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.

  • Only because I can’t directly respond to Josh’s post will I add this slight rant here instead…

    His post seems to frame me as part of the group that agreed with Fred…while he’s correct in that I’m an AVC reg., I don’t think I actually commented on that article in favor or against either approach (because I think both being open and being close are great for various reasons — and I have no issue with either approach or decision).

    :-)

  • I think it may just be ambiguous phrasing: top comments are from you and other regulars (accurate), and the first comment that explicitly disagreed with Fred was way down (accurate, but unrelated to the former). 

    But the way it’s constructed, it’s easy to read it as suggesting that every comment before the explicit disagreement was explicit agreement (which isn’t accurate, but I think was also probably not intended).

  • Eben Moglen:  “The reason cities have been engines of economic growth is that young people move to them, to make new ways of being. Taking advantage of the fact that the city is where you escape the surveillance of the village, and the social control of the farm. “How you gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?” was a fair question in 1919 and it had a lot do with the way the 20th century worked in the United States. The city is the historical system for the production of anonymity and the ability to experiment autonomously in ways of living. We are closing it.”

    http://www.softwarefreedom.org/events/2012/freedom-to-connect_moglen-keynote-2012.html

  • I’d like to know how can I respond to @joshm:twitter ‘s rant in Medium which has no comments? Take it Branch or Twitter?

  • Wow. This is pretty incredible.

  • the whole thing is remarkable. I have the mp3 if you want to listen to the speech.

  • I think so — my early sense of Medium is that’s actually the intended flow: it seems focused more on providing a space for contemplation than for discussion or engagement.

  • Would be happy to chat about this in a Branch if you want to invite Whitney, Andy, and Fred!

  • Whit, as usual you take a calm, thoughtful, full-circle view of things. I admire that about you. I find myself agreeing with Josh’s point the most and actually made a similar point on Fred’s blog (that reddit relies on subreddits which in a way are exclusionary).

    I’ll say what I said there… things are moving toward niche. That’s bad for a VC (a la Fred’s point) though good for a user (IMHO).

    I find it interesting that people seem to have forgotten Facebook started as college kids only. Being older I had to wait to get in. That didn’t bother me. Let something start small with a core and grow from there.

    Interesting debate for sure and one I’d like to have in person over that beer you owe me. 😉

  • Thanks — this is definitely interesting territory, and I’m glad that people seem to have started exploring it a little more.

    I think it’s actually a couple of beers I owe you, let’s find a time in the next few weeks!

  • I’m curious how this relates? Sure, cities give you the room to be anonymous, and “to tinker, to invent, to be different, to be non-conformist” — but surely we don’t come to cities to do all that alone? We come for the new people and new groups that we get to explore, choose, or make for ourselves.

    “Possibility still, in some significant part, depends on density.” (http://bit.ly/NPz6IA)

  • It’s orthogonal, but more generally the point as I see is is that innovation comes from anonymity, tinkering etc.; I dont think the implication is at all that we do this alone in fact you are right its about density – but anonymity too

  • I took it a little further in my head: a small town limits both the possibility of anonymity and the possibility of selective association and sharing. 

    If you *know* that the jerk you’ve known since grade school is inevitably going to make fun of you for it, you might not enter your weird painting in the town’s art show.It’s the density of the city that lets you be either anonymous or selective [exclusive]: in that crowd, not everyone has to see, or can comment on, every part of your life.

    And since I’m digging the quote-focused approach, I’ll offer this one from E.B. White: “on any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”