The almost immediate challenge with the introduction of the Internet presented was, “How do I find X?” Now, the actual first challenge was, “I wonder if X exists in this new world,” but that’s still “How do I find X?”
This quest made search services the killer app of the Internet. AltaVista was a thing for a bit, and then Yahoo’s curated list was the cool, but Google won. This is why you now ask, “Did you Google it?”
Google’s dominance has been challenged, but I’d argue Google is still king of the hill when it comes to “How do I find X?” Thing is, there is so much X out there; the challenge evolved. It was no longer, “How do I find X?” it became something like, “How do I find the best X?” or perhaps, “How do I find the X that most appeals to me?”
The evolution of the challenge created an opportunity for a new kind of service. It wasn’t where to find the people; it was where to find the people who knew about the stuff. Yes, it is nice to find people you knew in the real world, but it was also beneficial to find newly aligned humans who shared your interests. Together, we collectively did the hard work of finding new interesting stuff and sharing it hither and fro.
And this is when it went sideways.
The issue is one of incentives.
You are incentivized to find like humans. You are willing to spend time sharing interesting things with these humans. You’re usually equally glad to see what they find. You share thoughts, hopes, and dreams, and it’s all very human.
Services were designed to facilitate this discovery and sharing. Lots of them. I signed up for most of them, and I’d first explore the question, “Are my humans here?” If I get a hint of a yes, I remain and invest. If it felt empty, I’d pat myself on the back for grabbing my handle and never log in again.
Infrequently, a service checked all the boxes. Yes, my people are here. Yes, they are active. Yes, I’m also learning new things at scale and sharing them. In these rare situations, it appeared to be a positive feedback loop because the more we believed our people were there, the more people showed up, and the more we believed, “Well, everyone is now here.”
The content, the interesting things, flowed. It was a wonderful time.
The issue is one of incentives.
The services providing these connections and content quickly acquire high costs. They are businesses, and businesses must prove they can grow, like, forever. So it begins: they need money, so they advertise. Why don’t they charge for access to service? It’s because more people would leave if they charged than if they started to advertise. It’s because “free” feels better than paid. It’s because advertising can be framed in the same way as the reason you came to the service, “Because we know who you like, we can share goods and services that we know you’ll like.”
Sounds too good to be true, right? It is. You’re soaking in it.
So, forever growth must be proven, advertising must fund forever growth, so advertising must continually increase. This means you, the person just looking for Interesting X, must be incentivized to see and click on more relevant advertisements. The services need more data to provide more relevant advertisements and fund forever growth. These services require you to engage more.
They’ve already helped you find your people, and you’ve already helped them out by providing your social graph and high-affinity content for this graph, but they need more because of forever growth. You already see ads, and perhaps you’ve clicked on some of them, but now you start seeing “content we think you’ll like.”
Suppose I had to pick a feature in social networks that represented the downfall of social networks — this is it. I arrived because I believed my aligned humans were here. I stayed because I found them, and we began the process of mutually beneficial sharing of interesting things. The service needed to prove forever growth, so they started providing ads, and when that wasn’t enough, they showed You-Might-Like content.
The issue is one of incentives.
You-Might-Like content is not content I discovered or my network discovered; it is content designed by robots to get me to engage. When I don’t engage, the robots notice and find something else. When I engage, the robots notice, and they find more content. It’s a feedback loop that incentives the robots to find ever increased engaging content, and, you guessed it, the content I’ll engage with most is the content that angers me the most. And what happens when I engage? The robots find me more, and I become more angry.
There is a lot to like about robot-generated content. When I’m shopping on Amazon, I’m A-OK with the robots alerting me to other flavors of Lifesavers. Thanks. Orange Mint Lifesavers were a real find. When I’m wandering the thoughts and dreams of my trusted humans, I don’t need the robots. Ever.
This issue is one of choice.
I’ve been a fan of Twitter since the early days: November 2006. Unlike Facebook, which I left a couple of years ago for the reasons described above, I’ve remained on Twitter. This is partially because I don’t avidly read Twitter much except, you know, during insurrections and other world-changing events. I dabble and find bits now and then, but Twitter hasn’t been where I find the most interesting things.
My primary interesting things sources are:
- A handful of channels on the Rands Leadership Slack and a private Mac Nerd Slack
- Three Messages groups with close friends
- RSS feeds I peruse on Feedly
Another reason I’ve stayed is that I mostly use a legacy version of Tweetdeck, and for reasons I don’t understand, there have never been ads there. There are no robots. This means my feeds are exclusively humans and the institutions I’ve chosen to follow. Conversely, I have a moderately sized following where I can share my thoughts and things I’ve written and built.
I’ve been trying to reverse engineer the intent of Twitter’s new leadership, and the kindest way I can describe it is chaos because chaos is engaging. It’s like a soap opera except with… people’s livelihoods on the line. I’m sure Twitter engagement is through the roof, but that’s because the building’s on fire and who doesn’t like spectating a disaster in progress?
Twitter’s not going anywhere. As with every company, a handful of quiet, unassuming, and talented humans keep it running. I’m not deleting my account, but I’m removing Twitter from the cycle of things I check for interesting things. I’ve dusted off my Mastodon account (@[email protected]), and I’m doing what I always do: finding my people because…
The killer app is the list of humans you choose to trust.