I recently came across a Fast Company article on how Tim Berners-Lee (credited with inventing the world wide web) is creating a new service called Solid that would decentralize your data and give you more control over it. This could potentially address the data protection and privacy concerns that many of us have when it comes to surfing the modern web.
But I got to thinking about this whole idea of decentralization vs centralization when it comes to social media. On the surface, centralization seems like the way to go. You bring everyone together where they could share their thoughts and opinions and interact.
The problem is, whenever you bring everyone together, the overall user experience eventually degrades for everyone.
I’ve been online since 1988, or for the last 30 years. In that time, online activity has followed this pattern; Decentralized>Centralized and back. Here’s what I mean:
In 1988 when I started getting online, BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems) were all the rage. These were typically smaller groups, and hyper-local. Usually the ‘geeky’ guy in a neighborhood or city had some software on a spare computer and could use it as a pseudo server that other people could call into (on dialup 300 baud modem, natch), and usually post on a message board. It was a very decentralized structure, small groups of people, but they typically had something in common, even if it was simply geography.
These grew more popular in the coming years, and then by the early 90s, online services like Prodigy, CompuServe and AOL popped up. These were centralized networks. They were also expensive, whereas most BBSes were free to access, these online services typically cost $25 a month for 10 hours. Yeah. But they had a lot more people, incredibly crude ASCI ‘graphics’, and other ‘perks’ of the day. Oh and CHAT ROOMS! Really big deal. Prodigy eventually folded and it was CompuServe and AOL both offering a premium service. This was actually a good thing in many ways because only people that were ‘serious’ about being on these services would pay for them. And they had a lot of message boards and chat rooms that were topic-specific, so these places developed their own communities. I remember in the late 90s there was a chat room on CompuServe that was reserved for college students. At the time I was midway through my undergrad studies so I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to participate in a chat every Sunday night with other college students from around the country. Come to think of it, that habit of chatting on Sunday nights was probably one of the factors in my wanting to have #Blogchat on Sunday nights.
But around 1996 or so, AOL got the bright idea to ditch their hourly rate, and start charging everyone a flat $25 a month fee for UNLIMITED access. If I recall correctly, at the time both AOL and CompuServe was charging like $25 for 25 hours, with $2,50 an hour for anything over 25 hours. So switching from that to unlimited was a huge deal.
At first, it was awesome. Then, over a few months I noticed that something started to happen. You see, when AOL switched to unlimited access, suddenly mom and dad who had before been using the 25 hours a month access, now had unlimited, so that meant they LET THEIR KIDS get on AOL. Suddenly, all these super cool message boards and chat rooms where intelligent adults had previously had engaging conversations, were flooded by teenagers and preteens POSING as adults. Needless to say, the overall user experience degraded significantly as the UNLIMITED floodgates opening meant all these ‘adult’ forums and chats were awash in a sea of fart and sex jokes from teens who were sneaking on mom’s AOL account.
Around 2000 or so, companies like Earthlink started offering straight internet access for around the same $25 price for unlimited. This really cut into AOL’s business and eventually it folded as well.
So we’d moved from a decentralized environment (BBSes) to a centralized one (AOL and CompuServe) to…….now what?
We went decentralized again. Around 2003 or so, weblogs started to gain traction. Blogs were like our own digital islands. We could create our own space where we could discuss whatever we want. And since a lot of us were still jonesing for a way to discuss our favorite topics in a post-AOL online world, it was perfect timing. Plus the great thing about blogs was that I could go read your blog, and immediately catch up on everything in your life (well everything that you were willing to share on your blog). Basically, if I wanted to reach you, I knew to go to your blog and there you were!
The problem was…not everyone wanted to have a blog. So it created an opportunity for someone to create a way for people that didn’t want to bare their souls everyday on a blog, to still have a way to create and share content. And maybe more easily interact with the content from others.
Enter social networking. Sites like MySpace and later Facebook and Twitter gave all of us centralized platforms where we could more easily connect with each other. Plus the great thing was, these platforms at first actually enhanced our blogs. It gave us a way to more easily create content for our blogs, and also to link to content we were creating on these platforms as well. Plus, these social networking sites gave you immediate access to SO many more people! Especially hundreds of millions of people who weren’t blogging.
From 2006-2010 was the most fun and excitement I’ve ever had in 30 hours of being online. Blogging was hot and we had these wonderful communities springing up around our blogs, then sites like Facebook and Twitter launched and we had wonderful communities and discussions there as well. It was truly the Golden Age of social media, even if we didn’t realize it at the time.
Yep, the celebrities found social media.
This was the equivalent of AOL offering unlimited access for the first time, resulting in a flood of preteens with fart jokes. Suddenly Oprah, Britney and the Kardashians were on Twitter. Which meant that suddenly the MEDIA flooded to social media to follow them.
And within the span of a few months, Twitter and Facebook went mainstream. Suddenly, those of us who had been on these sites since the beginning and who loved the communities we had formed there, were flooded by new users who were mainly there to e-stalk their favorite celebrities.
Then the marketers followed, and that led to wait for it…..SELF PROMOTION!
When ‘everyone’ joins a centralized platform or service, the user experience for everyone degrades significantly. It happened when everyone joined AOL and CompuServe in the 90s, it happened to social media when ‘everyone’ joined Twitter and Facebook.
I’ll be honest: Social media really hasn’t been fun for me in about 5-6 years. It truly hasn’t. I’ve written previously about the problems these sites are having with transparency and trust issues. I think we are going to see Twitter and Facebook undergo radical changes in the coming year or two, if not go away completely.
Then the questions becomes, when that happens, do we revert back to a more decentralized web, and if so, what would that look like? I think we will, and I hope we’ll see our blogs become more prominent again. The interesting thing is that as a lot of people moved to social media sites, the functionality of blogs increased dramatically. Plus, people are more comfortable with the idea of blogging now, so I am hopeful that we’ll see a bit of a blogging Renaissance soon. It’s one reason I’ve doubled down on my blogging here and I’ve been advising clients to do the same for a while now.
However, there’s an even clearer pattern of this decentralized to centralized flow that we saw in the 90s and again over the last few years. When the shift from decentralized to centralized begins, that’s when the overall user experience is the best. But once EVERYONE floods into the centralized platforms, that’s when it all starts to go downhill.
Right now feels like about where we were in 2000. AOL was getting long in the tooth, and we were starting to look for other/better options. A year or two later, the mass-migration away from AOL had begun.
I think we’re in the same place now. A lot of people want to leave the popular social media sites, but really don’t see a better option. When we do, we’re gone.
I think that day is coming sooner rather than later.