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April 25, 2013

Filed under: culture»internet

Network Affect

A couple of years ago, I spent the money for a subscription to Ars Technica, because I really liked their Anonymous/HBGary reporting, and wanted the full RSS feeds. Along with that, every now and then they'll send out a message about a coupon or special offer, which is how I ended up with a free account on App.net, the for-pay Twitter clone. Then I forgot about it, because the last thing I need is a way to find more people that annoy me.

And then someone linked me to this blog post, which made my week. It's a pitch for App.net in the most overwrought, let-them-eat-cake way. I'm going to excerpt a bit, but you should click through: it's better when you can just soak up the majesty of the whole thing:

The difference between a public and a private golf course is so profound that it's hard to play a public course after being a member of a private course. It's like flying coach your entire life, and then getting a first class seat on Asiana — it's damned hard to go back.

That's the difference between Twitter and App.net to me. Twitter is the public golf course, the coach seat. It's where everyone is, and that's exactly the problem. App.net is where a few people that are invested in the product, its direction, and the overall health of the service, go to socialize online.

[paragraph of awkward self-promotion removed]

Welcome to the first-class Twitter experience.

I actually don't know if I could write a parody of upper-class snobbery that good. If you hold your hand up the screen, you can almost feel the warmth of his self-regard--but not too close! They don't let just anyone into this country club, you know.

Seriously, though: while I've amused myself endlessly trying to come up with even-less-relatable metaphors for things ("Twitter is the black truffle, as opposed to the finer white truffles I eat at my summer home in Tuscany"), one random doofus with a blog is not cause for comment. Silly as it is, that post made me reconsider they way I look at internet advertising and ownership--if only to avoid agreeing with him.

In general, I'm not a big fan of advertising or ad-supported services. On Android, I usually buy apps instead of using the free versions, and I believe that people should own their content on the Internet. But let's be realistic: most people will not pay for their own server or software, and many people can't--whether because they don't have the money, or because they don't have access to the infrastructure (bank account, credit card, etc.) that's required. Owning your stuff on the internet is both a privilege and a visible signifier of that privilege.

This creates heirarchies between users, and even non-savvy people pick up on that. When Instagram finally decided to release an Android client, the moaning from a number of users about "those people" invading their clean, tasteful, iPhone-only service was a sight to behold. The irony of Instagram snobbery is that the company was only valuable because of its huge audience. It only got that userbase because it was free. Therein lies the catch-22 of these kinds of services: the scale that makes them useful and valuable also makes them profoundly expensive to run. Subscription-based or self-hosted business models are more sustainable, but they're never going to get as big.

Meanwhile, the technical people who think they could do something about these problems--"a few people that are invested in the product, its direction, and the overall health of the service"--are off building their own special first-class seating. Not that I think they'll make it, personally--it's a perpetual tragedy that the people threatening to Go Galt never do, since that would require them to stop bothering the rest of us.

I often see people expressing distaste for ad-supported sites with the oft-quoted line "you're not the customer, you're the product." That's nice when you have the option of paying for your own e-mail, and running your own blog, in the same way that minimalism looks awfully nice when you have the credit rating to afford it. People without money have to live with clutter. If we're interested in an internet that offers opportunity to everyone, we have to accept a more forgiving view of ad-supported business, and focus on how to make it safer for people who have no other option. Otherwise we're just congratulating each other on getting into the country club.

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