The New Social Media

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the internet will look like in the future. Right now, it’s dominated by social media in one form or another, with large, megacorp silos acting as our primary sources of information and discourse. This is a shift from the “DIY” homegrown state of the early internet — while there were absolutely megacorps that cornered entire niches of the internet (think about the likes of AOL, for instance), it didn’t feel like quite as much of a stranglehold. There was lots of room for growth and plucky startups and homegrown projects. A proliferation of open source projects to run your own websites in all sorts of wacky configurations (lots of weird mishmashes of CMSes, blog software, forums, galleries, with some shaky handcrafted glue between them all). Lots of platforms, lots of different standards and protocols popping up all the time, and nothing really talking to each other all that well. Early attempts at cohesion had mixed success (OAuth, yay! RSS, woo! Trackbacks… um).

Given that sort of morass, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a lot of these homegrown solutions gave way to professionally run central services. Tired of fiddling with your tumble log? Go sign up for Tumblr. Microblogging micromanagement got you down? Check out this Twitter thing. Sick of managing 500 logins to different forums? Roll on over to Reddit. Gallery software galling you? Find your way to Flickr! They handle the backend, you provide the content, and your audience grows as their userbase does! Sounds great, right?

Continue reading “The New Social Media”

John Taking a Year Off

How various social internet sites occupy our brains has been a recurring topic on here, and I think he summarizes it all pretty well. These sites are working as intended, but I don’t like that intention, and I don’t like how they work for me, personally.

My own experiences with taking time off have had limited success. I still find myself on Facebook or Tumblr or Instagram (or… or… or…) more than I would like, though I’m interacting with it less and have less expectation of interaction on them (which I think is still a net win, but not as much as I’d like). I’m not sure I’m at the point of going cold-turkey (and what shape that would take — where do I want to spend my time?) like John, but it definitely continues to be on my mind.

The Existential Void of the Pop-Up

Over at the New York Times, Amanda Hess writes about The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience’. (This came out in September and has been sitting my tabs waiting to be blogged about since then. Oops.) It’s an interesting look at the panoply of “pop-up experiences” that have been popping up [sic] lately, where it’s all about the curated, Instagrammable experience. It kind of gets at something I noted when I lived in the Bay area: people doing things less for the participatory doing, and more for the being seen doing. You hear folks talking about their “platform” and “personal brand” and the optics of things. Even things we do to appear authentic end up being to some degree performative. (As an aside, Lindsay Ellis has a recent and excellent video talking about this from the perspective of video blogging, called Manufacturing Authenticity (For Fun and Profit!).)

The central disappointment of these spaces is not that they are so narcissistic, but rather that they seem to have such a low view of the people who visit them. Observing a work of art or climbing a mountain actually invites us to create meaning in our lives. But in these spaces, the idea of “interacting” with the world is made so slickly transactional that our role is hugely diminished. Stalking through the colorful hallways of New York’s “experiences,” I felt like a shell of a person. It was as if I was witnessing the total erosion of meaning itself. And when I posted a selfie from the Rosé Mansion saying as much, all of my friends liked it.

Amanda Hess

I don’t know, maybe I’m just not the target demographic, and I’m just an old curmudgeon who doesn’t “get” it. But there’s something that feels kind of funky about these manufactured, curated experiences. Hmm, that’s not fair: We’ve always curated experiences, chosen how we present things at both small and grand scales. I think there’s a distinction: there’s participatory interaction, and then there’s performative interaction, and these pop-ups seem to fall into the category of the latter more than the former, and that leaves us feeling… empty.

Insta Repeat

Found via Demilked, there’s an interesting Instagram account that is finding repeated imagery in Instagram photos, called Insta Repeat. For instance:

or:

I think it’s an interesting project in a few different ways. On one side it shows how much we all end up copying each other, and how quickly an image concept can end up feeling trite and overplayed. But it also calls out the patterns we associate with photographic composition — often the images look similar simply because that’s the best approach for shooting a particular subject, so of course there are going to be similar photos. (The same goes for some location shots: why are there 5 million+ nearly identical shots of Half Dome in Yosemite? Because the park was designed to bring you to that reveal, where you’ll say “wow” and take the shot.)

While it’s easy to take a cynical view of this sort of project, it can be viewed in other ways, too. It’s telling to see what imagery strikes people, what patterns keep coming up, and to think about why those shots in particular seem to recur. Also, there’s a certain beauty in the collections themselves, the grids of similar photos all in a row, where the repetition is a part of the piece.

Twitter Departures

There seems to be a trend currently of announcing departures from Twitter. As a sampling (not the only ones, mind you), here are posts from Derek Powazek, Sean Bonner, and Wil Wheaton all announcing that they’re leaving Twitter and why. You’ll see a recurring trend: the indifferent (or even inimical) handling by Twitter of rampant toxicity, harassment, and abuse has effectively killed the community for a large number of people.

I’m hardly surprised by any of this — if anything, I’m surprised it took this long for people to leave. I’ve commented before that Twitter has become largely a rage machine, and I unfortunately don’t see a course-correction this happening any time soon (if it’s even possible). I’m mostly off it myself at this point — I still auto-post links to my blog posts, and respond to DMs and replies, but otherwise spend very little time there. I don’t personally feel a need to fully depart (and if I ever do, I’ll likely just ghost), but I also don’t foresee going back to it, either.

Like a lot of other people, I’ve joined a Mastodon instance, which will likely scratch that occasional Twitter itch for now (feel free to follow me). That said, I don’t really anticipate using it a lot — I’m feeling pretty done with the format, to be perfectly honest. In terms of online discourse, it feels like it fills the same sort of niche small-talk does in real life — sometimes it’ll lead to deeper conversations and connections with others, but mostly it’s just filling time.

Link: Patterns for Organization of Writing

Over at A List Apart, Richard Rabil writes Order Out of Chaos: Patterns of Organization for Writing on the Job, which drills into some of the core concepts behind organizing your writing. Considering my current profession (and continuing interest in information architecture), I found it pretty topical.

Recently I had an extremely frustrating user experience. While consulting some documentation to learn about a new process, I encountered a series of web pages that gave no introduction and dove straight into undefined jargon and acronyms that I had never heard of. When I visited related pages to get more context, I found the same problem. There was no background information for a newbie like me. The writers failed in this case to anticipate my questions and instead assumed a great deal of prior knowledge.

Don’t make this mistake when you design your structure. Like a journalist, you need to answer the who, what, where, when, how, and why of your content, and then incorporate the answers in your structure. Anticipate common questions, such as “What is this? Where do I start? What must I know? What must I do?” This sort of critical reflection is all the more important when organizing web content, because users will almost certainly enter and exit your pages in nonlinear, unpredictable ways.

Instagram “Flops”

Just to get this out of the way: when I say “flops,” I’m not talking about posting a picture that gets no likes or anything like that. I’m talking about a new type of account/method of communication that’s been popping up. The Atlantic has an excellent article talking about this: Teens Are Debating the News on Instagram.

It’s interesting. On one hand, I’m fascinated by just how much each generation strives to find a place of their own, to discuss and grow among their peers. It’s like weeds — life will find a way, and will make use of whatever environment they have available to them. Couldn’t they use forums, or Facebook groups, or blogs, or tumblr, or any of the other tools that have already come up that are arguably better suited for discourse and sharing thoughts? Maybe, maybe not. Many kids have very limited spaces for a sense of autonomy and privacy. Their web browsing is monitored by schools and parents, their phones have parental controls on what can and can’t be installed. So they make do with the tools they have available. There’s a critical mass of their peers on Instagram, and it’s generally accepted by parents and schools to have on your phone. So you use the tools you have. A big part of me says “fuck yeah, good job kiddos.”

But then there’s the other hand. The approach leaves a lot to be desired, and the limitations of the tool they chose to use create some inherent flaws in what’s happening. You are effectively signal boosting hateful things by posting them as flops, and only those who bother to read the comment beneath the image will even know that you are posting it to call out the behavior rather than to endorse it. It requires inside knowledge of what a flop even is in order to understand the context, in a medium that is far more broadly shared (it’s not like the images are segregated, they’re woven right in with the rest of your feed or in discovery). There’s also the factor of the psychological impact of immersing yourself in the negative – it has a toll.

A lot to mull over, here.

Orbital Operations and other thoughts

So, if you’re not already subscribed to Orbital Operations yet, you really should sign up. Warren Ellis finds some pretty interesting stuff to share on a pretty regular basis, and it gives you something to read in your inbox that isn’t just more marketing spam.

In this past week’s edition, someone asked about his daily routine (and how he manages to keep up with current affairs while still making deadlines). The advice is pretty solid, but I particularly liked this:

You can see my considerable advantages here. I spend a lot of time on my own, and mostly in my office. You can emulate these obvious role-model traits by excavating yourself a cave in your back garden or taking over a room in your apartment, fitting it with uncomfortably bright lights and way too many screens, filling all the spaces with books and skulls, playing nothing but music that sounds like it’s emanating from a dead moon, and waiting for everyone to leave you alone forever, and then dying in seclusion and being eaten by cats.

I hope that helped.

Living the dream, sir.

In a similar vein, in the same missive, there’s something I think is worth calling out:

You don’t have to live in public on the internet if you don’t want to. Even if you’re a public figure, or micro-famous like me. I don’t follow anyone on my public Instagram account. No shade on those who follow me there, I’m glad you give me your time – but I need to be in my own space to get my shit done. You want a “hack” for handling the internet? Create private social media accounts, follow who you want and sit back and let your bespoke media channels flow to you.

These are tools, not requirements. Don’t let them make you miserable. Tune them until they bring you pleasure.

I think that’s something we often miss: we’re so stuck into the “social media” groove, where everything is performative and virtue signaling and signal boosting and broadcasting to your readers, that we forget that it’s still a choice. We can opt out, or use the services how we want to use them (and discard them when that is no longer viable). Even if presence feels mandatory nowadays, participation is not.

I don’t think I personally need a series of private accounts — I’m not even “micro-famous” (though I’m still tickled when something I say or do pops up in a larger space). It does give some food for thought about how I have and use the accounts I do have, though. It’s sort of where I’ve already been heading — giving less of a shit about building a readership and more about sharing brief thoughts and things I think are interesting. Paring down or tuning out the rage machine (that’s not to say ignoring current affairs, but I really don’t need 57 hot takes on the same situation), and filling my time with stuff that feeds me in some way. Something to work towards, I’d say.

Link: The Missing Building Blocks of the Web

Over on Medium, Anil Dash talks about The Missing Building Blocks of the Web, which is actually an article I’d meant to link to ages ago, then forgot until Kottke linked to it. There’s no magic-bullet for solving the internet-mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, but there’s a lot to be said for “back to first principles” thinking. Some of it is going to be more realistic than others — getting “View Source” back to something useful, given how complex web development has become, is a bit optimistic, though I do agree with the notion of finding ways to improve it, given our multi-component sites. A core through-line for a lot of this post is getting back to the idea of everyone having their own stake in the internet:

There’s no reason it has to be that way, though. There are no technical barriers for why we couldn’t share our photos to our own sites instead of to Instagram, or why we couldn’t post stupid memes to our own web address instead of on Facebook or Reddit. There are social barriers, of course — if we stubbornly used our own websites right now, none of our family or friends would see our stuff. Yet there’s been a dogged community of web nerds working on that problem for a decade or two, trying to see if they can get the ease or convenience of sharing on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram to work across a distributed network where everyone has their own websites.

Now, none of that stuff is simple enough yet. It’s for nerds, or sometimes, it’s for nobody at all. But the same was true of the web itself, for years, when it was young. This time, we know the stakes, and we can imagine the value of having a little piece of the internet that we own ourselves, and have some control over.

Link: The Trust Spectrum

Raph Koster has a great writeup of The Trust Spectrum, which is a design framework he worked on in collaboration with Google’s ATAP group and Aaron Cammarata. It examines how we build (and break) trust in games, though you could extend a lot the examinations of trust to community in general (which is sort of the point: the goal was to see how we could better build social connection in games).

It’s a good read, in particular if you’re remotely interested in game design, online communities, and online games. (In a similar vein – and mentioned in Raph’s article – is Dan Cook’s article, Game Design Patterns for Building Friendships, which is also worth the read.)