A Word In Your Ear
by Rob Wynne
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,
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
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
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
by more popular rivals9.
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 the 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
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.
© 2014 Rob Wynne
Rob Wynne is a musician, podcaster, gamer, con runner, and occasional blogger who currently lives in Seattle. In 1997, he helped Dan Hollifield create Aphelion Webzine, and has been on the committee of Gafilk, the Georgia filk convention, since 1999. In 2011, he helped launch the podcast Tadpoolery, a general interest geek-oriented show.
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