Brent Simmons:

We could be excused for thinking that is like — a Twitter alternative greeted with enthusiasm but that eventually closed.

It’s not the same thing, though, and I’ll explain why.

[reasonable explanation worth reading on its own merits elided]

You might think this is too difficult for normal people, that it’s all too nerdy, and that it won’t make headway against Twitter, so who cares.

My reply: it’s okay if this is a work in progress and isn’t ready for everybody yet. It’s okay if it takes time. We don’t know how it will all work in the end.

We’re discovering the future as we build it.

I don’t fundamentally have a problem with this line of reasoning. But I do have a problem with where we end up.

Everything Old is New Again

You don’t need to tell me that Twitter was created as a sidecar to other projects, and was intended as a way to “check in” so that the rest of the original bunch of people knew what you were up to. The problem with Twitter isn’t that. The problem with Twitter isn’t the role that it’s played in the past few years, it’s not in a set character limit.

The problem with Twitter is that it encourages conversations with people you don’t know in a medium that is almost uniquely poorly designed to follow a conversation. It is the software equivalent to setting up a conversationalist convention, and holding it in a dark, smelly, crowded room with loud music playing and having a blood alcohol level requirement before you can enter.

And furthermore, the problem with Twitter being created, the reason it was created, is that time and time again the simple solutions get reinvented.

Unwind the tape to the start of the century. “Everyone” had a weblog. (Since I still use that term, I was obviously present.) “Everyone” hosted it themselves and could duct tape Movable Type or debate the merits of Textile. In retrospect, it is easy to understand that this wasn’t some Sheikah-like ancient civilization where every interesting person on the face of the Earth knew these things - it’s just that it was chiefly open to them.

The Medium is The Message

What’s happened since then? If you’re tempted to say Facebook and Twitter, I don’t disagree with that. Tumblr also happened. Tumblr was first and more brazen about taking the very simplest expressions and pulling them into individual posts, and then gradually turning it into a “social network” with reposts.

The problem isn’t that Tumblr handles the “Mac-and-cheese” of publishing. The problem is that it is so successful at doing so that it moves the spectrum. If people have Tumblr, they are more likely to feed it with found items and paraphernalia, and less likely to write engaging things. If people have Twitter, they are more likely to feed it with one-liners and retweets and the briefest of observations. And if people have a crafted Movable Type installation, they are more likely to publish posts.

Giving a damn

Facebook and Twitter and dozens of other platforms hooked us on the idea that the web does not have to be funny shaped and unruly and different. Twitter’s Bootstrap is helping out with the normalization process, but we’re all drawn to use the simplest thing we can figure out to share our own thoughts and the most voluble thing we can figure out to ingest those of others.

RSS and its related technologies is in some way at the core of all this. RSS had to be refined to podcasting and brought into a semi-benevolently maintained directory (Apple’s) to reach the success and adoption that it has. It’s not that no one listened - it’s that for everyone to listen, it has to come down to pointing and clicking.

There’s been precious few technologies like this for personal publishing. Those that have not had an agenda have been providing their value in a shrinking ecosystem. Even if ten useful, new and fully developed solutions popped up tomorrow, they would be subject to the same realities. And this is one half of the problem of the Do It With Open Technologies path.

The other half is that they are trying to pull together some aspect that the closed platforms handle. Most problems that the closed platforms handle are legitimate research efforts. Navigating the friend graph on Facebook, indexing tweets for hashtags, even deciding on a tweet’s ID are Hard Problems. And we’re trying to do it in a distributed way. Ask anyone doing distributed systems if this way is easier. We’re not literally trying to reconstruct and solve every problem, of course. But the result is that whatever we build, whatever our solution looks like, when viewed from a distance, is not going to be as coherent as the closed platforms.

If you’re yelling at your screen that this is the point, and that we’re not trying to remake Facebook, you’re correct. But someone moved the goal posts on us.

The App

I am not going to touch on actual apps. But being relegated to a 3.5” prison meant that clarity had to come to the fore. Things had to be easy. Getting around had to be obvious. (And it was, before someone starting making hamburgers.) We were all taught to think in terms of the unit, and to deliver the unit, to concentrate on the morsel, which possibly could be expanded into the short scroll view.

The app for Twitter is obvious. The app for Facebook is obvious. The apps for Tumblr, Reddit, Medium and Instagram are all obvious. We could all close our eyes and imagine how they would work. The app for weblog-shaped objects is stuck at being the RSS reader. There’s nothing wrong with the RSS reader, but the focus is entirely on the technology. Maybe you could argue that it has to be to some extent because in a decentralized system you have to be able to discover things and add in other things.

Consider the web browser - if people still relied on typing in web addresses, we would all browse much, much less every day. But we don’t. We have our favorite search engine and we have links. They all depend on, but abstract, the technology below. The RSS reader is best described, when masking away particular technologies, as a “feed” reader. People understand what a web is. Most people don’t like that they have to tend to, curate, maintain a list of feeds. Maybe they wisely consider that the friction of adding a feed, not only in finding the subscribe button but in thenceforth reading more stuff, leads them to listen to fewer or more palatable opinions.

The apps that exist and are somewhat successful are the platform apps of individual actors, like Tumblr, Medium, Reddit and news aggregation apps like Apple News. (These all tend to be local, so it’s hard to exemplify them.) They all have the podcasting problem too. But being decentralized, like the web, means that everyone has to run a little piece of infrastructure wherever they host what they write. And it means that there will have to be a few open vendors to collect or refine the result of this infrastructure (Technorati then, Disqus now).

Seven red lines, all perpendicular to each other

This is where I’m stuck as I think about this. I am less inclined than ever to imagine that people will start demanding sharper crayons from their hosting providers - or to consider whichever way they publish their thinking a “hosting provider”. I am less inclined than ever to imagine that individual vendors will pop up to solve the hard problems or to provide the bird’s eye view that would bring more clarity to the process.

Medium is interesting to prove that people haven’t stopped wanting to think and to publish. They’ll do so given the tools available to them. But Medium itself is still just another closed platform that would rather you read more from its network. It’s not in Medium’s best interest to point readers to things hosted outside of Medium, and it’s not even obvious to me how Medium will survive for the next few years.

Decentralization tends to lead to parts that survive on their lonesome no matter what. It would be great if this resiliency, this freedom could form an open platform. But like asking for seven red lines, all of them strictly perpendicular, some with green ink and some with transparent, there are boulders in our path that I don’t know how to work around, that make me think that what I remember wasn’t so much a golden age to which we can return but a fortuitous pocket in history, a reality that was inevitable to lose and that we would have to work very hard to bring back.

Look for something else, something big, something that changes the equation, something that makes it easier to write and less frustrating to follow and discover. For lack of anything new, we may as well all be wearing red hats.