We live in the age of social media.
Social media isn’t actually a recent thing, at least as we count time online. Back in the digital Pleistocene, when i first got on the net1, social media was called Usenet. Usenet was made of of a hierarchy of “newsgroups”, each devoted to a specific topic. if you were interested in science fiction books, you could hang out in rec.arts.sf.written. If you were a perl programmer, you could hang out in comp.lang.perl. If you wanted to make snarky comments about other peoples .sig files, you went to alt.fan.warlord.2 There was a nearly inexhaustible number of alt.sex.* groups where you could get your specific freak on. Pretty much whatever you wanted to talk about, there was a group devoted to talking about it, and if there wasn’t, you could make one with a small amount of effort.
Usenet was a decentralised service, spread across thousands of machines on the Internet. Messages posted to one news server would propogate to all the others, usually in pretty quick time. Since the messages were stored on the server, it didn’t clutter up your email box the way a mailing list was. (And back in those magical days, that was pretty much all that cluttered up your e-mail box, since spam hadn’t yet really become a thing.) Over time, the more active newsgroups developed their own cultures and social norms, and became communities in their own right.3
In the early 1990s, with the advent of the World Wide Web, new forums began to pop up. Websites with their own comments threads began to proliferate, and both single and multi-topic web forums began to pop up here and there. Usenet had a lot of people still using it, though, and many preferred to continue having their conversations there. Most web forums didn’t have a strong sense of community, partly by virtue of being newer and not yet having developed the sort of cultural inertia that eventually coalesces into social bonds, but also partly because most web forums were a poor place for the kind of person-to-person interactivity that dominated the better parts of Usenet. Sooner or later, someone would figure out the right set of tools, and create a semblance of that on the web.
That person turned out to be Brad Fitzpatrick, who started a site called LiveJournal.
LiveJournal wasn’t the first blogging platform, but it was the first to really put all the pieces together to create a real, broad online community. Unlike Usenet, where groups were defined by interest, blogs were inherently personal. You could write about whatever was important to you at the time, and not worry if it was on topic. This was your space. If you had friends who were also blogging on LiveJournal, you could follow them,4 and LJ would construct an easy to read digest of all the posts your friends had made. Comments left by one person following your blog might elicit an answer from someone else following it. Someone might decide to ‘friend” you simply because you had a friend in common and they liked the sort of comments you left. Topical communities began to form, kitting together groups of people with common interests.
For the folks on the more social areas of Usenet, like alt.polyamory or rec.arts.sf.fandom, this was a little annoying. More and more, people were writing in their own spaces and not engaging the group. Expressing surprise at a bit of missed news was likely to elicit a response of “Oh, I wrote about that in my LJ.” Even in real life, in several of my social circles if you weren’t on LiveJournal, you weren’t really plugged in to the conversation. I remember telling a fellow Atlanta filker about some bit of news involving some other filkers, and he expressed surprise because he hadn’t heard about it. I told him I had read about it on LJ, and he said “But I don’t do LJ!” and I said “And that’s why you hadn’t heard about it.”5
As LiveJournal participation grew over the course of the early 2000s, Usenet participation waned. At the time, i was still active on both, and the growing quiet on newsgroups was both noticeable and often commented upon by those of us who were still there. Reluctantly, many hardcore holdouts started LiveJournal accounts of their own, if only to follow what was going on with their friends who increasingly put their time and energy into posting there. Some communities shifted entirely to the web, succumbing to the overwhelming gravity the new central social hub was exerting on the conversation.
While this was the status quo for a number of years, new attempts at creating the next social hub came and went constantly. Most of them are footnotes6 and barely remembered7, or looked promising8 but were pushed out by more popular rivals9. With the exception of MySpace, most of them failed the “what’s it for?” test. They weren’t necessarily awful, but they didn’t appear to solve any problems presented by the current dominant platform.10
But since 2008, several new platforms have taken center stage. Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr have developed huge communities, and Google+ and Pinterest certainly have their partisans. LiveJournal of late feels a lot like Usenet did ten years ago. But unlike the Usenet to Livejournal migration, the new landscape is more fractured, with each new community containing a subset of the old. While some people manage to maintain an active presence on more than one platform, the vast majority of even those people have one service that is their primary hangout and others that they dip in and out of as the mood strikes them.
This is, ultimately, both good and bad. The five major networks currently vying for social bandwidth deliver very different experiences to one another. If you think brevity is the soul of wit and like your conversations to come in rapid, short bursts, you can make Twitter your place and have a great time hanging with the other Twitterati. if you’re more of a kinetic, visual magpie who primarily wants to see cool things and pass them around, you’ll probably tumble for Tumblr. Pinterest is great for….whatever the heck Pinterest is for.11 And Facebook sits atop the mountain, the vast ruler of all it surveys largely by default. Facebook has the most users almost entirely because it has the most users. I know many people (myself not least)who say ‘I don’t like Facebook as a platform, but it’s where the people I want to interact with are, so that’s where I am.”
The bad part about the current landscape is that the conversation is fractured. People on one platform don’t interact with people on the others. The post you are reading will have been either posted or linked in several places. People who see it on LiveJournal will likely comment there. People who see it on Facebook will likely comment there. Someone might respond to it on Twitter, and some might comment on the original blog itself. And I’ll see all those comments and react to them in place, but — vitally — they won’t see each other. Joey on Facebook will never see the comment that Rachel leaves on Livejournal, and neither of them will see the comment that Krista makes on Twitter. No one has the amount of social bandwidth to monitor all of these places at once. Most of us can’t handle more than one.
That’s not a tragedy. But it is a missed opportunity. We now have so many ways to connect that we sometimes miss the chance to connect. And that makes me at least a little bit sad.
late 1980’s ↩
It’s a long story. ↩
Parallel to all of this, services like Compuserve and Prodigy had their own walled gardens which fostered similar online communities. ↩
“Friend” them, in the argot of the site. A term which has continued to be problematic in social media ever since. ↩
I think participating or not participating in a particular social forum is entirely one’s choice. I do think it’s a bit unreasonable to refuse on principle to join a particular social forum and then complain that you miss the things which are happening there. ↩
And most of the really serious problems with LiveJournal were being solved by virtue of the LiveJournal codebase being open source, which meant anyone could start up an exact replica of it and compete. The most successful of these was Dreamwidth, but there were at least a half-dozen active LJ clones at one time. ↩
I don’t mean to be snarky. I really don’t know. ↩