Why One Social Network Just Turned Off Followers And Hashtags

Storehouse, a sharing app for photo-driven stories, has reversed its decision to embrace social networking of the coarser kind and has created a more intimate and intentional focus on real circles of friends – no feeds, no followers, no hashtags: basically, almost none of the trappings of network-oriented or, especially, set-oriented social media. It has done this in an attempt to diminish the Matthew Effects, echo chambers and filter bubbles of  typical social media sites, where a single individual shouts out what they had for breakfast to thousands or even millions of followers without differentiation, pandering to the perceived interests of the crowd rather than engaging in a more human and intentionally focused exchange. As the founder, Kawano puts it:

“The reality is, you look at your camera roll, and the things that are in there [prove] people are multidimensional, and you don’t have a single set of frames that match up with [everyone else’s tastes],” Kawano says. Storehouse 2.0 wants to support these aspects of your personality across your social sphere. “I’ll share the food photos with friends I know will appreciate the food stuff, and photos with my kids, I’ll share that with family and friends who care about my kids.”

It’s an obvious thing to try to do. This is exactly what we have tried to do with the Landing, with its fine-grained per-post permissions and circles (thanks to its use of Elgg, which normally calls such things ‘collections’), and our own additions of context switching tabs, pinboards and customizable widgets that allow individuals and groups to present not just differently filtered content but differently presented content to different people. The posts you see of mine on the Landing are different from those seen by others and, if you visit my profile, you will see a different facade depending on who you are.  Elgg collections came long before others of their ilk, but they are very similar indeed to what Google has tried to do with its circles and Diaspora tried to do with its aspects. It’s not unrelated to the less embedded and less flexible lists used by Twitter and Facebook. Kawano’s use of the word ‘frames’ suggests a similar inspiration to what has informed our own work, grounded in the work of Erwing Goffman.

The notion that we are all single-dimensional self-publicists all the time is embedded deeply into the business model of Facebook, most of its competitors and most of its predecessors: they feed on narcissism. In fact, they rely on that to make money and drive it relentlessly. But they are exploiting some very limited aspects of what makes human relationships special, to the exclusion of richer, more personal engagement. There are plenty of things that can and should be shared with a large crowd, there is value in self-organized networks where popular things bubble up and memes spread, and there is a huge amount of value to be had from things like tags, that make it easy to discover and learn from one another in lots of different ways. Such networks are rich in learning and great for sustaining weak connections. But these are far from the only communications that matter and they tend to be the least meaningful and salient. It all depends on context and nuance is very important.

The big trouble with our system on the Landing, and others like it (including Storehouse and Google Plus) is that, unless you are logged into the system, it doesn’t know you from Adam. We need open, distributed protocols for this, not centralized vaults that lock us in to the whims and capabilities of companies that are in the business of making money from their role as connectors or that are simply constrained by the toolsets they rely on. On the Landing we actively try to avoid lock-in and have less than no interest in exploiting our users – it’s all about openness and control – but you still need to have an account to use it or see anything apart from public posts like this one. It’s a very serious constraint.

There are solutions that do not rely on everyone having a Facebook account (subject to the whims and invasions of Facebook), but their future is currently looking very bleak. I’m sad that OpenID, OAuth and OpenSocial are struggling to survive, mainly thanks to the onslaught from Facebook and its peers, because these were really hopeful standards that promised a lot, especially in conjunction with smart open architectures like Backplane or applications like OneSocialWeb or Diaspora. The Landing would be so much more useful if anyone – at least among its users – could selectively share anything with anyone, not just either the whole public or subsets of other Landing users.

Even if we can fix these issues, there remain some big complexities. The Landing is very capable of highly nuanced ways of presenting different facades but, the more choices we give, the harder it becomes to make them – soft technologies are hard to use, hard technologies are easy. Our most flexible tool – the Pinboard – takes a huge amount of effort and a learning curve to even produce the simplest of pages. The more rigid we make it the less nuanced it can be, but the simpler it is to understand and use. Managing circles and permissions is not a trivial task. Even Google Plus – a great design – fails to solve this problem. I will be interested to see how StoreHouse copes with this.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.fastcodesign.com/3051250/why-one-social-network-just-turned-off-followers-and-hashtags

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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