Don’t Fall Into The Well 🪣

New social media networks put a lot of work into onboarding you with cool features. But what truly matters is what those networks look like over time—and open looks better than closed.

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(Gary Meulemans/Unsplash)

Now that we’ve had a little more time since the initial shock and awe of the Elon Musk purchase of Twitter, social networks have had a chance to build up interest as potential next networks to replace Twitter.

We have been given a rare chance, as a culture of social media addicts, to break a cycle we keep repeating and move to something that isn’t just owned by somebody who stands to make billions of dollars from your decision.

Unfortunately, we’re in real risk of falling into the same well as before, convinced that the open choice is somehow too complicated. That has meant that two separate social networks, Post and Hive, have driven interest from Twitter’s failings, away from open networks like Mastodon or the broader Fediverse, or even legacy networks that have generally proven good corporate citizens, like Automattic’s take on Tumblr.

Don’t fall into the well again.

Usually, the hot new social network gains agility from a mix of good timing, good luck, a strong onboarding game, and interest from the right group of people. (Basically, the idea that the network is quote-unquote “hip” comes to mind.) One can imagine that Facebook and Snapchat benefited from the fact that they were launched by students at high-profile schools (Harvard and Stanford, respectively), putting them in close proximity to future movers and shakers. But other social networks managed to catch onto a certain moment, and that moment helped to build momentum in a lasting way.

Of course, the distinctive thing about all of these networks is that each ultimately is centralized, rather than being built on an open protocol. And that means that they are built to generate value for their founders. They are built for onboarding, not for long-term growth, which means that they lead with cool features, not with promises of sustainability.

And that’s where commercial networks often falter. The financial incentive has created problems over time that have helped to complicate the shape of social media. The immense value of any given social network has ultimately been in data, rather than by offering services to the creator. And that has meant leaning hard on data-mining or advertising-driven business models—and companies that don’t do that ultimately find themselves out of the conversation entirely.

Which means that the odds are good that the next variant of this model is likely going to be more of the same. (Hive’s problem is that it appears to be built to generate future investment, and has basically no moderators; Post News, meanwhile, has investment from the same firm that invested in all the other social networks, immediately making it suspect to those in the know.)

Well Covered

The problem with wells is that once you’re inside one, it’s hard to get out unscathed. (Poul Cariov/Unsplash)

Programmer and blogger Jamie Zawinski, better known as jwz, did a great service to this conversation by giving voice to this point on his blog, in a post titled “PSA: Do Not Use Services That Hate The Internet.” He points out the VC-driven tendency to build apps for different platforms, specifically mobile, rather than for the open web, which offers end users some degree of control over the experience:

The thing that makes the Internet useful is interoperability. These companies hate that. The thing that makes the Internet become more useful is the open source notion that there will always be more smart people who don’t work for your company than that do, and some of those people will find ways to expand on your work in ways you never anticipated. These companies hate that, too. They’d rather you have nothing than that you have something they don’t own.

This is a control play, as these applications can siphon more data from you using this method. This invariably leads to a road of new features that you didn’t want, friends that disappear from your feeds because the algorithms said they weren’t engaging enough, and lots more ads.

For a time, Twitter was one of the best commercial networks when it came to not forcing you into their walled garden—it, after all, allowed third-party apps, and allowed them to interoperate with the rest of the Web. (If we can’t have open and noncommercial, a flexible experience is a good backup, because it gives you, the consumer, at least some degree of control.) The problem was, because of the commercial nature of the network, this eventually fell to the wayside as Twitter tried gaining control of the client experience. In recent years, the company started opening up again just before Elon came into the picture and threw gasoline on the chaos. Bummer; they could have had a shot.

The thing is, as great as Mastodon could end up being, I’ll be the first to admit that it has some rough edges. But it has a great lead feature that none of its competitors have yet replicated—its adherence to the open web. Unfortunately, alternative networks can throw marketing money at all sorts of other features trying to convince you that those features matter more. But the only feature that truly matters at this moment, even more than how “hip” a network is, is if it talks to every other network. If it’s open, even better.

You have control right now, as an end user. Don’t give it up too easily.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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