Today in Tedium: I don’t feel particularly motivated to write about Threads, the Instagram-in-Twitter-form social network that Meta launched this week. It feels like a social network that exists to check a box for a company that owns a lot of social networks. But I do think it represents something about the moment that we’re in, where people are so desperate for a certain kind of experience that they will go from the hands of one billionaire to another, in hopes that will give them what they don’t feel like they were getting before. If Threads descended into the bottom of the ocean on a poorly built submersible, I would not care. But what I do care about is why I don’t care about Threads. And I think it comes down to the reasons why this site lives on the open web, even if I can’t leave the networks. Like many internet creatures of a certain age, I came from grime. We try to pretend the grime isn’t there, we dress it up as best we can, but it’s always there, no matter how hard we try to pretend it’s not. Today’s Tedium defends the grime from which the internet was built. — Ernie @ Tedium
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The internet was built from grime; the problem is, we keep trying to build shopping malls over the grime
There are amazing things about being able to control an environment. Controlled environments are what gave us air conditioning and malls and factories.
But sometimes, you have to walk outside that environment and experience the outside world—the sun, the uncontrollable temperatures, the risks of clothes-dirtying weather events.
Now, to be clear, the internet we use benefits greatly from controlled temperatures and giant rooms protected from elements. Cloud computing, when broken down, should really be described as “pod computing.” But the metaphor, from an end user standpoint, I think stands.
The thing that I think made the internet such an interesting place in its early years was because it didn’t feel like a controlled environment. The chaos was everywhere. It was messy. It was grimy.
The first experience that many people got with the internet was a busy signal, not a welcome mat. When people joined communities like Usenet, they were more likely to get an elbow to the shoulder for not following the rules, rather than a welcome mat.
And honestly, though I tell people not to be jerks on the internet, people were kind of jerks!
When compared to the tools people used to consume information, the internet was rough and tumble and messy. Television had prime time and a simple-to-follow organizational model. Newspapers had front pages and sections, and were organized hierarchically.
Even other digital mediums were better organized than the internet. CompuServe and AOL were way easier to follow and far less chaotic than the open internet. Encarta could give you way easier to follow results than any web page could in 1995.
The internet, on the other hand, was feudalism. There was no plot, really. The tools that were made available were specifically non-user-friendly and unwelcoming. If someone made fun of you or made you mad, there was no central authority to ask for help.
But despite all that, the ungated, non-temperature-controlled, rainy, dirty, grimy internet still won.
I argue it won in part because of the chaos. That chaos was the stuff that Hollywood fell over itself attempting to display in early technology movies like The Net and Hackers. They didn’t have time for pretty, comfortable takes on the internet like Apple’s eWorld or Yahoo.
I will not say that this was perfect, but the chaotic effect was interesting, and interesting was often enough to continue using, because it meant there were always new surprises. For lots of people, chaos often breeds new ways of thinking.
But even after things became more formalized, chaotic environments continued to hold a unique appeal on the internet. The early blogosphere was full of people who would promise ambitious things, but never follow through. Forums like Something Awful had arbitrary approaches to rules and made money essentially through aggressive rule enforcement. Many of these platforms were anonymous in nature.
Even MySpace, the first truly popular social network, became popular because of a gaping security hole.
And startups, nothing against the people who make startups today, were much less influenced by what other startups were doing. That fostered newer, more original ideas, rather than the modest wrench-tightening we see on sites like Product Hunt today.
Think about it: Craigslist and eBay had no comparison points in the real world. They were basically ideas that were total accidents, but became billion-dollar businesses. They came from chaos, but chaos dresses itself up pretty well before a big night out on the town.
The problem is, there are limits to reining in the chaos for commercial reasons, and this, I think gets to why I don’t care about Threads.
Brand safety, billion-dollar companies, and why networks like old Twitter are all too rare
Adam Mosseri, the dude who runs the Instagram team and is a key figure in the launch of Threads, gave away the game this week when he admitted that the company will specifically not do anything to promote political or news content on Threads.
“Politics and hard news are important, I don’t want to imply otherwise,” he said in a Thread. “But my take is, from a platform’s perspective, any incremental engagement or revenue they might drive is not at all worth the scrutiny, negativity (let’s be honest), or integrity risks that come along with them.”
Without saying the exact words, he’s basically admitting that news and politics—the entire category—aren’t brand-safe, and as a result, those are the very things that will be discouraged on the platform.
Threads threatens to be social media’s Disney World, and while Disney World has its fans, it is by its nature top-down culture. All the good stuff comes from the bottom up.
You don’t go to Disney World to be sad or angry. You go to be excited, or enthralled. You don’t go there for chaos.
By Threads becoming a thing and being presented as something where it’s automatically presumed you will want celebrities and influencers dominating your feed at all times, with no algorithm-free option, the goal is basically to get people to learn to love chaos-free social media.
Sure, some chaos will seep in, as it always does. But it won’t define the network, like its competition long has. It will be Mountain Dew without the carbonation.
I think Twitter, especially in its early years, was most effective in nailing down a balance between chaos and brand safety that few companies have ever pulled off at the multi-billion scale Twitter was playing at. It was the perfect example of a business-in-the-front, party-in-the-back platform. It was able to scale, if slower than some of its competitors, because it found the magic center-point between being a place where professionals could communicate and people could screw around and try new, weird things.
Was it perfect at this? No—and the leadership arc of Jack Dorsey proves it. But it was much more successful at it than another company that relies on bottling up chaos, Reddit—a firm whose recent drama is a direct result of the fact that it has underperformed financially, leading to some desperate Hail Mary actions to revive its stock fortunes.
These sorts of outcomes naturally emerged because of how we monetized it. I think as the internet became more formal and people figured out better ways to use it, we became more optimized on meeting user expectations or following data to meet specific goals.
Data is a great way to build and sustain a business, because it gives you a useful comparison point. But in many ways, data is destructive. The media industry, I believe, offers the best example of this I can think of. For roughly a century, they held local monopolies on local advertising, and lost much of that monopoly money in, essentially, a decade.
I feel like this exact same mindset is being used to starve out the weird old internet, the grimy parts of the digital experience that are a little shady but are much more enjoyable than modern-day Times Square.
We even see this with hardware—there’s a reason everyone on the internet complains that Apple spent 30 minutes during its last keynote talking about the software features on the watch when they actually wanted to hear about the Mac Pro. The market research pushed Apple in that direction. People who complain about the Mac Pro aren’t actually going to buy one—but people who passively observe details on the Watch probably will.
Data doesn’t care that it harms structural underpinnings, because the data usually only matters to the companies using it.
If you want the vibe of the old-school internet to live, you need to look outside its money-making potential. Silicon Valley has already decided they don’t really have a use for it anymore.
On platforms being “hard to use”: Suck it up, or you’ll keep getting bad outcomes
So why do these extremely neutered, brand-safe versions of internet culture seem to be winning out over the good stuff?
I think, in some ways, it’s a combination of factors. First, it’s money and resources. Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk will always have more money than any of us, unless for some reason Bill Gates is reading this.
Then, there’s an understanding that these platforms are influential, which encourages them to be utilized for political or influence reasons—something we’ve been seeing since at least the 2016 election.
But, ultimately, I think end users deserve a little real talk here: You’re not going to get the internet culture you want if you also expect a Disney World-style controlled-climate experience.
You are going to have to deal with janky interfaces, built by people who love and care about what they’re doing, but who don’t have the money or research capabilities of your favorite local billionaire. If we are going to protect the good, interesting, chaotic parts of the internet, we need to be willing to tell people to suck it up and experience some jank.
The thing is, when Twitter became problematic, we had the Fediverse and ActivityPub and Mastodon to build upon instead. But people who came from Twitter didn’t give it a shot, or they chose not to give it a chance.
I’m still having debates with people about this, months later, and it doesn’t matter that the Fediverse gives its users access to strong communities and better aligns with their ethical compass because it was built by people who aren’t focused on making money through advertising. They just don’t want to deal with something complicated.
For example: I love Ryan Broderick and Garbage Day, and he has had the best take on Threads so far, but his general take on Mastodon (especially in comparison to Bluesky, but pretty much in general) has deeply disappointed me as a fan of his. I don’t think he has to like it, to be fair, but I also think that “it wasn’t immediately intuitive” is simply not enough to basically disregard something forever. Not when we have to live with this stuff for most of our online lives. Pixels can be fixed and alternative interfaces are easy to use. Ethical underpinnings? We’re stuck with those a lot longer.
It doesn’t matter that ethically Mastodon and its related protocols are more ethically sound. Because it doesn’t display posts in the way he prefers, it means … bleh, do not want.
As a counterpoint to that, I would like to pose a suggestion to you, the end user: Let yourself get confused! Confusion is chaos—and chaos leads to more interesting outcomes.
If you say you “have standards” of what you’ll accept from a digital platform in 2023, I say this in return: Your standards are holding you back. These new platforms, of which there are many, will never be Twitter or have the money of anyone associated with Meta. But they can be fun, interesting, and engaging, even if they don’t look or feel quite like what you’re used to.
We are so obsessed with trying to be comfortable online that we forget that a little discomfort led to its best parts.
Usenet and IRC and MySpace and blogs and forums all came with a little bit of jank. In some cases, a lot of it. Even Twitter had some jank—it was an interface that many end users found hard to follow at first. But people still used it, and found value in those experiences.
The thing is, large companies and centralized social networks are incentivized to create the best possible experience, because that’s what they’re aiming for. And if that’s what you want—if you want a digital form of Disney World, or you want to walk in the underground of Crystal City—that’s fine. Just know that you might be missing out on some of the internet’s best parts going forward.
Climate-controlled environments have their limits. If you want the real thing and not just Disney World, you’re going to have to work for it.
We’re going to have to work for it.
Recently, I’ve been spending more time at the beach. My wife tends to make us walk out to a quieter spot at the beach, with fewer people.
The beach is less Jersey Shore, more nature preserve, and the tides occasionally wash up interesting things. One day, we might see a turtle. Another day, an interesting piece of driftwood might emerge.
I am more of an indoor cat, an internet citizen, and I complain a lot along the way, always worried that the long lengths we’re going to get there, often in extreme heat, are unnecessary. But usually, by the time I dip into the water, I shut up and find myself embracing an enjoyable experience. I get in my head too much, but once I give in, I realize I’ve been actively working against my own interests.
I think that, while useful, internet culture’s intense focus on user interface has been a real damaging factor for the free and open internet. User interface does matter, but the discipline has gotten so complex that the companies that do it most effectively are often willing to pay top-dollar for good design that can shape a better experience. And in some cases, it leads to UX that works directly against the user.
Open-source platforms, try as they might, struggle to compete on a user interface front. The haul is always a little longer, the lift slightly more back-breaking. But the results in the end are often so much better for the end user.
For end users, you might want to take a lesson from my beach anecdote, because there’s a chance you might be giving up something great along the way.
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