Showing all posts tagged clubhouse:

Algorithmic Networks and Their Malcontents

The thing that really annoys me about the death of Twitter1 is that there is no substitute. As I wrote:

none of these upstart services will become the One New Twitter. Twitter only had the weight it had because it was (for good and ill) the central town square where all sorts of different communities came together. With the square occupied by a honking blowhard and his unpleasant hangers-on, people have dispersed in a dozen different directions, and I very much doubt that any one of the outlet malls, basement speakeasies, gated communities, and squatted tenements where they gather now can accomodate everyone who misses what Twitter was.

It’s worth unpacking that situation to understand it properly. Twitter famously had not been growing for a long time, leading users to speculate that:

Maybe we already saw the plateau of the microblog, and it turns out that the total addressable market is about the size that Twitter peaked at. It is quite possible that Twitter did indeed get most of the users who like short text posts, as opposed to video (Tik Tok), photo (Instagram), or audio.

In their desperation to resume growing, Twitter started messing with users’ timelines, adding algorithmic features that were supposedly designed to help users see the best content — but of course, being Twitter, they went about it in a ham-fisted way and pissed off all the power users instead of getting them excited.

The thing is, Twitter is far from the only social network to fail to land the tricky transition to an algorithmic timeline. All of the big networks are running scared of the Engagement that TikTok is able to bring, but they seem to have fundamentally misunderstood their respective situations.

All of the first-generation social networks — Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn — rely on the, well, network as the key. You will see posts from people you are connected to, and in turn the people who are connected to you will see your posts. Twitter was always at a disadvantage here, because Facebook and LinkedIn built on existing networks: family and friends for Facebook, and work colleagues and acquaintances for LinkedIn. Twitter always had a "where do I start from?" problem: when you signed up, you were presented with a blank feed, because you were not yet following anybody.

Twitter flailed about trying to figure out how to recommend accounts to follow, but never really cracked that Day One problem, which is a big part of the reason why its growth plateaued2: Twitter had already captured all of the users who were willing to go through the hassle of figuring that out, building their follow graph, and then pruning it and maintaining it over time. Anyone less committed bounced off the vertical cliff face that Twitter offered in lieu of an on-ramp.

The Algorithm Shall Save Us All!

TikTok was the first big network to abandon that mechanism, and for good reason: at this point, all the other networks guard their users’ social graphs jealously for themselves. It is hard to bootstrap a social network like that from nothing. Instagram famously got its start by piggybacking on Twitter, but that’s a move you can only pull off once. Instead, TikTok went fully algorithmic: what you see in your feed is determined by the algorithm, not by whom you are connected to. The details of how the algorithm actually works are secret, controversial, and constantly changing anyway, but at a high level it’s some combination of your own past activity (what videos you have watched), the activity of people like you, and some additional weighting that the network applies to show you more videos that you might like to watch.

This means that a new account with no track record and no following will be shown a feed full of videos when they first sign in. The quality might initially be a bit hit or miss, but it will refine rapidly as you use the platform. In the same way, a good video from a new account can break out and go viral without that account having to build a following first, in the way they would have had to on the first-wave social networks.

When people started talking about algorithmic timelines like this, Twitter thought they had finally struck gold: they could recommend good tweets, whether they were from someone the user followed or not. This would fill those empty timelines, and help onboard2 new users.

The problem is that users who had put in the effort to build out their graph placed a lot of value in it, and were incandescently angry when Twitter started messing with it. I liked Old Twitter because I had tuned it, over more than a decade, to be exactly what I wanted it to be, and I know a lot better than some newly-hatched algorithm what sort of tweets I want to see in my timeline.

An algorithmic timeline doesn’t have to be bad, mind; Twitter’s first foray into this domain was a feature called "While you were away" that would show you half a dozen good tweets that you might have missed since you last checked the app. This was a great feature that addressed a real user problem: once you follow more than a few accounts, it’s no longer possible to be a "timeline completionist" and read every tweet. Especially once you factor in time zones, you might miss something cool and want to catch up on it once you’re back online.

The problem was the usual one with algorithmic features, namely, lack of user control. Twitter gave users no control over the process: the "While you were away" thing would appear whenever it cared to, or not at all. There was no way to come online and call it up as your first stop to see what you had missed; you just had to scroll and hope it might show up. And then they just quietly dropped the whole feature.

Sideshow X

Twitter then managed to step on the exact same rake again when they rolled out a fully-algorithmic timeline, but, in response to vociferous protests from users, grudgingly gave the option of switching back to the old-style purely chronological one. Initially, it was possible to have the two timelines (algorithmic and chronological) in side-by-side tabs, but, apparently out of fear that the tabbed interface might confuse users, Twitter quickly removed this option and forced users to choose between either a purely chronological feed or one managed by a black-box algorithm with no user configurability or even visibility. Of course power users who used lists were already very familiar with tabs in the Twitter interface, but this was not a factor In Twitter’s decision-making.

To be clear, this dilemma between serving newbies and power users is of course not new nor unique to Twitter. This particular variation of it is new, though. Should social networks focus on supporting power users who want to manage their social graph and the content of their feed themselves — or should they chase growth by using algorithms to make it as easy as possible for new users to find something fun enough to keep them coming back?

There is also one factor exacerbating the dilemma that is somewhat unique to Twitter. Before That Guy came in and bought the whole thing, Twitter had been consistently failing to live up to an IPO valuation that was predicated on them achieving Facebook levels of growth. Instead, user growth had pretty much stalled out, and advertisers looking for direct-action results were also not finding success on Twitter in the same way as they did on Facebook or Instagram. The desperation for growth was what drove Twitter to over-commit to the algorithmic timeline, in the hope of being able to imitate TikTok’s growth trajectory.

There is irony in the fact that an undersung Twitter success story saw them play what is normally more a Facebook sort of move, successfully ripping off the buzzy new entrant Clubhouse with their own Twitter Spaces feature and then simply waiting for the attention of the Net to move on. Now, if you want to do real-time audio, Twitter Spaces is where it’s at — and they achieved that status largely because of Clubhouse’s ballistic trajectory from Next Big Thing to Yesterday’s News, with the rapidity of the ascent ruthlessly mirrored by the suddenness of the descent.

A more competently managed company — well, they wouldn’t have been bought by That Guy, first of all, but also they might have learned something from that lesson, held firm to their trajectory, and remained the one place where everything happened, and where everything that happened was discussed.

Instead, we have somehow wound up in a situation where LinkedIn is the coolest actually social network out there. Well done, everyone, no notes.

🖼️ Photos by Nastya Dulhiier and Anne Nygård on Unsplash

  1. Yeah, still not calling it X. That guy destroyed my favourite thing online, I’m not giving him the satisfaction. 

  2. Verbing weirds language. 

Serendipity Considered Harmful

The internet is all about two things: making time and distance irrelevant, and making information freely available. Except right now, people are trying to reverse both of those trends, and I hate it.

Videogames used to deliver an isolated world that you could build or explore on your own. Multiplayer modes were only for certain categories of games, mostly those that inherited from arcades rather than from PC games. Then came MMORPGs and shared-world experiences, and now many top-shelf games don't even have a single-player mode at all. Instead, you play online, with groups of friends if you can arrange it, or with whoever’s there if not.

Clubhouse is an example of the same trend: you have to be there in the moment, with whoever is there when you are. If you miss a great conversation or an appearance by someone interesting, well, you missed it.

In case it wasn't clear, I don't like this model. I like my media to be available when I am. This may be because we didn't have a TV when I was growing up, so I never developed the reflex of arranging my day around watching a show at a certain time. My medium of choice is a book, and one of the things I love about books is that I can read a book that was published this year or two centuries ago with equal ease.

Computers seemed to be going my way — until they weren't.

The shift from individual experiences to ones that are shared in real-time is driven by changing constraints. A single-player game could be delivered on a physical disk before we had the bandwidth to download it, let alone stream it live — so it worked well in a pre-broadband era. Even then, there was a desire to play together. My first experience of this coming future was in my first year at university, where our fairly spartan rooms in the halls of residence nevertheless came with the unbelievable luxury of a 10 Mbps Ethernet port. As soon as we all got our PCs set up, epic deathmatches of Quake were the order of the day — not to mention a certain amount of media sharing. A couple of years later when I was living in a student house in town, we mounted a daring mission and strung Ethernet cable along the gutter to another student house a few doors down so that we could connect the two networks for the purpose of shooting each other in the face.

All of this is to say that I get the appeal of multiplayer games — but not to the exclusion of singleplayer ones. I stopped gaming partly because I started having children, but also because there were very few gaming experiences which attracted me any more. The combination is a familiar one: I have less free time overall, so when I want to play a game, it needs to be available right now — no finding who's online, assembling a team, waiting for opponents, and so on and so forth.1

I want offline games, and I need offline media.

All of these same constraints apply to Clubhouse2. I have these ten minutes while I shave or sort out the kitchen or whatever; I need something I can listen to ten minutes of right now, pause, and resume later in the day or the following week. The last thing I want is to spend time clicking around from room to room so I can listen to a random slice of someone's conversation that I won't even get to hear the end of.

I'm also not going to arrange my day to join some scheduled happening. If it's during the day, some work thing might come up — and if it's in the evening, which is probable given the West Coast bent of the early adopters, a family thing might. If neither of those conflicts happen, I still have a massive backlog of newsletters, books, blogs, and whatever to read and music and podcasts to listen to. Clubhouse is vying to displace some very established habits, and it has not shown me personally any compelling differentiation.

Plus, I just hate phone calls.

NFTs are part of this same trend, except made worse in every way by the addition of crypto. Some people wanted to reinvent rarity in a digital age, when the whole point of digital technology is that once something has been created, it can be duplicated and transmitted endlessly at essentially zero marginal cost.

This ease of duplication is of course a problem for artists, who would like to get paid for that one-time creation process. We are addressing this problem for music and video with streaming, when we all decided collectively that managing local music libraries was too much of a faff, and that a small monthly fee was easier than piracy and less than what most of us spent on legal music anyway. Streaming is still not perfect, with the division of royalties in particular needing work, but at least it doesn't require us to burn an entire forest to release an album — or the receipt saying we own it.

With all of us living online for the past year and change, there is a renewed interest in marking time. Certainly I have noticed that we seemed to be used to TV series getting dumped all at once for ease of bingeing, but now shows seem to be back to the one-episode-per-week format. I find I quite like that, since it provides a marker in the week, something to look forward to — but the important fact is that the episode does not air once and then disappear, it's there for me to watch the next evening or whenever I can get to it.

The fuss about Clubhouse seems to be dying down a bit, and I have to think that lessening of interest is at least partly due to the prospect of loosening restrictions, at least in its core market of the Bay Area, so that people are less desperate for something — anything! — to look forward to, and more likely to have something else to do at the precise time Marc Andreessen (or whoever) is on Clubhouse.

Unfortunately I don't see the same slackening of interest in NFTs, or at least, not yet. The tokens feed on both art speculation and crypto-currencies, and the same pyramid-scheme, get-rich-quick mechanisms underlying both will not go away until the supply of new entrants to the market (rubes to fleece) is exhausted. Alternatively, more governments will follow Inner Mongolia's example and ban cryptocurrency mining.

Or the summer weather and loosening of restrictions will give us all better things to do.

🖼️ Photos by Sean Do and André François McKenzie on Unsplash

  1. The same factors, plus geography, led me to give up pencil & paper RPGs. Very few campaigns can survive a play schedule of "maybe once or twice a year". 

  2. I like this extrapolation of the likely future of Clubhouse

Clubhouse — But Why?

Everyone is talking about Clubhouse, and I just can't get excited about it.

Part of the reason people are excited about Clubhouse is that everyone is always on the lookout for the next big thing. The problem is that the Next Big Things that actually catch on tend to be the ones that are fun and even look like toys at the beginning — TikTok, or Snapchat before it. A floating conference call full of California techbros bigging each other's jobs up? Honestly, I'd pay good money to get out of that.

Clubhouse is not like TikTok in some important ways — and I'm talking about more than just the average age of their respective user bases. TikTok's innovation is its algorithm, which means that TikTok does not rely on existing social networks. Clubhouse is the polar opposite, piggybacking on users' social networks — and even their actual contact lists. Yes, it does that thing everyone hates where it tells you that somebody whose contact info you'd forgotten you had is on the new app you just joined — and worse, it tells them too.

Uhoh, This content has sprouted legs and trotted off.

Is this the next thing after podcasts? After all, podcasts are very one-directional; there is no inline interaction. The way my own Roll for Enterprise podcast works is, we record an episode, we clean it up and put it out, and people download it and listen to it. If you want to comment on something we said, you can message us on Twitter or LinkedIn — or of course start up your own podcast, and correct the record there.

The biggest reason I'm not convinced by Clubhouse, though, is that there seems to be an assumption that most users are going to listen passively and in real time to what is effectively an unmoderated radio phone-in panel. I listen to a number of podcasts, but I listen on my own schedule. The whole point is the offline nature of the podcasting, which means they're waiting for me when I'm ready for them, not vice versa. When it's time to shave or wash the dishes, I have a library of new episodes I can listen to. I don't have to worry about whether my favourite podcasters are streaming live right now; I have the recording, nicely cleaned-up and edited for my listening pleasure.

The whole podcast model is that once it's recorded, it's done and unchangeable. Clubhouse is not that; in fact it's the opposite of that. It's not even possible to record Clubhouse rooms from inside the app (although apparently they do retain recordings for their own purposes). This is where the problems start. Because right now Clubhouse seems to be just Silicon Valley insiders talking to each other, about each other, in their own time, there is basically nobody else in the world outside the West Coast of the US that can join in. Evening in California is too late for even New York, let alone Europe.

Or is this going for the Pacific market? People in Tokyo or Sydney spending their lunch break listening to American after-work chatter?

I've been wrong about social networks before, so I'm not saying this thing doesn't have a future. I'm saying it definitely isn't for me. If you disagree, you should come on the Roll for Enterprise podcast and tell us all what we're missing.

🖼️ Photo by Josh Rose on Unsplash