Let’s imagine, for a minute, a world in which App.net is successful.
App.net is filled with people who understand the value of buying a product to preserve their privacy. “Members” pay $50 a year to enjoy a platform where they, not advertisers, are in control of their data. These are the people who are startup-literate, technically competent and probably well educated.
Meanwhile, everyone else is on, let’s say, Facebook.
Initially, I’m reminded of the split between Quora and Yahoo Answers. I thoroughly enjoy Quora–much more than I enjoy Yahoo Answers. I like reading well reasoned, cogent replies to Quora questions, something that seems largely absent from Yahoo Answers. However, there might be a flaw in this analogy: Quora is characterized by inquisitiveness (after all, that is the point of the site), and it seems unlikely that App.net would be naturally curious in quite the same way.
So let’s draw a comparision which is perhaps more relevant: Hacker News.
Hacker News is filled with people who are startup literate and technically competent. People write grammatical arguments and share deep knowledge. Hacker News is The Place where “startup people” congregate.
It’s also boring as hell. It’s an echo chamber, a bubble. Everyone has the same interests, and many people come from similar backgrounds. It’s hive-mind-y. I post there, and I contribute, but it’s not as interesting as a discussion on, say, Twitter. Twitter has a diverse user base and generally welcoming approach, and it shows.
Hacker News is a fundamentally exclusive community. When traffic is high, new signups are disabled to prevent too many new people from joining and polluting the culture, something that Paul Graham has euphemistically hinted at. This exclusivity is something that App.net seems to share–certainly a subscription fee, even a very low one, suggests that–and it makes me worry that App.net would become the country club of the internet and the beginning of a trend of web segregation.
Granted, it’s not yet clear exactly what App.net’s subscription fee will be. But even a very low fee could prove prohibitive for a large segment of the web. And even if it doesn’t, the appeal of this new network seems limited to a specific demographic, at least for now: All of my friends who have backed the site are both white and male.
Of course, pockets and bubbles have existed and will always exist on the internet. But it scares me when people start imagining a site like App.net as The Future of Social Networks, and herald it for its ability to keep “unwanted” people out.
Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s refreshing that a startup is taking data and privacy so seriously. But I think that diversity of thought is more refreshing. So I wish App.net the best of luck, and I hope that they–and we–are thoughtful about gatekeeping.
Tess Rinearson is a developer intern at Microsoft and soon to be a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science. If you enjoyed this post, or maybe even if you didn’t, you might want to follow her on Twitter. Or you might want to check out the discussion on Hacker News. Since I’m sure that a post bashing HN will be very well received on HN.
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