Why users need to control the means of communication


I have this feeling at the moment that every good platform for communication is getting ruined by commercial pressures and a lack of user control.

A run-down of the problem

When web 2.0 services were just taking off, the big change was that users were actively contributing to the liveliness of a given site. However, as time has gone on, it’s become clear that big companies have taken all that value created by users with little regard for what users want.

I’ve seen a huge number of complaints on my Twitter timeline about the decision by the company to move from a chronological timeline to a model where tweets are sorted according to a relevance algorithm (like Facebook). I’ve also noticed that both Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook seems to full of more ads than ever. The ratio of content you care about to ads seems to be getting worse by the day.

Another problem with all these platforms is that they’re closed systems. Twitter, Facebook etc. might provide a limited API which enable people to make some services incorporating parts of their platforms, but it seems these spin-offs will always be limited in some way. The closed aspect of these social media platforms also means they’re not indexable or archivable – everything is on the platform owners’ terms. The platform might enable you to embed a tweet or a post on another website, but what assurances do you have that it’s still going to work in a few years’ time?

This all boils down to: these platforms seem cool and useful, but eventually we realise they’re not that great after all, and they slowly get corrupted by the need to make money. What would a better platform look like?

What I think users need

I think users deserve more than an ongoing loss of control over their means of communication.

My wish list looks like this:

  • A good feature set
  • User ownership of data
  • No creepy ads tracking you across the internet (ideally no ads at all)
  • Interoperability

Normally I would look to the open source software movement for a solution to a problem like this, but I think this is one area where the open source movement runs into real problems. Open source movement is good at producing great software, but in my experience isn’t good at producing good-quality services.

The network effect problem

I think a big part of the problem why open source software isn’t good at making services – and particularly social platform services – is because of the network effect. For social media and methods of communication to be useful, they need lots of people. The more people who use the service, the more useful it is. (The network effect is still evident in non-service software, but I feel like it’s easier to run software on your own computer to perform a task without worrying what other people are doing.)

I don’t have any easy answers on how to overcome the network effect. I think the feature set of open alternatives needs to be just as good as the walled-garden approach of their competitors, or people aren’t going to care about any alternatives.

My other thought is that perhaps it’s too late for open alternatives to win out in this round of platform battles. There are a few somewhat promising platforms like Ello, Diaspora*, and GNU social, but I can’t see any of them taking off in a big, mainstream way. As much as I would like to be proven wrong, I’m pretty pessimistic about the chances of any open alternatives to the big social media players taking off enough to be properly self-sustaining and remotely mainstream.

If we look to the future, is there a possibility that we can pre-emptively win these battles before the network effect problem becomes insurmountable?

The next round of platform battles

It seems to me as though technology is fast converging on a world where the most important platform is virtual reality (or perhaps augmented reality). Why create light-emitting screens everywhere when you can put the screen directly in front of your eyes for a much more immersive experience?

We’re already seeing virtual reality headset/hardware makers battling for dominance. I think the really important challenge is getting an open, non-evil software communication platform for virtual reality worlds. In other words, I think a community needs to create the next pervasive social network on virtual reality, before a giant global corporation becomes dominant. Facebook has already strongly signalled its interest in virtual reality with the purchase of Oculus Rift, and continuing efforts in the social VR area, so it’s already a race against time.

In many ways I think virtual reality will be the last social communication platform, so the stakes are really high. Hopefully we can do a better job of creating a user-controlled network this time around.

Icon licensed under CC BY 3.0 US.

Updated to fix minor typos and add a link to a Wired article on Facebook and VR

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