Thoughts on How Facebook and Twitter Won

Mike Caulfield kicked off an interesting discussion with his blog post How Facebook and Twitter Won. I think Mike makes a pretty convincing argument which I’ll go along with, as long as I can add a couple of but’s to encompass a couple of other factors.

But 1 – HTML

Yes RSS failed to capture the minds of people as a simple way to syndicate and share, but HTML never actually caught on. Despite a couple of decades word processing being done on computers the very concept of markup is still not understood. HTML was, and still is a clunky beast, especially for the uninitiated. It’s not even really code but it’s closer to it than many people would like to actually get. When publishing on the web required a working knowledge of HTML it created a barrier to adoption for many. Facebook and Twitter won because they didn’t rely on HTML.

But 2 – Servers

The reality for most publishing solutions on the web is that they still require access to a server. And to run that server you have to know, or be willing to learn by trial and error, how to configure and install software in a very different manner to the desktop. There was no one click install, so droplets or packages. It was command line and quite often typing stuff into the command line that you had no idea what was happening or if it would work. And once online your stuff was vulnerable. To server crashes, down time and data loss because mitigating those risks was hard. Yes things have radically improved since but Facebook and Twitter won because they didn’t rely on an individual setting up a server.

But 3 – Making a Network

Blogs and RSS made it easy to consume found sources of information or to publish to them. These however were individual silos which did little to create a way of connecting the dots, the people, the ideas into a cohesive experience. Facebook and Twitter did. They created the Like and the Follow button which allowed a user to simplify the creation of a personal network. It didn’t involve a workflow, in involved a click. There weren’t steps or apps or skill involved – it was all just a click away.

But 3 – Making Money

I think we need to differentiate two very different models of blogging. There’s blogging for personal expression which most often has no commercial concerns or implications. Out of this model comes blogging as profession which is possible once a blogger has reached a critical mass of readers that they can actually make a viable income out of this effort. All of a sudden eyeballs matter in a very real and very commercial sense. RSS essentially cut off a source of income from these professional bloggers by removing eyeballs on their site. When you’re income is all of a sudden under threat why would you ant to support RSS, the technology that threatens it? Sure the personal expression bloggers couldn’t care less and RSS might makessense to them, but when making money is at stake why would you support it, let a lone push it? Facebook and Twitter won because RSS never had the support from those who were making money out of it.

But 4 – How to get Paid?

The final But is perhaps the most pervasive question in the online space – one that is yet to be really answered properly – How to get Paid? At the moment the predominant model online is advertising. You get paid by providing a vehicle to attract an audience and then selling that to advertisers. And the reality is that’s it…. the web seems lost for ideas on how to get people to pay for whats on the web. There’s the donation system that power Wikipedia and subscription services but the fact of the matter is that neither of these are truly viable systems – particularly from a users perspective. In an age of an of abundant information why pay? Why subscribe to just a single source of information? Is it cost effective to have a subscription service to news, magazines, music, TV and movies? And what about the independents? The artists, writers, designers, bloggers and musicians that don’t publish via a label, magazine, newspaper or studio? Surely the web can democratise this space? Surely it can provide a viable way for independents to make money? I thought this was the gig economy? Or is it just a gig when you signup and someone scrape 30% of your fee up front? If you want to people to let go of the idea of people reading your stuff on your site – you have to work out a way to make sure they can get paid and earn a living. I probably should turn this But into a post on it’s own.

And…

I want to end on something positive and that is

… and despite all that we can create an alternative. We can build out of these existing technologies the kind of web we want. We can learn from Twitter and Facebook rather than capitulate to them. We can re-engineer and re-create the web we want. Yes they may have one this round, but lets go back to the corner spit out the blood and tweak our tactics.

And we can learn. And we can change. And we can create.

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