I think almost everyone has experienced the following phenomenon at some time in their lives: you and a close circle of friends are involved in something wonderful, and it’s ruined when the community at large adopts it. I can think of several examples: the BBS community and the Internet, the HAM Radio community and cellular phones, and early Facebook adopters and the current state of Facebook.
When I was young, I was logging into several BBSs per week, having loads of fun playing LoRD, reading classifieds, downloading free software like Frogger, etc. Then, I got Prodigy, which opened up a whole new world for my family and I. We could now access information and chat with people worldwide! I later tried several other networks, such as ImagiNation, CompuServe and AOL. I used the interfaces created by these companies to browse since I didn’t know about the world wide web yet. Eventually, Mosaic was brought to my attention, and I tried that out. Since then, I’ve really never looked back. Yet, I find myself missing the communal aspects of the BBS – no matter what, everything was pretty localized. Any upcoming meeting or party you read about was almost certainly within a 50 mile radius. The Internet has various facilities for communal postings which I won’t iterate here, but it doesn’t feel as special.
I was never into HAM radio as a kid, and I just earned my license about a year ago. Yet, now that I’m part of the community, I’ve realized how marginal it’s become. This is mainly because of cellular phones; now everyone carries a radio and doesn’t mind paying an arm and a leg for it. HAM radio has many advantages though – on VHF, you don’t get telemarketers calling you. And even if you did, the communication is broadcast-based. Cellular communication, on the other hand, is connection-based, so you either have to hang up on them, answer the call, or get the number blocked, rather than just ignore them. There are various repeaters in populated areas that you can use a bit like cellular towers. You can easily talk to total strangers who are also interested in your hobby. You can use IRLP and Echolink to connect to other HAMs all over the world for free. Many argue this last capability kills HAM radio a bit, but I disagree. The poison for a hobbyist community is not worldwide access to other hobbyist communities of the same bent, but rather adoption by the community at large, bringing in the yahoos. BBSs had ways of connecting together for chat events, MUD access, and the like, but that was awesome – it just brought like-minded people together.
Facebook has also gone through this metamorphosis, driving many of the early adopters away entirely (myself included). I got a Facebook account a very long time ago (around 2005), and just cancelled it this year. In its beginnings, Facebook was set up for colleges, and your specific school had to be added by the developers manually. You could search for and add people in other schools as friends as long as their school was also on Facebook. The communities and groups were all related to your school. It was like a little BBS, but online. Everyone loved it, obviously. Later, they started allowing random people to sign up, which completely ruined it and turned it into the new MySpace. This was a huge mistake. Now, the main point of Facebook seems to be terrible webgames. Once I received one too many invites for some zombie game, the mafia game, and the farm game, I left.
Currently, identi.ca is in the same situation in which all these other technologies began. It’s a free micro-blogging network like Twitter, but completely free and open source (and it won’t have ads like Twitter will soon). At some point in the future, perhaps people will migrate away from Twitter to places like identi.ca, which will turn it into a massive community of UNIX geeks into a disgusting online nightclub like the rest of the Internet, filled with pithy comments about the latest celebrity scandal.
So, in conclusion, call me an elitist, but there’s nothing wrong with a social network that’s not open to everyone (even if the criterion is making an effort to educate oneself). In fact, the way to ruin it is to let everyone in. Perhaps what’s needed is an elitist network – one that only allows those who’ve proven themselves to enter. College education was a decent way of doing this, and Facebook should have carried that forward. This is sadly the fate of all successful technologies; they start with a small community of smart, excited developers who carry their ideas forward, only to end up facilitating the transfer of images featuring people vomiting. But that’s what life’s all about, I guess. I’ll deal.