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Maybe it’s something in the water, but there seems to be a growing tension between what large social networks and web services — such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, just to name a few — feel they need to do as businesses and what their users want them to do. Users who just want to share photos with their friends became outraged when they saw that Instagram was planning to monetize those photos in some way, while Twitter has faced a backlash for closing down its platform in a variety of ways. Facebook, of course, runs into similar criticisms virtually every time it adds a new feature — such as its latest attempt to monetize email by charging users to send messages to someone they don’t know.
Veteran blogger Anil Dash put some of this into words with his recent post on what he called “the web we lost,” in which he detailed how much freedom has been lost to walled gardens and proprietary standards. Felix Salmon of Reuters has blamed this phenomenon on capitalism, based in part on a discussion with venture capitalist and former web pioneer Marc Andreessen, who doesn’t seem to have any nostalgia for the old days of the internet — he calls it “the web version of Mitt Romney’s rose-colored nostalgia of a Ward-and-Harriet-Cleaver 1950′s American past that never existed.”
On the topic of Twitter and its attempt to assert more control over its network, as well as its desire to reach out to brands and celebrities like NBC News and the head of the Catholic Church, Jake Levine of Digg (and formerly of News.me) has a post at the Nieman Journalism Lab in which he talks about how the real-time information network is becoming much more one-way in nature rather than many-to-many, as it used to be. As Levine puts it, it looks “more like a broadcast medium than a distributed social network” and there is a lot more talking than there is listening. He adds:
“There is an inherent tension in social software between content discovery and the quality of conversation around that content. Group conversations get worse as groups grow, and groups grow as group discovery improves — if it’s easier to find something, more people will find it. Therefore, the easier time I have finding good conversations, the less likely those conversations are to be any good.”
In his post, Levine says he can’t think of a good term for this paradox and asks for help in naming it. I’m sure others would have their own suggestions, but I prefer to think of it as the “Bieber effect,” named for Canadian-born pop idol Justin Bieber — a boy/man who is so globally popular that his Twitter account (which has more than 31 million followers) reportedly has its own rack of servers dedicated to it so that his tweets don’t bring down the entire network. Twitter allows users to believe that they have some connection to Bieber, but really it’s just another broadcast medium for the pop star, as it is for many others.
You could make a similar argument about what Twitter is doing with its media partnerships, such as the arrangement it had with NBC around the Summer Olympics, where it created a special hub and promoted Twitter as a “second screen” for engaging with NBC content. That was a great deal for NBC, which drove a lot of traffic to its programs, and it was presumably a great deal for Twitter — but was it good for the majority of users? Shutting down Instagram or Tumblr’s connection to the network is also good for Twitter, but it’s less obvious how that serves users.
Salmon’s argument (or Andreessen’s) that capitalism is to blame has a lot of merit: YouTube veteran Hunter Walk has noted that Twitter’s series of financing rounds have given the company a market value of $8 billion — and also put a huge amount of pressure on the service to generate revenue. Facebook is in a similar situation, with a market value of about $60 billion and hordes of shareholders looking to make good on their investment. And in many ways, the Instagram debacle symbolizes that company’s transition from being a scrappy startup to part of a money-grubbing giant (i.e., Facebook).
Is there any way out of this dilemma? Must every network or social service eventually become a giant, soulless corporate shill that flogs its members’ content to advertisers and distorts the functioning of the platform for its own purposes? In other words, is it inevitable that Facebook will become AOL or MySpace, and Twitter will become a blend of cable news and Entertainment Tonight?
Dash has some suggestions in a follow-up post to his “The web we lost” piece, including the need for startups and entrepreneurs to think harder about what they are building and how. Would Twitter be a different animal today if it hadn’t raised so much money from venture capital firms? Undoubtedly. And Facebook likely would to. Are we too enslaved to our desire to build multibillion-dollar entities that encircle the globe? Services like Metafilter make their founders a nice living and have a solid and happy community of users, but no one celebrates them the way they do Facebook.
Blogging pioneer and open-web advocate Dave Winer writes often about his desire for open standards and open platforms, and the dangers of giving too much power to proprietary players like Twitter and Facebook. Being committed to the open web takes work, he says, but in the long run it is worth it. Unfortunately, you can’t make a billion dollars by doing that.