The White Flight, Grounded

A discussion about elitist online communities and platforms has taken flight, with some people growing increasingly concerned at the implications of online communities that aren't immediately available to anyone and everyone. It's simmered, but I first really picked it up when I read Anil Dash's post You Can’t Start the Revolution from the Country Club. I love Anil, he's a super smart guy, and I've followed him for many years. But he's wrong in asserting that services like Svbtle and App.net trend towards a larger non-egalitarianism. And that they form country club-like organizations, which once seeded with this elitist culture, will perpetuate it ad infinitum, causing a socio-economic rift in its user base and the inevitable mono-culture.

This discussion seems to stem from an insensitive, inarticulate and unthoughtful post on PandoDaily about App.net, which argued that the problem with Twitter was/is…

Everyone was allowed on, which is great, but at the same time, everyone was allowed in. As PandoDaily contributor Francisco Dao told me recently, every open system degrades over time, due to the quality of the incoming participants. (He also used the word “cockroaches,” but that’s a different story.)

The problem was never the people who started using Twitter, it was and continues to be, Twitter's inability to keep both new and old users happy at the same time.

Anil doesn't mention this article, letting the accusation fall on no one in particular, a space in which it's a little too easy to make up arguments. But he cites two other posts that essentially boil down to "white, well-educated people only want to hang out with other white, well-educated people, and it's a problem". Yet somehow in all of this hemming and hawing no one ever points out that the reason these services — in western markets — are seeded with white male techies, is probably because that is the overwhelming demographic markup of techies! They are mostly male. They are mostly white.

Ideal? Of course not! Should it change? Yes. But the arguments put forward conflate so many issues that it's almost irresponsible. Not to mention that even if the notion of non-free or closed services as 'country clubs' was agreeable, it's at most indicative of a symptom, not a cause. It might perpetuate the problem, but given Twitter's alienation of certain users, how is not building alternative a solution? It's not like App.net takes your race, color and creed before allowing you access; it simply asks you to pay for the service. It seems like an almost alien notion in today's world, that a company would have, gasp, a business plan. Here we are, so used to companies with free platforms flailing around while they try to monetize their popularity, until they inevitably settle on their users as their products. Yay open. Yay inclusion.

But worst of all is the comparison with 'the white flight'; a comparison which violently twists the words 'unwanted people' from 'trolls, spammers and jerks' into a socio-political-laden remark brimming with race and class implications.

Excuse me, but… what… the fuck?

PandoDaily's Trevor Gilbert completely misrepresents and then oversimplifies his misrepresentation of the problems facing Twitter in comparison to its early days, and from that a discussion about race and class is zapped into life like some grotesque Frankenstein creation?

I haven't heard a single person talking about App.net mentioning the population of Twitter as being the problem. It all comes down to their policy changes and continuing disregard for the needs of the tech crowd over the general population somewhere in-between leaving their apps to rot while crippling competitors, the dickbar, trending topics, degrading DMs and still (still!) not syncing mentions and DM unread counters. Different groups have different needs, and that the needs of tech nerds are different than those of Justin Bieber fans can come as a surprise to no one. Unless of course you're a writer for The Society Pages, a hammer to all the not-quite-but-almost nails of the world.

As I'm writing this, my Twitter stream is blowing up not with people complaining about other people on Twitter, but about Twitter itself. Why? Because these people, of whom I am one, helped build Twitter, and now Twitter has outgrown us and failed to provide the tools needed to interact with it in a meaningful way.

As for Svbtle, you may have reservations about its personality as a brand, but how is it different than any collection of writers be it old-fashioned publications or any of thousands of online magazines? It's specifically not an open community because it's not meant as an open community, and that is its defining quality. There is room for curation as much as there is room for mosh pits. You can point to Medium and say that they have something interesting going on with their liking system and seemingly open categories, but isn't it a little misguiding to post about the exclusion of people on a platform which at the moment just as exclusive as Svbtle? Or are you saying that you can stop a revolution from a country club?

Anil: But there’s an aesthetic and editorial sensibility that permeates any defined online community that is almost always inherited from its earliest dominant users, and once it’s established, it’s almost impossible to change.

Both Twitter and Facebook started out fundamentally different than what they are today, as did Tumblr and Flickr and any number of popular services, which is why we're having this discussion at all. Size dilutes. You can't state on the one hand that communities stay true to their seed, and then on the other that there's a 'white flight' because they don't. Which is it?

Beyond that, it's a massive fallacy that communities should be everything to everyone. The very word itself, community, stems from common, as in shared, as in 'this is what we share'. If you include everyone in your 'bottled ships club', it's unlikely to be about bottled ships for much longer, which really sucks if you just like to hang out and talk about how awesome bottled ships are and how best to make them.