Everything is Old

I used to marvel at the sea of new ideas I would encounter with my computer, first on BBS’s local to my hometown, and later on the Internet. Over time I’ve learned that very frequently the ideas aren’t new, they are just repackaged, and when they are new, they aren’t very good.

What are you talking about.

Social media is a clear exception here - I think that the social graph is a fairly new idea, and knitting together people in this way is unique. It’s also probably not that good of an idea (outside of the rampant production of money - so I guess it’s all about your interests). I don’t think a lot of people would talk about how great Facebook has been for social discourse.

That said, there are a trillion boring, harmless, helpful interactions on Facebook all the time - but you can’t look at the whole body of outcomes that social media produces and say that it’s all good. There is a lot of nasty stuff out there and on there, and it’s weird that there are a number of companies that mine your personal data to profit off of you.

For this reason, I don’t participate in social media. I did, but I grew tired of garbage on my newsfeed, arguing about jewish space lasers with flat earthers, etc. Screw that man, I’m out. You can have your weirdo party. I’m going to the library or something.

I’m a jerk and that’s all hypocritical of me.

Upon reflection, the real crazy thing is that I’m upset about social media at all. Look, I used to use Usenet and IRC, both free, open, distributed systems for chat and posts. If you are unfamiliar with them, IRC is basically anonymous Slack, and Usenet is basically anonymous Reddit, except there are no moderators really, the system is entirely distributed, and nobody is making any (real) money.

Horrendous shit popped up on IRC and Usenet. For IRC, you would have channel ops, which are similar to moderators who could bounce people off a channel when someone started posting racist nonsense. I seem to recall that happened once in a Math IRC channel. Same goes for Usenet, but I’m not terribly familiar with the mechanisms for running a Usenet newsgroup.

I guess the thing that upsets me about social media is that they are basically the same things we had before in IRC and Usenet. The difference is that they are productized, streamlined, centralized and explicitly profit seeking. And not in unique, unobtainable ways - somebody had a vision for making something better, and decided to do that for themselves instead of the distributed eco-system of existing tech. Maybe they thought it would be easier, maybe they didn’t realize they were copying somebody elses basic premise at all.

You just wind up in the strange place where centralization like this winds up producing companies that (inadvertently or explicitly) seek to emphasize nonsense in a central fashion. It’s one thing for some rando to pop on to an IRC channel and talk about the ice wall at the edge of the flat earth - people make fun of them and they get kicked off. It’s another thing for there to be a company hosting flat earth groups that make money off of that. I guess that’s the difference?

I’ve lost the point.

I’m writing this because I’m thinking about the API meltdown over at Reddit and the weird circus that Twitter has become. Both Reddit and Twitter seem to be betting that they can weather their self-made-storms because there is no Reddit alternative, there is no Twitter alternative - and they are right, sort of. There isn’t a good one, that’s gotten the clear product love that both of those things have. Say what you will about the Reddit app, you can download it, it has ads, it is monetized, there is a product here. It is a complete thought. Not the best (cough Apollo RIP cough) but it exists.

And that’s a shame because we’d all be in a better place if, say Apollo was an amazing app that accessed Usenet. If the communication mechanisms we used were decentralized and monetized at the endpoints. Can you imagine if there were a dozen apps that had different flavors of newsfeeds, using slightly different algorithms, all riffing on Usenet and IRC posts?

Usenet and IRC have problems sure but they are distributed systems problems. I suspect you could tame a lot of those problems at the endpoints.