I’ve been thinking a lot about what we get out of social networks. There has to be a reason why they are so popular. I think there’s more to it than it makes the Internet so easy your grandma could use it– grandmas have been using the Internet for as long as its been around. No, I think it has to do with content, more to the point, the delivery of content to your doorstep.
A little history: when the web first started, it was an amazing collection of pages, pages about almost anything; pages that linked together in weird and unpredictable ways. It used to be you would “surf” the web– I wonder how long it’s been since someone broke out that phrase. But it was apt at the time. You would start with a topic, a search phrase, and then spend hours clicking through pages, finding new and interesting things.
Then some people started making lists of the new and interesting things that they found, and then you didn’t have to surf the web anymore. You could just make the rounds at a few of these web logs and find cool and interesting things to look at. And as these logs became focal points for community, as people would talk about and discuss what they’d found where, as the logger’s personality and tastes started to influence what they were posting, the web log morphed into the blog.
But even though the blog is a step closer to a person than a web log, I think for a lot of people, it’s not close enough. Sure, it’s cool to know what Jason Kottke found the other day on the web, but it would be cooler to know what my brother found the other day, because I’m far more likely to make a comment on my brother’s post because I know him.
So, social media offer us two things: easy delivery of content; and a degree of familiarity with the source. Now I don’t have to have this awkward conversation with my brother, “Hey, did you see that cool thing?” with the possibility of having to describe it if he didn’t, and we know it’s not going to be as cool when I describe as it actually is. Now I know my brother saw that cool thing because it was on my Facebook page, and therefore was in his news feed.
So, why does going to Facebook feel so empty to me? I think it’s mostly due to the fact that I’m not seeing anything cool in the stream. I mean, yeah, there’s funny pictures of cats, and articles about the government, and there are people talking about their lives and what they are doing, but only in the sense of the twitterable status update. One of the interesting things about blogs is how they morphed beyond lists of cool things on the web to being a publishing medium. Blogs gave voice to people who didn’t have it before. Instantly, your writing, for better or for worse, is in the hands of millions.
But social media seems to pull away from that depth. Facebook doesn’t want to hear an indepth look at what makes you so mad about smoked paprika. Facebook wants to hear, OMG, if I hear another thing about smoked paprika, I’ll twerk myself. And then maybe you’ll explain yourself in the comments.
I am interested in Ev Williams’ Medium. I haven’t played with it much yet, but I’ve been steered there a few times, and the articles have always been good. But Ev was there, back in the day, when the web was suddenly about writing, working on a little piece of web logging software called Pyra, which became Blogger. Which became history.
Medium is about longer pieces of writing, not about the short bits and status updates. The problem is that you lose the degree of familiarity with the writer. These posts aren’t written by my brother– they could be, but most likely they’re not. These posts are written by strangers, or as I’m trying to teach my son, friends you haven’t met yet.
It used to be that’s all the network was, friends you hadn’t met yet. And then all of our families and friends joined, and we wanted to share with them. But now I feel like we are locked in this insular bubble, and we’re losing sight of what is one of the greatest wonders of the Internet: the unknown. The person, the place, the things you haven’t met yet.
You know Aunt Betty. She isn’t going to tell you something new. Try to meet someone new or learn something new every time you get on the ’Net. Lets see if we can get that wheel rolling again.