Social media’s ‘reverse gentrification’

By Mic Wright on August 13th, 2012

Social networks are subject to reverse gentrification. In traditional gentrification, the wealthy acquire property in low-income and working-class communities, changing the character of their surroundings, forcing up average rents and house prices in the process. The result is a move from a culturally heterogenous community to one that is more economically and socially homogenous.

The exact opposite happens on social networks – and, when it does, the virtual establishment gets twitchy.

It goes like this: sites like Facebook or Twitter begin with early adopters who are thrilled to be part of a small, savvy community. For Facebook, that was university students. I remember how novel the now-dominant site seemed with its clean design and simple features when I first logged on in 2005, the year it arrived at Cambridge.

Twitter began in even more rarefied circumstances, with users who could only send text messages to communicate and a service that had not even established the “@” as a way of addressing messages. Even in September 2008, when I belatedly joined Twitter as user number 16,288,901, it was far from a mainstream proposition. Hashtags had not yet started appearing to accompany television shows and the idea of live-tweeting telly was in its early infancy.

Persuading my then colleagues at Stuff magazine to tweet from our newly-opened account was a struggle. The big question everyone had then was: “What’s the point?” – closely followed by: “Who cares?” Now we’re shocked when a major magazine doesn’t have a Twitter account. It’s part of their strategy now.

But as Facebook and Twitter enter the mainstream, elites have begun to grumble that newcomers don’t know how to “do it right”, as if the cultural rules imposed by them in the early days are immutable. In a way, you can’t blame them for getting frustrated with how people use the service. But the character of social networks evolves as their user bases broaden.

Now, just as Facebook’s growth and repeated privacy infractions encouraged unsettled power users to flirt with the open source and ultimately doomed alternative, Diaspora, Twitter has gained its own Tesco’s Finest alternative –

The site, developed by Dalton Caldwell – he of that recent open letter to Mark Zuckerberg – aims to take the old internet adage that “if you’re not paying, you are the product” and run with it. The proposition is an alternative to Twitter with an entry fee. At this point, a year’s access to the alpha site and what follows will set you back $50.

Some significant web figures have put their weight behind the idea – or at least signed up out of curiosity – including Jon Gruber, the writer of Daring Fireball and creator of Markdown, Instapaper creator Marco Arment, Y Combinator’s Gary Tan, Patrick Collison, the co-founder of Stripe and of course Robert Scoble. It’s that last name that highlights, in my mind, the flaw with the idea.

Is this another of those “wouldn’t it be lovely?” fads that will only pick up speed among those thoroughly wedded to the tech scene? Will it have appeal to the rest of the world?

Geeks get their superhero pants in a twist about issues like API access, ads in the Twitter stream and the restriction of third-party apps, but those issues rarely reach the radar of the public. Remember, the vast majority of users access the service via the web or Twitter’s official apps. They enjoy Twitter because it is a free distraction, in the same way that Facebook is, but without the pressure and noise of the latter’s photos, pokes and games.

For all its philosophical posturing about Twitter being a big meanie and the nature of openness, what is really about is that geeks are getting uncomfortable with normal people encroaching on their space. That $50 fee is the equivalent of a massive stone wall around a gated community.

Just as literature fans grumble and gripe about the success of 50 Shades of Grey, backers are implicitly kicking out at Justin Bieber trending and the preponderance of painful hashtag games. But they can’t admit their elitism because that’s one of the 21st century’s bad words.

Twitter may have a trust problem with some users. But will have a “Who the hell are they?” problem, as well as the challenge of iterating as fast as Twitter can. That’s before Twitter pulls out its patent portfolio and uses it to give a thorough rectal examination in court.

One of the most heinous characteristics of the tech industry and the press that runs after it like a child desperate for validation and attention is the arrogant belief that services must cater to its own whims alone.

Enthusiastic early adopters are an essential part of the customer acquisition process, but they are merely a small sector of any market – and ultimately the most whiny, entitled, populated-with-assholes sector at that. My colleague Ezra Butler put it perfectly in his piece on how to be a tech blogger: “Admit to being in a minority of people who actually have the exact needs that you have, but show how anyway this solution is perfect for you.”

Underlying’s manifesto, there is a simple sentiment: diversity sucks. What’s really tweaking the nipples of the snarky tech classes is that people who shop in stores that aren’t “cool”, don’t know a damn thing about Ruby and can’t afford a new MacBook Air every year are suddenly having fun on “their” social networks. Intolerable!

In other words, is a private members’ club for the effete and entitled. They can hop over there but I’ll predict right now that the navel gazing will get boring fast. 10,000 paying backers sounds big, but, in terms of the web? Please. As for the virtues of smaller, intimate networks: thanks, but we have Path.

Just as gentrification reflects the real-world desire of wealthy people to live somewhere inexpensive, the reverse gentrification of the social web is sending elite users in search of new “safe” enclaves in which to spend their virtual lives.

I’ve wrote recently that companies that attach themselves like limpets onto others’ platforms are set for a fall. Another way to crash and burn is by building a copycat with a wafer-thin philosophical point of difference from the original.

Mr Caldwell is entitled to build a gated community for the internet’s elites, but it’ll end up as bland as a Hollywood show home. Nothing grows in a vacuum, however assiduously polished the glass bubble.