Against All Strategic Social
A rushed request for pause & reflection on why we use social media.
I have not been able to follow any more accounts on Twitter – from @NeoYokel, my primary, eldest account – for several years because of a limit implemented at some point by Twitter and documented in this help document. Considering the breadth of the mechanic's significance for other users, I have often been compelled to explain this to new followers. Recently, it occurred to me that a handy, brief explainer page might streamline this process, so I created “Why I Didn't Follow You Back” – in both GitHub Gist and Medium post form. Other than a lack of reciprocity in engagement which I can only speculate to occur in the minds of the opposite parties involved in this dynamic, this limitation does not detract from my Twitter life, as I exclusively consume content in Twitter Lists (which I have spoken about extensively, elsewhere.)
A big theme in my 20s has been coming (slowly) to terms with the fact that I built my entire adult social life around a single, centralized social media Web Site. I mentioned this in my Tweetbot 6 review, recently, but – as I also strive to be a more sincere person and spend more time adding value to others’ lives – I’ve concluded that it is the time now to speak as openly and vulnerably as I can about my “Social Media Methodology.” Most of the resulting insights will not be new information, but I continue to encounter greater and greater confusion in the face of my well-meaning behavior online and I have decided to stop disregarding it.
This is not an essay about how to “optimize” your social media use. It is – at least in part – a sort of manifesto against the very idea of designed online behavior beyond simply being considerate in a sense that predates even the spoken word. I, myself, have occupied a position well on the chaotic side of the spectrum. You could say I have been mostly chaotic neutral throughout my 12 years on Twitter thus far, and am actively working toward (and advocating for) chaotic good. Perhaps inevitably, I'm going to wade into some experiences with a few specific social media phenomena which I am particularly reacting to, here.
I do not understand the mentality of Twitter users who behave as if it is an intraweb competition and/or it has value in and of itself.— ※ David Blue ※ (@NeoYokel) July 13, 2016
Assumptions at bat
For the vast majority of mainstream social users, no amount of [insert vague overused marketing jargon noun] will ever result in a substantial accumulation of money/“influence” (which seems to be the diluted zag of “POWER” of the moment.) Those interested in learning about “marketing” should know that no authority on the subject would ever tell you to start with Twitter – this I can say with certainty.
Though Twitter was designed upon certain frameworks with certain rules which form quantifiable formulas where they are dependent upon a user's choices/methodology to produce results which we have, indeed, become more adept at predicting with study over time, it was not created as a game to be won. Perhaps more importantly, the “prize” of “winning” in the sense held by those who resist this assumption (notoriety, “influence,” relevance) has continued to prove ultimately worthless (or worse) time and time again throughout the very short history of the cultural element as it exists today.
If both 1 and 2 pass scrutiny, the only remaining reasonable prerogatives in one’s social media use is to engage with both strangers and friends in a manner which generally adds value to the lives of all involved.
3 is not only possible – it is easily reproducible. Most of my evidence is centered around my own experiences, but I believe – if I took the time – I would be able to find infinitely many publicly-facing examples.
Though I am going to use my own methods to demonstrate 4, neither my ideas nor my behavior are the only means of interacting positively on social media.
I've come to the conclusion fairly recently that I need to become brutally frank about the discrepancies I've observed between others' accounts of their social media use and my own as soon as possible. The great, ambient grousing summoned throughout The Plague from even the first picogeneration to be born directly into The Social Web really challenged my assumptions about its actual purpose in the day-to-day lives of those in the center of the adoption curve. You mean to tell me you've been spending all that societally-alarming time on your phone... On social media services... and you haven't made a single international friend? Or happened across a single niche community surrounding some bizarre practice or knowledge you'd long thought you were entirely alone in? What exactly have you being doing with all that tapping since your toddlerhood, then? I had absolutely no clue how utterly ineffective the vast majority of n̳o̳r̳m̳i̳e̳s̳ still are at using social media for its general purpose in the most abstract sense: “human connection.“
The essential realization toward which (I desperately hope) the largesse of America is being carried by conversations around An Ugly Truth, as well as countless lower-profile essays, features, academic papers, and general shit shooting is that the responsibility for this ignorance rests solely on the platforms who systematically reformed the controls originally handed over by default to early adopters like me. I would love (for both selfish and very humanitarian reasons) to be able to proclaim some precious, one-of-a-kind genius as the sole differentiator between my complete confidence in my ability to design and maintain social software configurations that have kept my online consumption entirely free of unwanted encounters and the amount of regular involuntary bullshit I hear described in the day-to-day online existence of everyone around me. The truth, I suspect, involves my being of the most privileged category of human in Western civilization combined with the group of high school friends who adopted and socialized me. (A story for another permalink, certainly, if not my equivalent of Trick Mirror.)
~~More importantly, perhaps, I don't think I can recall a single instance of sincere malice from within myself toward anyone who'd actually converse with me. On the occasions I have been all huffy and confrontational, I do not remember a single example in which I was unwittingly ejected from a conversation left feeling unsatisfied.~~
Over the past few months, I've started a few Posts for this blog regarding Twitter, its properties, and its recent feature addition frenzy which I'll probably never finish. I finished the first and narrowest one – the aforelinked Tweetbot 6 review – but the (debatably) most important one – highlighting how irresponsibly and distastefully Twitter butchered Periscope and built Spaces atop its technology – would make less and less sense as time goes on. I definitely got caught up in the “death” of the live video streaming service, fueled by my now quite old desire to celebrate it, which I will hopefully accomplish eventually in a very sentimental essay. If I can successfully link them editorially, the subject encompassing Spaces – social audio's “moment” – would also include mention of RSS, “Podcasting” (the term describing the medium,) Spotify, and Clubhouse, inevitably. Instead of counting on my future self entirely, however, I'm going to begin by discussing that last one.
The (‽‽‽th) Social Audio Renaissance
Exactly one month ago, I finally broke into Clubhouse thanks to a random kind stranger on Twitter who preferred not to be named. April 25th was the first time I set eyes on the app – though I could've (and usually would've) looked up screenshots and/or browsed the litter of how tos available, I did not. By this time, I'd accumulated quite a bit of experience with Twitter Spaces – derided universally by tech media as a “Clubhouse clone” – and therefore assumed the original would be “better,” at least in pure feature terms. What I found, however, was even less evidence that anyone building Clubhouse has been/is/intends to be a regular Clubhouse user. Spaces, at least, included five emoji reacts for listeners from the beginning: 💯✊✌️👋😂. Clubhouse's exclusive means of Listener-Host interaction is Hand Raising, which is essentially requesting to speak, even though the hand waving emoji is literally featured in their logo. (The fact that neither have thought to add 🙌 is absolutely inexcusable/inexplicable.)
so clubhouse is #14 on the app store, but only to reserve one’s username. nice. hype.— ※ David Blue ※ (@NeoYokel) December 31, 2020
In case you weren't aware, I appear to enjoy trying out new social services. My password manager is full of literally thousands of credentials for social media apps/services/startups – most of which have undoubtedly collapsed or been absorbed by a larger entity. Since generating said credentials has become such an easy process, especially, I tend to immediately sign up for an account on just about every one I hear about. (I even have a Parler profile I cannot bear to actually look at.) Generally, I sign up, follow anyone I know from elsewhere if given an account-bridging option, poke around enough to figure out whether or not the service in question could add something to my online existence, and end up leaving for good. Most of these services are not unique in any way, to a perplexing degree. A few – like Pinterest – gain success separately as I give up on trying to integrate them into my life. The miniscule remaining percentage, though, end up becoming a part of my daily existence. The most recent of these dates back to April 2017, when I first discovered Mastodon.
tried joining a twitter space for the first time ever. this shits pretty cool enjoying it a Lot pic.twitter.com/GbJIN8XPc0— (@0kbps) May 16, 2021
The Feature Story
“Social Audio” did not begin with Clubhouse. Anchor originally launched as a “public radio” app, believe it or not. Extratone's channel was actually the first to be featured in their Music section, once upon a time. Frankly, that happening was the most positive outcome of my social media service accumulation habit. More recently, Stereo launched, describing themselves as “the premier LIVE broadcast social platform that enables people to have and discover real conversations in real time.” Bizarrely, the most legitimate media coverage I could find of Stereo was from Glamour UK, and its author definitely spent less than a day actually using the service. Adam Corolla remains #1 on its earnings leaderboard and its conversation export feature is a personal favorite. The Big WIRED feature on the subject from December of last year does not mention Stereo but lists three other “alternatives:” Wavve, Riffr, and Spoon. (None of which are actually competitors/alternatives. Sorry, Arielle.)
I probably shouldn't proclaim to be an authority on social audio, but I am definitely a veteran. From that context, I must say that Clubhouse is horribly unoriginal – not only in the sense that “successful” business implementations of others', previous ideas tend to be diluted versions of the original, but almost pitifully so. I will commend the app's developers on their somewhat-thorough release notes (even though they can be viewed only when first opening the app after an update instead of in the designated space on the App Store,) but the extent of linkable Clubhouse documentation amounts to eight blog posts and a “Community Guidelines” Notion page. Though I've only been a user for one month, I wonder what the fuck they've been doing since launch, given how sparsely-featured the app is at this moment. There are Notifications, Profiles, and Clubs – the latter of which cannot be created until a user surpasses an unknown threshold of renown(?) on the app. Competent calendar integration may be the service's singular innovation, though support for Outlook has yet to be added. The Big Issue, though, is finding a “talk” to attend that will not drive you utterly insane...
The Grand Delusion
I wrote the assumptions at the beginning of this Post in a single go after a particularly icky Sunday Clubhouse experience out of a deep concern that'd been growing since first exploring the app. The content I've found there is not at all what I expected, to be honest. I've found it almost entirely indecipherable, which makes critique beyond just fucking screaming difficult. The New Yorker's Anna Wiener did a much better job than I could realistically manage in “Clubhouse Feels like a Party:”
There was something pleasant about meandering from conversation to conversation, as if I had walked into my own home to find a conference in full swing. But I also wondered, Why did I let all of these people into my house?
It is hard to shake the feeling that everyone on Clubhouse is selling something: a company, a workshop, a show, a book, a brand.
More recently, her publication's nemesis declared “The Clubhouse Party is Over,” but I wouldn't know. None of my friends have ever Tweeted a Clubhouse link (determinable via this Twitter search.) Very few of the tech industry celebrities I follow have, either – pretty much just Chris Messina and Jason Calacanis. This is noteworthy because I believe my list of followed accounts on Twitter to be particularly diverse. I actively followed accounts across my various interests from ages 15-25 (when I hit my follow limit) and basically never unfollowed anyone. I would imagine there are several accounts within that list which I would be ashamed to be associated with, now, and yet none have shared a Clubhouse link. Reading any further into this observation would require actual data journalism, which I'll leave to the pros. It does prompt the question, though: if nobody I've ever known or been interested in on Twitter is using Clubhouse, who in fuck is?
Frankly, I do not understand the business incentive behind the massive duplication of other software/services defining featuresets of late. I see that Instagram stories have eclipsed Snapchat's in terms of sheer user count, but I do not understand why its leaders would choose to fuck their legacy by such blatant idea theft, much less why Twitter, Facebook, Patreon and even fucking LinkedIn have implemented nearly-identical featuresets. Though I know Ben Thompson's word on these matters should be easily digestible, I haven't been able to actually take a bite. For the End User, especially, I cannot even begin to conceive of what the leaders behind these decisions imagine the day-to-day experience of the average social media user looks like in the near future. How many apps am I going to cycle through to get a single story-type piece of content satisfactorily shared? Personally, I currently use three, and sharing a single bit individually across all of them one-by-one (since the current state of APIs is not conducive to consumer-targeted mass-sharing tools) makes me feel utterly insane.
My lack of understanding would be meaningless if it were not so widely shared among my peers – young, brilliant, multifaceted, and distinctly original creators who (in large part) make stuff on the internet full-time. They are who I'd actually plan ahead to hear from in a live broadcast setting like Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces, but Twitch seems to do just fine. For audio broadcasts, specifically, the hip, fresh sources which come to mind are all distinctly Open Web: Datafruits.fm, Solarpunk.cool, Poolside.fm, and my Mastodon friend Vanta's stream. The potential of the term “social audio” is truly being explored by projects like Rave.DJ – a homegrown, Patreon-funded service for sharing mixes/mashups. On a smaller scale, the sky is the limit for Whyp.it as a pure audio playback/annotation tool for creators (as developed by Brad Varol, whom I interviewed in March.)
Compared to these, most of Clubhouse's communities seem bleak at best. As I may or may not get around to arguing thoroughly about Twitter Spaces, these services' fundamental, near-complete disinterest in Discovery of new voices and their subsequent servitude to only their most popular users should be extremely worrying for us all – including those who benefit most.
The Consequences of Strategy
I have more than my fair share of stories and peeves about dating apps. On several occasions, for instance, I have corrected those who cite Tinder as the origin of the directional swiping interface, explaining that it was actually the now-defunct service Hot or Not who did so some 15 years ago. (Why on Earth I am compelled to do so, nobody knows. Not even God.) Somehow, though, I think most of us can agree that Tinder is the least shitty of the explicitly hookup-ish spectrum of the genre. Or at least, I thought so, until I happened to spy the “Photo Tip” embedded above beneath a preview of my profile on the iOS app.
The innocuousness of this advice, which surely would not be dispensed in any other context without immediately screaming malice, has been on my mind ever since. It is not the devil who tells you to make sure a passing potential match doesn't immediately learn you have children, but the Marketing Man. (Yes, they are distinct. I would explicitly discourage that particular sort of demonization, mostly because it has proven completely ineffective as cultural critique.) I am in no position to relevantly explore the topic of Society & Sex, generally, other than to insist that most people on Tinder in my area, at least, are not looking to leverage it for the dick. They are looking for dates, and a good many are working class single mothers. To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest anyone in this demographic would be “fooled” by such a suggestion. Offended, perhaps, and/or activated in such a way that would lead to them replacing all of their profile’s pictures with photos of just their children. Regardless, this social group defined by a distinct lack of free time, if nothing else, represents an antithesis to the practice of optimizing one’s swipe ratio.
I think I’ll stop there with this Chapter of David Blue’s Tech ~~Gripes~~ Grapes and pledge to arrive back again exclusively through haphazard/unintentional means, if I ever do.