Online communities are tenuous things. In the text-only olden days of the Internet, they were all in the same neighborhood — a collection of topical “newsgroups” on a distributed platform called Usenet. To be “on the Internet” in those days usually meant that one participated in — or at least read — some of these groups. They were organized hierarchically, with big-endian dotted names like rec.sports.soccer or alt.folklore.urban. People who were “Internet famous” were known from their Usenet personae. Of course, the Internet was much smaller then; I remember when the “nn” newsreader broke, as one day there were noticeably more than the 255 groups it could list at one time.
Usenet’s Digital Diaspora
Usenet declined in the late ’90s. Since those days, there have been many cycles of boom and bust for online communities (remember MySpace? Orkut? GeoCities?). Once the Web exploded, there was a sort of digital diaspora of the denizens of Usenet, along with the growing Internet population. Some people went to where some sets of their old friends gathered, or to where their interests took them. Two sets of my friends — old pals from college and online friends who fled Usenet — gathered on Livejournal, which was one of the most popular blogging sites in the early 2000s. Since I knew people there, that became where I did my online socializing. Then Facebook came along, and slowly but inevitably sucked up almost everyone. Like many of my compatriots, I used both platforms for a while, but almost everyone found themselves visiting Livejournal less and less as they did all their interacting on Facebook.
Suddenly, nearly everybody was in the same place again. Unlike the newsgroups of old, though, Facebook is homogenous. People write fewer words, but post more pictures. (Interestingly, a lexical shift took place with the online sense of the word “meme,” which in the Livejournal community was used to refer to what now is commonly called a “Facebook Quiz,” but now represents a semi-standard set of images with text on them.) If you use the service, or read about it online, I probably don’t have to remind you of the various worries of its users, particularly when it comes to privacy, ownership of content, and the like. Facebook’s users have never been truly happy with the service, it seems to me — but nevertheless, it’s the place where one’s people are.
Alternative Social Networking Spaces: Ello and One Post Wonder
Lately, I’ve been looking at a few other social networking platforms. The word on the street is that Ello has a lot of potential. (Wired called it a “Facebook Killer,” albeit in quotes.) The upstart service is in beta, invite-only mode and isn’t very feature rich. Its design is minimalist and its ethos is populist: The company is organized as a “benefit corporation” under a charter that, ostensibly, prevents its current and any future operators from profiting by data-mining its user base, and promises to remain ad-free. Explicating its stance is its manifesto, which reads:
Your social network is owned by advertisers.
Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.
We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.
We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate — but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life.
You are not a product.
While Ello defines itself as being against ubiquitous user data farming, another beta-stage social network I’ve scored an invitation to recently is called One Post Wonder. OPW was created, at least in part, as a reaction to the amount of noise social networks tend to generate. Community tools like Facebook and Twitter are geared to encourage users to post many small things (one thought, one picture, one link, etc), which leads to the sort of “look at what I had for breakfast!” posts present on every feed. To encourage its users to reach for a little more depth and substance, OPW offers a straightforward technical solution: Users can only post once a day. Not only does this present a problem of self-moderation for those blessed souls who encounter inspiration more than once a day, but also subtly encourages conversation, since replies to posts (and replies) are unlimited.
Ultimately, You Have to Go Where Your People Are
I’ve enjoyed playing with these community applications, but as you can probably guess, my enjoyment is limited by their populations. I know a few people on both sites, but still few enough that I can read the day’s output on both in about ten minutes (Whereas Facebook is a never-ending wave of stuff). But it’s been enough to get me wondering if these kinds of new services — and the chatter about them — is the leading edge of another Internet diaspora. Google+ never seemed to hit a solid tipping point, but there are certainly people there. Undergraduates and their immediate elders largely eschew Facebook in favor of Tumblr and mobile-only apps like YikYak.
And of course, the Internet is vast, so I’m only looking at this through the lens of my connections to the people I follow on the services I know about. But I can certainly see a time when enough people trickle away from Facebook that it’s no longer the behemoth it is now.