Working Title for Post on Openness and Inclusivity

Standard

or

“…any club that would have me for a member.”

Back in the day, Facebook and Twitter spurred extensive debate on whether these new “social” services were enhancing, destroying, or simply changing our formulation of ideas like “relationship” and “intimacy.”

Around the same time, the rise of Foursquare and the location-based scene brought with it discussions of privacy and the possible dangers of blurring the lines between online and offline relationships.

Of late, sites including app.net, Medium, Branch, and Svbtle have kicked off a new round of chatter, this time focused on the social/ethical considerations, benefits, and drawbacks  associated with “inclusive” and “exclusive” models for social services online (along with a sprinkling of debate on definition of terms in this context).

That this kind of discussion is happening seems like a positive thing. While there’s never any shortage of blog posts about hip new services, the writing in this case focuses less on the services themselves and more about the implications of the services; this suggests to me that we may be starting to break a little new ground here, and that’s good fun.

The chain of posts that came to my immediate attention was this:

The posts linked above — particularly the last two — struck me enough that I want to join in, and while in the final analysis I fundamentally agree with Josh, I’m going to start by picking at an aspect of his post with which I’m uncomfortable.

[Also: you’ve now read the posts, right? I strongly recommend that you read the posts.]

Josh says:

Fred’s post hinges on the belief that “open” inherently means “inclusive.” I don’t agree.

Fred is right that Reddit is large and messy and magical. But it is also notorious for having norms, inside jokes, and a personality that makes outsiders feel like, well, outsiders. 4chan is infamous for this. So is The Huffington Post. And Hacker News.

This is true as stated, but I feel that Josh has swung too far in the other direction when reacting to Fred’s proposition. As I’ve said any number of times over the past few years: software doesn’t create communities, software supports communities.

An established group of people may not be welcoming to newcomers, and that is an unfortunate characteristic of human beings, but it says little about the character of the software supporting that group. An architect or designer can create a bar that’s designed to be welcoming, but can not control the regulars’ behavior.

The distinction that I think Josh is glossing over in his post is that the “open” model that Fred promotes gives anyone the opportunity to contribute without asking anyone’s permission, and that’s meaningful regardless of how the community involved responds to those contributions.

Take Twitter: the only requirement to sign up is an email address. Once on Twitter, I can @reply Josh, Fred, Anil, or anyone else. I can join any conversation I choose to, though it’s up to the others involved to decide whether they’ll acknowledge my contributions.

I can also comment on AVC with just an email address, or on Anil’s blog with a Facebook account. The bar for participation is set slightly higher in the latter case, but it’s still entirely my decision whether or not I contribute. Here again, my contribution may not be acknowledged by the regulars, but I can take my shot.

Medium, where Josh’s post appears, falls at the far other end of the spectrum in that it virtually does away with the idea of interaction and participation. I can write [am writing] a response to a Medium IMHO post, but Medium doesn’t offer me any way to place it in the context of that original item. Most of the people who read Josh’s post will never even know that I have a perspective on the topic, because the platform doesn’t allow for it.*

Branch is in between these two extremes, but it’s (by design) much further away from the first two examples. It’s up to someone else to decide whether I can contribute to a Branch, and let’s be honest: the psychological barrier created by having to ask permission to speak can be huge. As I’ve noted before, I think this is an interesting and worthwhile approach for Branch to take, but it’s also less of a free-for-all…less open.

But here, hundreds of words in, is where I get to the important thing: where I very much agree with Josh, and veer off a little from Fred and Anil, is on the idea that the “exclusivity” of less wide open communities necessarily makes them country clubs. Some are, certainly. Others are darts leagues, or support groups. Having different rules does not make Medium or Branch inherently any better or worse than Twitter, a blog with comments, or a Usenet group.

Just as I think that some forms of anonymity (or pseudonymity) have an important role online, I also think that some forms of exclusivity have a role. A person, or group of people, may want to create something — or simply discuss something — on the public web without letting the entire Internet participate, and I don’t accept the idea that the resulting communities are inherently any less valuable than the wide open Reddits or AVCs.

Bonus Micro-Post on Medium 

It’s worth noting — probably worth a post in and of itself — that I believe Medium doesn’t allow for in-context responses [comments, reblogs, what-have-you] because it’s exploring a different approach to contextualizing the things that we create online. Their decision to eliminate the user-centric “blog” in favor of user-agnostic topical groupings is fascinating: as a Medium user you don’t have a personal blog. There’s no way (as far as I can tell, at least) to see all the posts by a particular user grouped together. The user who created the post isn’t the frame of reference, but rather the kind of post it is. Medium seems like it has far more in common with Tumblr than with WordPress. Tumblr made the single-user, reverse chronological blog into a secondary output, with the multi-user dashboard as your primary view of the bloggers you’re interested in; Medium takes that a step further and does away with the single-user blog entirely.