I liked this post about the new wave of minimal social media services – Medium, Svbtle, App.net – because it reminded me of the British music press when they would invent a new genre of music. “Stool Rock” or “New Grave” or “Romo”!
Genre making is fun and there’s no reason doing it for social media sites shouldn’t be just as fun. But it gets at something important too. These sites not only have something in common with each other, but they have something in common with most of the other big social hypes or attention-grabbers this year. From marketer’s favourite Pinterest through Tumblr’s slightly awkward .gif hive Reblorg, social media innovation is increasingly about presenting a culture and an aesthetic.
This is why the constant references to Pinterest being “for women” hit on something crucial about the site – it had worked very hard to sustain its particular culture, born from its early adopters (Midwestern US homemakers, broadly speaking) through a period of rapid growth. It’s why Reblorg – not a platform, more of a Tumblr showcase, but promoted as being a clearing house for digital creativity – cleaves so strongly to a particular hyperkinetic web aesthetic. And it’s why Svbtle is anything but subtle with its near-monochrome palette and stern finger-wagging: “We focus on the writing, the news and the ideas. Everything else is a distraction.”
Most tech coverage isn’t great at talking about this kind of thing. The preferred angles are business models and functionality, and so a lot of the coverage of Medium or App.net has focused on its payment schemes, or who its founders are, or the idea that these sites will strip down and rebuild social media function, or the fact that they’re ad-free.
While interesting, I don’t think these are the most interesting things about them. For one thing the building blocks of social media functionality are pretty much set: following, posting, liking, sharing and commenting. You can tweak things – systems of upvoting on Quora or Medium, for instance, linking likes to what the user sees. Or you can emphasise some things and not others – Pinterest and Tumblr taking a forthright pro-sharing approach and downplaying comments. And from a coding perspective I’m sure there’s always ways to improve these features. But the basic ingredients don’t shift.
So that’s one reason new social tools and initiatives cultivate aesthetics and user cultures as ways of making themselves feel different on an emotional level for users. The other big reason is captured in this short piece about teenage attitudes to Facebook: they see it as “the new email”, an omnipresent backdrop but not a place for self-expression. They’re on Facebook, because everyone’s on Facebook, so their basic social graph sits there but the interesting stuff happens elsewhere (Tumblr, according to the article.)
I suspect this niche-ing of social media is still an emergent behaviour, not a mainstream one, but it’s growing, and there’s no reason it should be limited to teens. And it’s not. You see professionals using LinkedIn in a very similar way – the stuff that keeps them awake at night gets discussed on earnest professional groups there. LinkedIn is a distinct culture, it’s just one which has a name (“work”) in the offline world.
A few years ago there was a lot of talk about digital convergence – Facebook as a walled garden where you could do everything social you wanted to. For some people – probably most, still – it is. But these aesthetically tight new start-ups seem to me a bet on niches. The idea of Facebook, Twitter, G+ et al being in competition rests on the idea that you might want to post the same update to all of them. The new wave of aesthetic-first sites reject that idea. They point to – and embrace – a more tribal social web, where users find a place that suits their self-expression and stick with it. And as any music press reader knows, with tribalism we can look forward to all kinds of snobbery and bitchiness. But as we hit the limits of one size fits all social media, that’s inevitable.