool and I’m not entirely sure that this is a conscious design choice: in that I’m not convinced that it’s been intentionally designed this way to keep the olds out.

There’s a lot to be skeptical about with ello. After having spent three years in manifesto-land, ello’s manifesto sets off alarm bells for me because there are a bunch of things that they’re saying that either aren’t true, or feel like overreaching. Certainly there are things in there that resonate with people (“You are not a product”), but the way that they’re acting in communications (“In the meantime, please help us spread the word”) doesn’t address the fact that there’s labour to be profited from. And again, the … pattern of not including content in notification emails to increase click-through for site retention means that those emails saying someone has replied to your post don’t actually include the reply to your post: requiring you to go back to the site.

Completely separate to whether ello is going to work or not is the idea above that it’s intentionally designed in a difficult to use way purely to define it as a separate space, much like the way that teens like to invent new language so that they can erect some sort of language boundary. The idea that there’s an evolution from language to products/services with which to create safer/more private spaces is super interesting and feels like something that we’re potentially seeing more of….

A great deal to think about here! Some initial responses:

  • Will hard-to-use keep the olds (ahem) out? Possibly. Will hard-to-use keep the trolls out? Definitely not.
  • If, as Ello’s creators tell me, I am not the product, what is the product? Ello’s creators place a lot of emphasis on its being advertising-free, which surely means that at some point they’re going to have to charge for the service — which is fine by me, as a dues-paying member of the anti-free-software club — but that will run against the grain of how people are used to thinking of social networks. That will limit the size of the community, which also would be fine by me, and maybe fine by Ello’s creators as well.
  • I definitely agree that there’s a strong movement towards “products/services with which to create safer/more private spaces,” but I have serious doubts about whether creating new proprietary social platforms is the way to do that. It seems to me, as I have already suggested, that we might do better to think about how to leverage the powers of the open web and its existing and very powerful technologies. (Presumably Ello itself, like Twitter, is built on RSS.)
  • In light of all this, I continue to think the smart move will be to own your turf, keep your ideas and pictures and videos there, and use whatever social networks are currently regnant to announce its presence.

And some further non-Dan-Hon-based thoughts:

  • Ello has clearly gotten more immediate traction than App.net did, which got more immediate traction than Diaspora did. This suggests increasing levels of dissatisfaction with existing social networks.
  • Just browsing around on Ello, I see more people describing it as a Facebook replacement than a Twitter replacement. For what that’s worth.
  • Adam Rothstein says, “Ello will one day suck.” Quinn Norton endorses this view and adds, “I hope Ello can be cool, at least for a while. And when Ello fails, I will look for the next thing.” Thoughtful people, then, are going into this expecting it to be a temporary phenomenon. So in such a situation, what to you do? Do you (following the own-your-turf model) make a point of saving to your own computers everything you do on Ello — and Twitter, and Facebook, and Tumblr? Or do you learn to accept that the conversations we have, and the things we make, on modern social media are just as ephemeral as front-porch conversations and castles in the sand?

popularity sort

The problem with Instapaper’s new Popularity Sort — essentially, an engine for finding out what everyone else is reading on Instapaper and suggesting that you read it too — is that it does what so many other social media do: exacerbate the gap between the attentional haves and have-nots. It’s a matter of inertia: posts and essays and articles that get a little attention at first stand a good chance of getting more, and then more, and then still more, while those that don’t get that little bump at first will be more likely to sink into neglect.

The net result of this kind of thing, as it becomes more dominant in online discourse — and it will indeed become more dominant — will be (a) more and more writers whoring for that initial burst of attention to get the ball rolling, and (b) a significant loss of what I’m going to call, on the model of biodiversity, graphodiversity.

So, you know, just never read something because other people are reading it. Avoid popularity sorting. Cultivate your own genuine interests and don’t let them get crowded out by invasive species of popular but bad writing.

crowdsourcing the Panopticon

When Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of the Panopticon, and much later when Michel Foucault described the gradual, accretive creation of a “panoptic society,” many of us thought that this would necessarily happen through the expansion of governmental infrastructure. How else could it happen? Well, it turns out that the business world has provided the infrastructure, perhaps for its own purposes, but in ways that government can use.

There’s something satisfying about this development — in this case anyway — as people discover that they have ways to participate in the clean-up of their community, in more ways than one.  But there’s also something obviously scary about it.

And that’s the way it goes: wherever our burgeoning information technologies touch our lives, they magnify, dramatically, already existing tendencies. It would be a mistake to think only about what’s cool in that or what’s disturbing. It’s cool and disturbing alternately, or all at once. If you’re feeling disoriented by these magnifications, get used to it. There’s a lot more where that came from.

the ethics of self-naming

Rachel, the Velveteen Rabbi, says people should be free to choose the names they are known by, online and offline.

Well, we’ve been around this block a few times here at Text Patterns, but as I read that post a little thought experiment occurred to me. Imagine a person who comments regularly on certain blogs under a pseudonym, and writes her own blog under a different pseudonym, and then of course “IRL” or “offline” has an official legal name. Not an especially unusual situation, I imagine, and one that few of us would find upsetting or even noteworthy.

But what if that same person applied the principle of contingent self-naming to her regular in-person social circles? What if she told one group of friends that her name is Carol Watson and another that it is Tamar Weinberg, while at work and to her family she’s known as Jennifer Esposito? Do we have a problem with that? My sense is that most of us would find that kind of creepy — even those of us who find the use of various online names perfectly acceptable. But why? If it’s okay online why wouldn’t it be okay offline? Is there just a residual “yuck factor” there that we ought to dispense with? Or what?

P.S. After writing this and putting it in the queue, I discovered that the estimable Alexis Madrigal has a different take on our expectations for everyday self-identification: “in real life, we expect very few statements to be public, persistent, and attached to your real identity. Basically, only people talking on television or to the media can expect such treatment.” I’m not sure precisely what Alexis has in mind here, but our public identities are attached to a lot of what we do everyday: not just our written and oral exchanges with friends and co-workers, but most of our purchases now that we increasingly use cards rather than cash. More than at any point in human history, the average person’s everyday life is made up of statements and actions that are “public, persistent, and attached to [his or her] real identity.” So in that sense our expectations for online conversation are outliers. The question is whether they should be.)

on the plusses and minuses of a social backbone

I don’t get this article by Edd Dumbill. He wants to argue that “The launch of Google+ is the beginning of a fundamental change on the web. A change that will tear down silos, empower users and create opportunities to take software and collaboration to new levels.” He tries to support that bold claim by arguing that Google+ is a big step towards “interoperability”:

Currently, we have all [our social] groups siloed. Because we have many different contexts and levels of intimacy with people in these groups, we’re inclined to use different systems to interact with them. Facebook for gaming, friends and family. LinkedIn for customers, recruiters, sales prospects. Twitter for friends and celebrities. And so on into specialist communities: Instagram and Flickr, Yammer or Salesforce Chatter for co-workers.

The situation is reminiscent of electronic mail before it became standardized. Differing semi-interoperable systems, many as walled gardens. Business plans predicated on somehow “owning” the social graph. The social software scene is filled with systems that assume a closed world, making them more easily managed as businesses, but ultimately providing for an uncomfortable interface with the reality of user need.

An interoperable email system created widespread benefit, and permitted many ecosystems to emerge on top of it, both formal and ad-hoc. Email reduced distance and time between people, enabling rapid iteration of ideas, collaboration and community formation. For example, it’s hard to imagine the open source revolution without email.

Dumbill seems not to have noticed that the various services he mentions, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram, are already built around an “interoperable system”: it’s called the World Wide Web. Those aren’t incompatible platforms, they are merely services you have to sign up for — just like Google.

Ah, but, “Though Google+ is the work of one company, there are good reasons to herald it as the start of a commodity social layer for the Internet. Google decided to make Google+ be part of the web and not a walled garden.” Well, yes and no. You can see Google+ posts online, if the poster chooses to make them public, but you can’t participate in the conversation without signing up for the service. In other words: just like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and so on.

In the end, it seems to me that Dumbill is merely saying that if all of us decide to share all our information with just one service, we’ll have a fantastic “social backbone” for our online lives. And that may be true. Now, can we stop to ask whether there may be any costs to that decision?

minus Google plus

When Google asked me why I chose to delete my Google+ service, here’s what I wrote:

First of all, I am not especially attracted to social media. I deactivated my Facebook account years ago, and find that Twitter is all the social I need. 

Second, Google+ gives me too many decisions to make. With Twitter, I say “Let me know if someone replies to me or DMs me, but otherwise leave me alone.” (I don’t even know how many followers I have or who those followers are.) Google+ defaults to sending me an email about everything, but even if I uncheck all those options, I still find new people showing up in my Stream that I didn’t ask to see and that I have to make decisions about. That’s exactly what I hated about Facebook: the constant need to make decisions about how I am going to manage my online relations, especially with people I don’t know well.

Third, I don’t fully trust Google to treat my information responsibly, so I would prefer not to implicate myself further in the company. If Gmail weren’t so far superior to every other implementation of email, I would have already deleted my Google account.

I really do appreciate how easy Google makes it to escape Google+ — they wouldn’t have done it so well a year ago, which shows that they’re learning, as Facebook is not. I completely understand what people like about Google+, but it didn’t take me long to realize that it’s just not my cup of tea at all.

One last word: trying out Google+ has reminded me once again of how much I like, and admire, the radical simplicity of Twitter. So if my Twitter friends start abandoning Twitter for Google+ I’m going to be really sad.

mine and yours

Why do social media always have to be about social competition? Everyone on Facebook is aware of how many friends they have in relation to how many friends their friends have. On Twitter people celebrate follower milestones: five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand. For a while Tumblr was defaced by a comparative ranking called Tumblarity, which has now disappeared, I hope for good (though Tumblr still tells you how many followers you have).

In light of all this, consider Peer Evaluation, a tool for “empowering scholars.” What’s it all about? The home page says,
  • Promote and enjoy real-time Open Access to research
  • Share primary data, working papers, books, media links…
  • Receive feedback and reviews from your peers
  • Expose your work to those that matter
  • Aggregate qualitative indicators about your impact
  • Drive, build and share your online reputation
All (potentially) very cool, until those last couple of bullet points, the key ones really — yes: “your online reputation.” Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? As Othello says, “Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” Well, we don’t want that to happen, do we? So let’s consult the site’s “Reputation Dashboard” to find out where we stand in the great striving for attention that infects, it would appear, every form of social media.

they’ve got us where they want us

Disturbances in the Twitterverse: first Twitter releases a new iPhone client that prominently features trends — including “promoted” trends, that is to say, ads — and offers no way to hide them. (A new release makes the trends appear in a slightly less annoying way, but they are still mandatory.) Then Twitter issues new guidelines to developers that — as far as I can tell — pretty much eliminate further development of third-party clients: “Developers ask us if they should build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience. The answer is no. . . . We need to move to a less fragmented world, where every user can experience Twitter in a consistent way.” And that seems to mean, through the Twitter website and through Twitter’s own clients for Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, and so on, with their prominently featured “promoted trends.”Clearly this has nothing to do with “user experience”: the people who run Twitter are casting around for ways to make money, which is understandable, and this is what they have settled on. I can’t say that I totally blame them: their investors are surely demanding return on their (hefty) investments. Twitter has got to be enormously expensive to run. But here we see the chief problem that arises when a major new form of communication — what, surprisingly to everyone, turned out to be a major new form of communication — consists of proprietary technology completely controlled by a single company. Imagine if Google had invented and owned email, so that you could only use email by navigating to the Gmail site and dealing with whatever ads Google chose to feature; so that Google had absolute control over your user experience; so that if Google’s servers went down the entire communicative ecosystem went down. That’s the situation the bosses at Twitter are clearly trying to create.Again, it’s their technology and they can do what they want. Maybe the next step will be an ad-free, trend-free Twitter experience for a monthly fee; I wouldn’t be surprised, and I would have nothing legitimate to complain about. But Twitter has become so central to many people’s lives that it feels like a public utility, and the ads therefore feel like an unwarranted intrusion — as though we had to listen to 30-second pitches for dishwashing detergent before being able to complete a phone call. (And don’t think I’m unaware that we’ve been here before. I’ve read The Master Switch.) Just as Diaspora is being created as an open-source alternative to Facebook, in response to the rather more blatant and consistent tyrannies of the Zuckerbergian empire, these recent developments will prompt renewed attention to open-source and/or distributed alternatives to Twitter, like this one and this one.But there’s a problem — probably an insurmountable one: these kinds of services only work when pretty much everyone you want to know is on them. Nobody wants to go back and forth between different Twitter-like services or Facebook-like services, trying to remember which friend is on which service. (I rarely remember to log in to Diaspora, and when I do, I find that my tiny handful of friends haven’t visited either.) In such an environment, what’s called for is some powerful aggregating technology that would allow us to have a single conduit through which we could see what all our friends are up to. But this is of course precisely what Facebook and Twitter are refusing to allow. In effect, they’re saying “You get what we offer the way we want to offer it, along with all your other friends, or you’re out in the cold — the silent, still, radically un-social cold. Deal with it.”

the social trap

Andrew Keen:

Today’s digital social network is a trap. Today’s cult of the social, peddled by an unholy alliance of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and communitarian idealists, is rooted in a misunderstanding of the human condition. The truth is that we aren’t naturally social beings. Instead, as Vermeer reminds us in The Woman in Blue, human happiness is really about being left alone. On Liberty, the 1859 essay by Bentham’s godson and former acolyte, John Stuart Mill, remains a classic defence of individual rights in the age of the industrial network and its tyranny of the majority. Today, as we struggle to make sense of the impact of the internet revolution, we need an equivalent On Digital Liberty to protect the right to privacy in the social-media age. Tapscott and Williams believe that the age of networked intelligence will be equal to the Renaissance in its significance. But what if they are wrong? What if the digital revolution, because of its disregard for the right of individual privacy, becomes a new dark ages? And what if all that is left of individual privacy by the end of the 21st century exists in museums alongside Vermeer’s Woman in Blue? Then what?

But this is just replacing one untenable generalization with another. As everyone knows, surely, we want and need to be alone sometimes and to be with others sometimes. Mental and spiritual health is found in the proper balance of the two, which must be different for different people. Every the most solitary crave connection sometimes; even the most social need time alone to re-charge. It would be hard to deny that the internet has been a profoundly rich and healing place for many lonely people. The questions are, or should be: What is the right balance for me? and, Have I achieved that balance?As I commented in a post some months ago, advocates of the Big Social like Steven Johnson think we have been too solitary and too disconnected and need — as a society anyway — to move towards more connection, because connection generates ideas. My response to that was that (a) the generation of ideas is not the only social good, and (b) it’s hard to look at the proliferation of social media that I and my friends are occupied with and think that we don’t have enough connections. My suspicion is that we need fewer connections, but (as I suggested in my previous post) more multi-dimensional ones. Keen overstates the value of privacy and under-rates the value of social connection, but he’s surely write to think that solitude is right now the endangered condition.