27 Dec 2012

The Social Web Got Weird

NB. Revisiting this decade-old post in 2022, I find that every single link included now returns a 404 error. Usually I make an effort to fix these things when I spot them, but in this particular instance, there’s something enjoyable about the irony.

A few years ago it suddenly became inescapable that the web was a place for sharing. Though that had been the very idea of the technology from the beginning the majority of web content in the early years was static. Traffic was quantified in page impressions and publishing schedules were closer to the old print models: glacial by today’s standards. It took a while for Prometheus to get the fire to the people, but with the launch of Blogger and similar services around the turn of the century individual voices grew louder in the conversation. In the last ten years the explosion of the web as a social space has been exponential; not only is social networking the primary use of the internet for a majority of people, to an increasing degree it also underpins every other area of the web.

Wanting to share is a natural reaction to coming across content you enjoy online, and a vast array of web services sprang up to facilitate that. For a while it was a relatively common occurrence to come across massive and unwieldy lists of sharing options next to every article, news story, blog post, and video. The meteoric popularity of Facebook, and the rise of services like Twitter & Tumblr (as well as a proliferation of link shorteners) over the past few years has consolidated the sharing traffic somewhat. In place of the sprawling lists of a couple of dozen services it’s now common to see two or three options - but you still see them everywhere. The social underpinning of the web has become the province of a handful of services, and that has both positive and negative repercussions. When your goal is to quickly and effectively share content you like with your friends it helps that they are all using one of a handful of services, or at least services that play well together. However, as the user base grows and the power in the sharing ecosystem consolidates things tend to move towards the siloing of content rather than the liberation of it. Put another way: as service x becomes used to their position as the most popular and powerful way to share a particular type of content their desire grows that they should be the default or only way to share that content.

Recently we’ve seen exactly this type of posturing from social media’s biggest players. First users lose the ability to find their Twitter contacts on Instagram, then users lose the ability to see Instagram images inline in their Twitter feed. In both cases users lose. Apple’s latest mobile & desktop OSs include easy sharing to Twitter & Facebook, but Google+ users are frozen out; on Android devices things work the other way. The state of the social web right now is that a handful of huge parties are jockeying for primacy, and users are caught in the middle.

None of this should be a surprise. Facebook & Twitter are businesses, and the continued existence of the services they provide is dependent on their ability to be profitable. The construction of distinct silos makes operational sense as it allows these businesses to guarantee to advertisers the conditions under which their adverts will be seen. Advertising money is the sole lifeblood of services that are free to users, and keeping it flowing is at the center of every decision made regarding how the services operate. Users’ experience, and even the service’s usefulness become secondary considerations.

In the wake of Instagram’s recent U-turn on content ownership, and as the Twitter API farrago rumbles on, I’ve been thinking about how I use the social web. I have accounts with both Facebook & Google+ but use both only rarely. The signal to noise ratio on social platforms of this type seems wildly unbalanced, and though the former has the advantage of having most of my family & friends as active users it is the worst offender in terms of opaque privacy regulation and prevalence of advertising. Google+ is presently streamlined by comparison and has the advantage of being increasingly integrated into services I already use; amongst people I know however, the adoption rate has been low. In both cases I find the tools at users’ disposal a little constraining: with the exception of an avatar and a header image there is no possibility of template personalisation (where would the adverts go!?), and the manner in which text, photos, video and everything else is displayed is dictated by the platform rather than the user.

Tumblr represents a strange middle ground. Since the dashboard through which users consume content can be utilised for (relatively non-obtrusive) advertising, there is no need for it to be included amidst the content users create. As such there is no requirement for advertising spaces within site templates and a far greater degree of personalisation is permissible. I like Tumblr, and aim to make more use of it going forward as a space to share content from around the web. That is undoubtedly what the platform does best, and whilst it can quite easily also be used to run a primary blog I’m not convinced that it has all of the tools in place to compete with the established dedicated blogging services.

I love Twitter, and of all of the social services I find it by far the most useful, entertaining and compelling. That I connect to the service entirely via third-party applications is not in Twitter’s best business interests, and like many I’m pretty concerned about what the API changes mean for the service’s future. I signed up to App.net out of curiosity for what a social network funded by users rather than advertisers could accomplish. Though it’s still young there is the promise of some very interesting functionality to come, and the hope has to be that a paid service’s independence from advertising will be protection against the onset of siloing in the future.

As Warren Ellis suggests in the blogpost linked below “It feels like the social web is going to get somewhat less interesting for a while. Less connected, less engaged”. Since the very construction of the web is based around communication and sharing, changes to the manner in which those activities are conducted online are likely to be felt widely. Personally I find it difficult to believe that in ten or even five years’ time the discrete services we see today will be the norm. The current trend towards non-interoperability is most likely to be temporary, and service providers will in time learn that it makes business sense to corral content only to the extent that doing so doesn’t infringe on your users’ experience and your service’s usefulness. I may choose an iPhone and Gmail where you prefer your Windows Phone and Outlook, but neither choice makes any sense if we can’t call or write to each other.

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