When 300 Million Active Users Isn't Enough

... something is wrong. Luckily, some web developers have a different model.

February 18, 2016

Earlier this month, many of us had our feathers ruffled when we heard rumors that Twitter planned to follow Facebook’s lead and take charge of what content we would see and in what order. Rather than seeing current information from interesting people who we chose to follow, we’d get Twitter’s idea of what was interesting. Ditching the flow of reverse-chronological and idiosyncratic self-selected information sources would make the platform useless for many of us – though presumably not for companies and celebrities willing to pay for attention or shareholders who want something, anything done to make Twitter grow faster. Whether changes that alienate old hands would actually succeed in attracting new users is another matter.

Though the company was quick to reassure members that it wasn’t such a catastrophe, that the algorithmic Twitter stream could be switched off, it reminded us that this blue bird is an endangered species. Twitter has over 300 million active users. That might be enough if it was growing quickly, but it isn’t. Not everybody needs to be on Twitter the way they feel they have to be on Facebook – because everyone else is there.  Okay, I’m not there, but I’m not looking for work, selling anything, or unable to keep in touch with family and friends through other means, nor does my employer require me to maintain a Facebook presence. Not everyone has the luxury of avoiding a place that over a billion people visit daily. Even though ads are put in front of over the 300 million people who visit Twitter in any given month, clicking on over a billion links, it’s not enough. Twitter needs to grow. When you only have 300 million people using your site regularly, generating a profit of $191 million, you’re a sinking ship unless those numbers rise, and fast.

I was thinking about this when I signed up for a service called Pinboard. It’s a nice little system for easily saving things you find on the web. I’ve been doing this with Zotero, but somehow it seems messy to mix websites with the books and articles that I use for research. Pinboard is clean and simple, letting me pop up a form to take a few notes. It remembers my tags (which I never do) and lets me make individual saved items public or private. It has the capability of being social, but it’s not pushy about it. Being able to create an ongoing curated list of links to share publicly is sweet. So is being able to make things I want to save private. Besides, it’s hard to resist the tagline: social bookmarking for introverts.

There are lots of services for doing this kind of personal curation, but this is the only one that doesn’t collect data to provide to third parties or show me ads. I pay eleven bucks a year and that’s that. I don’t have to worry that this arrangement will be changed because shareholders want growth or venture capitalists are getting itchy for an IPO. It generates enough money through small annual payment to keep going, and I trust Maciej Cegłowsk, who wrote the code and runs it. He’s smart and principled and he's worried about keeping my stuff safe and not getting so big that things have to change. I hope I’m not jinxing the company by saying how much I like it.

I also paid a small amount some years ago to get a LibraryThing lifetime membership. Same deal: I trust Tim Spalding, who started it and retains a majority ownership, it’s social without being obnoxious about it, and both the privacy policy and the business model are crystal clear. For $25 I get a way to keep track of books (and music, if I wanted to), able to easily create my own catalog, take notes, and add tags and chat with other bibliophiles if I want to. If I had a small lending library, it has a circulation system, and it recently added an iPhone app that lets me zap barcodes to add books, which is fun. Goodreads can do all that and is much, much bigger, but it’s all about being big and social and gathering relationship data for its parent company, Amazon. It’s free, but you have much less control over this space that depends on users providing content and endless amounts of data exhaust.

Sometimes it seems as if we’re locked in a crazy world, where things in our house are bound to rat us out and make us vulnerable to hacking, where companies can capture where our cars are to sell the information to police departments (with our tax dollars, but without our knowledge), where we have no choice but to give up our privacy to have social relationships or convenient access to information. Where it seems the only companies that have a chance at survival must grow huge and where we have no choice but to use them. It’s nice to find places online that care more about making something useful than breaking something useful because the users they have aren’t valuable enough. It's good to know it doesn't have to be this way. 

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