The evolution of social networks

It’s been a long time since I’ve logged in to Facebook. In fact, I haven’t ever done it on the computer I’m using today, which I purchased sometime last year. Which is not to say that I don’t recognize the value of social networks (after all, I co-hosted both the world’s first Twitter conference and one of the first Facebook conferences). But I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of the value that I enjoyed early on from those platforms was entirely drawn from finding and conversing with other people on the network.

In other words, the value to me came mostly from messaging.

Dent, the conference and community I co-founded, has had a group-messaging bug since 2013, and the most modern incarnation is a Telegram channel for our Dent Passport members. It’s a great channel for me to share something I’m thinking about, ask a question, brag about something, or just generate the satisfaction that comes from “sharing” something with other humans.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve found a lot of joy and comfort in the longest-running message thread of my life between myself and two of my best friends on Signal.

Recently, I discovered that Telegram has public chats — which are basically Twitter accounts: public, read-only chat channels that anyone on the app can discover and “join,” in order to get messages posted from the channel’s owner or owners. It’s inverted Twitter: DMs as the feature, and public messaging as the backup feature.

So messaging is one evolution of the social network that allows people to avoid a lot of what it has become popular to hate about Facebook.

Clubhouse is another interesting evolution of social networks.

In a previous life, I played on a team in an eSports league. My version of hanging out with my friends at that time was putting on my headphones and logging into a Mumble server, which is an audio-only service that lets you hop from room to room, creating an audio connection with whoever was also there.

For years I have thought that this would be a great way to connect people on work teams. I even suggested it to a few friends of mine who ran remote organizations (they didn’t give it a try). But I think Clubhouse is a natural evolution of that habit, crossing over into popular culture.

Being audio-only is a great way to soften some of the extreme edges of Twitter and Facebook. You don’t see that softening on Discord because it’s also basically Slack; a chatroom where people still communicate with each other through the keyboard — the dominant form of communication throughout the history of the internet. So I’m very interested in whether Clubhouse will manage to foster a consistent sense of civility as the audience grows without introducing overt controls on content. I think they have a chance at that.

So I haven’t been very interested in social networks for a while. But I think there is an exciting turnover starting to happen, driven by a larger desire for people to see different kinds of behavior and have different kinds of relationships with other people online.