Oct. 23rd, 2014

Today the upstart social networking site Ello reaffirmed their promise to never sell user data or ads. Which is good for them, I suppose, but the following line from their announcement made me frown:
With virtually everybody else relying on ads to make money, some members of the tech elite are finding it hard to imagine there is a better way.

But 2014 is not 2004, and the world has changed.
We... we had ad-free social networking in 2004. It was called "one of your friends got a Dreamhost and put some forum software on it and everyone hung out there." If the website got really big and popular, maybe the owner would ask for donations from the users, and usually folks would give enough to keep the place afloat, because everyone wanted to keep hanging out there.

It wasn't glamorous. It didn't give anyone rounds of VC funding or make anyone rich. Sometimes the site would crash from some "IPS driver error" and a grumpy teenager with the heart of a future sysadmin would crawl onto AIM at 2AM to tell everyone they were working on a fix.

But we existed. And for some reason I can't help but feel a little slighted. Ello didn't invent the concept of people hanging out online without ads. (Take, for instance, the very site you're on now, Dreamwidth: another great example of a community bootstrapping and sustaining itself.)

I had similar grumpy feelings when Pinterest was blowing up a few years back—not because of any ill will toward Pinterest, but because of the breathless, astonished tone reporters seemed to take when talking about Pinterest. In particular, they seemed staggered by the fact that the site's users were almost all women, bringing them together in a way never seen before, and how did Pinterest discover the secret of drawing women to the internet?!

And yet, the "social networks" I hung out on during my preteen and teenage years were composed almost entirely of young women. I'm not even sure why that was the case—we talked about gaming and tech a lot, which were supposedly "guy" interests when I was a kid—but it was a prevalent enough gender skew that, on the rare occasion when someone joined with an obviously male handle, we'd joke about how "but there are no boys on the internet!" We were there the whole time; we didn't just starting using the internet when Pinterest came out.

I suppose it's the difference between a Social Network TM in the Facebook and Google+ sense, versus the "social networks" I remember. Those "social networks" were small, and never made front-page news (or any news at all), and were more concerned with keeping to themselves than recruiting new members. They were "social networks" in the "people getting together and hanging out" sense. But Social Networks TM are big, and self-promote, and have money and influence, because there's a lot more people on the internet nowadays and more money to be made.

Which is fine. I just don't think it should be billed as this Totally New Thing. All sorts of folks have been on the internet for a long while now. Let's acknowledge that, at least a little.

Also of interest: Paul Ford's tilde.club and "how LGBTQ nerds helped create online life as we know it."