Unlike data privacy, which is a non-issue for most people, information overload is a real concern
A few days after the launch of Ello, the new social network that the press seized on for some reason, a friend instant messaged me and said he had some invites to the invite-only social network and asked whether I wanted one. “Sure,” I said, and he promptly sent me one. It’s been sitting in my inbox unopened ever since.
Why? As a tech and media enthusiast you would think I’d seize upon the chance to be an early adopter on a hot new social network. But the entire premise of Ello never appealed to me, and I doubt that it will have any longterm appeal to users either. Any new presence on a social platform takes significant time investment if you hope to develop any kind of actual following on the network. There are plenty of platforms I’d love to be more engaged in — Tumblr, Pinterest — but I simply don’t have the time or inclination to put in the effort. Currently I actively maintain/monitor profiles on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Reddit, Instagram, Medium, and Foursquare. Each social network I join automatically subtracts time I’m spending on these other platforms, and eventually you become so diluted that you’re not providing a high-value experience on any of them. So any investment in a new platform requires justification, a feature that it offers that these other networks don’t.
And Ello’s justification, at least the one it publicly offers, is not one that actually solves a real problem. It simply bills itself as the anti-Facebook, and by that it says that you should join it because it doesn’t collect massive amounts of data based on your online interactions. Ello, in effect, is predicting that the plethora of articles about companies like Facebook and Google raising “privacy concerns” reflects a market demand for a company that eschews data collection. But the thing is, that demand isn’t there. Very few people, even though they won’t admit it, care that social networks and search engines collect their data. If they did, we would have already seen a mass exodus away from these tools.
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Not only is there not a demand for this feature, but the feature will actually make the product worse. The reason Google is such an incredible search engine isn’t because it has a killer algorithm. It’s because it’s been collecting data on billions of user interactions with content and, with that data, has taught itself to be incredibly effective at finding the content you’re searching for. For all our gripes at how the Facebook newsfeed algorithm promotes some posts over others, there’s a reason why we’re more addicted to Facebook than any other platform. A tool that doesn’t collect data on its users’ behavior is a tool that isn’t teaching itself to get better. As Ben Thompson wrote in his column predicting Ello’s failure:
If you truly care about privacy then don’t use the Internet, credit cards, a mobile phone, the list goes on-and-on.
If, on the other hand, you care about making a successful social network that users will find useful over the long run, then actually build something that is as good as you can possibly make it and incentivize yourself to earn and keep as many users as possible.
So that’s why an Ello invite sits in my inbox unopened. But there’s another just-launched social network that not only I’ve found a justification for, but I personally emailed the founder so I could score an invite: This. Founded by Andrew Golis, who briefly headed The Atlantic’s now-shuttered The Wire, This has a simple-yet-elegant premise: Users can only share one piece of content a day on it.
What problem does it solve? Unlike data privacy, which is a non-issue for most people, information overload is a real concern, and we’ve seen this borne out with users. Though scientists can’t agree on whether it exists, technology companies have made significant investments into ameliorating it, likely after studying user behavior. The entire Facebook newsfeed is predicated on the idea that we’re trying to overcome the noise and just read the status updates that appeal to us most. Twitter is where you’ll experience it most acutely, especially if you’re not a sports fan and happen to tune in during some major sporting event, when every other tweet is about a subject for which you care nothing. You also see it when a major piece of news breaks and you’re inundated with 100+ tweets announcing the same news (a good time to experience this is 8:30 a.m. on the first Friday of the month when the jobs report is released. For some reason people are obsessed with being first at tweeting out the jobs number). Social media editors, realizing that their promotional tweets are seen by a small fraction of their followers before they get pushed down too far in the feed, resort to tweeting the same link several times a day, further exacerbating the problem. Twitter was finally forced to add a mute button so you can temporarily block out the tweets from that colleague who insists on live tweeting some work conference, no matter how mundane it is.
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Visiting This, which I have done so repeatedly for the past week, has been a breath of fresh air. What Facebook tries to solve with its newsfeed algorithm, This has solved by forcing its users to be incredibly choosy in which one piece of information they share each day. If you follow Slate on This, it’s likely to share one of its more substantive pieces rather than one of the aggregated viral videos that seemingly every news outlet on the planet posts simultaneously (on Monday mornings I have to wake up to 50 posts embedding John Oliver’s latest rant). This purposefully slows the web down to the point where the signal-to-noise ratio is much better than what you’ll find on just about every other platform.
Of course the value extracted from the platform depends on whether you can find quality users to follow and if they keep contributing. Over the past week at least, it hasn’t been difficult to find and follow plenty of journalists whose tastes I admire as each of them has tried it out. The question now is whether they find it useful enough to stick around. For the sake of my media diet I hope they do.
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