You knew you were tired, but then where are your friends tonight?

7 min read

In late October I declared November to be NaNoTwiMo – National No Twitter Month – and took the month off of Twitter. I pledged neither to read posts nor to make them, except in emergencies. I declared an emergency for the day I finally got user creation working for theha.us, my multi-user instance of the up-and-coming “distributed social network” tool Known. (I say “up-and-coming” when I ought to say “coming someday,” since the distributed part is still unimplemented, but uh, I’ll get into that later.) And I decided not to count the occasional trip to the profile page of a tech person who’d recently announced something – the public nature of Twitter often makes it more useful than email for open-source-related communications. And I cheated a few times.

Why do this when Twitter is more or less where I live online these days? Because Twitter, corporately speaking, is steadily becoming less committed to letting me direct my own attention. I can turn off the display of retweets, but not globally – just one friend at a time – and Twitter now also occasionally offers me something from someone a friend follows, apropos of nothing. I can use a list, for those times that I only want updates from the people dearest to me, but lists now ignore my no-retweets settings. Without that ability to turn down the noise when I want, I find that using Twitter makes me less happy. And this is all to say nothing of Twitter’s then-ongoing refusal to do anything systemic to manage its abuse problem and protect my most vulnerable friends. (Things have since gotten a hair better on that front.)

In a post on Ello that’s no longer visible to the public, net analyst Clay Shirky wrote, “really, the only first-order feature that anyone cares about on a social network is ‘Where my dogs @?’” It is devastatingly, sublimely true. It is astonishing how much people will put up with to be where their people are.

For November, when I had something to say I generally put it on Ello. My account, like Shirky’s, is set only to be visible to other registered Ello users (I have invites if you’re curious). I’m not sure why I’m doing that, as it doesn’t make things private per se; Shirky is also aware of this and thoughtful about how different levels of privacy influence a piece of writing. It feels right sometimes to talk this way in a different room, even if the door isn’t closed. The most surprising thing about the last month is how many people – how many of my friends – not only came over to Ello when I raised it as an option, but stayed. They didn’t burn their Twitter accounts down behind them, and they didn’t show up a lot; I’m often the only voice I can see above the fold in my Ello Friends stream. But there were Monica and Jesse and Jenny and Megan, showing up now and then, posting things that are longer than 140 characters, the way we thought we would (and did for a while!) at Google+.

But that’s not a movement. It’s a pleasant day trip, and it might be over.

It’s an article of faith in the tech community that a social network can always hollow out the way MySpace did when a new competitor reaches a certain level. But that was a different world. Almost ten years ago, right? Getting all the kids to move is a whole other ballgame from moving the kids, plus their parents, plus the brands and photo albums and invitations and who knows what else. Not to be too specific; I’m just citing Facebook as an example, my beef isn’t with them in particular. (Facebook also beat MySpace in part by being perceived as high status, and what’s higher status than every celebrity you could name having an @-name?)

The last ten years have made us awfully demanding in some ways. If you ship social software to the web, it had better have every feature that people might want and have it immediately, because it will be taken for always-and-forever being what it is when the first wave of hype hits. No minimum viable product is going to win over the mass. Even more frustrating is the IndieWeb movement: I may be about to display myself here as one of those who give up hope when a feature is missing, but I’m also in a position to know that the rate of progress of open-source distributed social networks has been ludicrously slow. We finally have an almost-viable open-source product, analogous to WordPress – that’s the aforementioned Known – but it still has no interface for following people, whether on the same site or elsewhere. The code infrastructure is there, but there’s no way to use it yet. I guess all its hardcore users are still using standalone RSS readers like good Web citizens or something, but the mainstream was never interested in fiddling with that. (Nor will standalone RSS readers support private posts.) Given the, er, known impatience of the mass for anything that doesn’t do all of the things already, I’m starting to worry that the indie web won’t have what it needs to get traction when the time is ripe (that is, when Twitter finally falls over).

Maybe I’m only running a Known instance, or caring at all, out of nostalgia. I’m old enough to remember the web we lost. On the other hand, there’s an important sense in which we got what we (I) wanted – we’re all together, all connected… and it’s terrible. Clay Shirky has an idea – a whole book in fact – about the cognitive surplus of a population having been liberated by the 40-hour work week and creating a kind of crisis where we didn’t know what to do with ourselves, until television stepped in. Like the gin pushcarts on the streets of London after the industrial revolution, television stopped us from having to figure out what was wrong and fix it. In (Shirky’s) theory, the internet is our equivalent to the parks and urban reforms that made gin pushcarts obsolete – but what if all that connection is actually a crisis of its own? I think a lot about something Brian Eno wrote in 1995 in his book A Year With Swollen Appendices (he was writing about terrorism, but it applies): “the Utopian techie vision of a richly connected future will not happen – not because we can’t (technically) do it, but because we will recognize its vulnerability and shy away from it.”

We may be shying away already, by using mass-blocking lists and tools and the like. Maybe that’s not so bad, provided that Twitter’s infrastructure can keep up. But then, we’re usually willing to do as little as we can to stay comfortable instead of getting to the root of the problem. I’m back on Twitter now, using a second account in place of a list, which isn’t ideal (lists can be private). But where else am I going to tell my friends when I’ve found something better?