Aug 11, 2011

In Favor of Platform Pluralism

News  -- and even more than news, speculation -- about social media runs in seeming cycles, enhanced and deepened in imaginative resonance by the complex feedback between the tradition, albeit partially online and streaming media and the users and developers of social media platforms, with a number of social media experts, sites, and magazines as go-betweens in the loops.

It could be just a reflection of the position I occupy -- a rather humble, at times behind the curve, more information-consumer than opinion-former spot -- but it seems to me that there has been a rise in frequency and prominence of one genre of speculation and one closely associated template of news story.  Perhaps I'm off, and these have been going on at the pitch and tempo they assume at present, unbeknownst to or unnoted by me, bent on exploring, using, and integrating social media in more traditionally academic pursuits.

The sort of speculation I've got in mind, and in my sights here, is the "X will kill Y" variety  -- gladitorial, cataclymic, or sometimes just snarky assertions ranging the gamut from pure guesswork, to historical analogies, to pragmatic predictions.

Google + is a Facebook killer -- that's already a meme (a term whose use I usually eschew, but which I'll indulge here) -- or better put, a specific form of the killer-platform meme.  Now -- very dubiously, from where I sit -- BranchOut (a professional networking platform sited within Facebook) is supposed to be a potential LinkedIn killer.  As they assume new features and configurations, Facebook is slated to kill Twitter, or Twitter Facebook, and so on and so on.  Facebook's excursion into email was even projected to kill conventional, traditional email.  Here's just a few recent representative examples of these sorts of consumatotory reveries, in which one of the great Goliaths are felled, Leviathans subdue and swallow each other, platforms jockey for positions from which they can renders coups de grace  (though of course, martial metaphorology of thrusts, cuts, blows is dead off, since it's pull rather than pus, draw away rather than inflict that alters the balances of power in the social media world).

Google+: Twitter Should Panic, Facebook Should Copy
LinkedIn CEO says Google+ Can't Coexist With LinkedIn and Twitter
Should LinkedIn be Afraid of BranchOut and Facebook?
Games in Google+ Should Scare Facebook
Google+ Could Make Twitter the Next Myspace

and better yet, Google+ Won't Kill Facebook or Twitter, Google Has a Bigger Agenda

It's not as if there aren't some arguable bases for such speculations.  After all, we have the recent phenomenon of the rise and fall of MySpace, whose pruned-back, leaner, more function-specific current form is due in great part to Facebook's own rise to a fairly longstanding social media dominance (although here's an article advancing the claim that Google played a significant role in MySpace's decline)   For years, people have been speculating what the next great integrative platform will be, the one that will replace Facebook, that will transform the internet universal and experience as we know it -- or perhaps just successfully absorb the existing platforms and functions.

Another arguable basis for the X killer of Y speculations are the actual news stories providing us insight into the immediate plans, the intermediate positionings, and the seeming strategies, goals, and mindsets of those at the helm of the various social media platforms.  And, here, for me, is where it gets particularly interesting, but also puzzling and frustrating.  For there, we see the effects of an ever-accelerated gobble-up-competitors and monopolize-consumers model of capitalism, a mentality that trumps and, taken to its extreme, would blindsidingly harness but then then eradicate what seems to be a much more desirable plurality of distinctive social media platforms powerful precisely because of their capacities to do what they do well, leaving other functions to other platforms.

Alongside what seems almost a hubristic desire to do everything, to be everything, to assume and assimilate everything on the part of the platform companies, there is a corresponding legitimate set of desires on the part of social media consumers and participants -- even on the part of those innovators who actively use social media to go beyond simply promoting causes, projects, projects, scholarship by enhancing and contributing compelling content to the social media they integrate.

These desires stem from the unavoidable consistencies and constants of time -- there is only so much time available, only 24 hours to any given day -- and perusing and participating in multiple communities scattered across multiple platforms rapidly consumes time, particularly if one is attempting to actively build community and networks of shared interest and information.  Being able to follow one's Twitterverse from within Google +, being able to Tweet into Facebook or LinkedIn -- these reduce the amount of time dealing with details, safeguarding the leisure required to think, to seek, to read, to respond.  Some report a state of being "burnt out" after spreading their social media activity over a number of platforms, emblemized in this interesting New York Times piece.

I do have to note, by way of digression, that the internet is inhabited and enriched by other non-social media (but definitely socializing) institutions that avow motives of "doing everything" or "providing everything" -- an aim of comprehensiveness collaboratively conquered one entry at a time -- within a certain domain:  Librivox, whose eventual and probably unrealizable goal is to house sound files of every available public domain work read by volunteers, the ever-improving (though admittedly in some areas misleading Wikipedia.  It's also worth noting that Librivox links directly, and has no aims to supplant Project Gutenberg, and that the Wikipedia format and project has inspired a number of arguably more ideologically committed -Pediae" -- a recognition, in the former case, of the value of other institutions doing what they do well; in the latter, an inability to entirely dominate the platform because success spawns competition.

A number of (at least so far) successful, very useful, value-adding, social media platforms permit and promote linking up with the "major five" -- as a recent comparative Mashable article about the "Social Network Wars" terms them -- Facebook, Google +, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Tumblr.  Others tout (and try to get me into) Digg or Foursquare, but in my own particular work, I've made the most use of, VYou (which I've written a bit about here and here), YouTube, and routinely publicize entries from this blog via four out of those "major five" (I've admittedly been lazy about actively using Google + so far, but on the other hand, despite all the hype, it's not exactly setting the world on fire).  You reading this -- at least until links to this entry make their way into the mysterious world of strange referring sites revealed by analytics -- is most likely because you ran across a posting about this article in one of the "major five" (though quite a few readers do come from

When, more or less satisfied with the published blog post, I click on those little sharing icons at the bottom, I typically write separate though similar descriptions or invitations -- because I am sharing to different communities, not just in different social media platforms  (though I have to admit that the terseness imposed by Twitter in comparison to the others also spurs composing good taglines for me, precisely because of my all-too-ciceronian loquaciousness).  Even in Facebook, where I maintain both a personal profile and an author page, I frame my invitations to readers differently.  I find the exercise required to pitch, to rethink, to articulate what someone might find useful or interesting in a piece I've written, a link I enjoyed and advocate, a video I've produced and posted -- I find the work involved has bit by bit improved my own writing, thinking, communicating

I'll admit that I've been using LinkedIn both much more and in different ways than in the past, precisely because of its recently greater functionality -- using it along lines similar to how I relied upon both Twitter, Facebook, and, to garner information as well as disseminating it, to make and maintain contacts.  But I don't want LinkedIn to do everything, or even to attempt to site everything.  The constellation of my multivarious contacts -- a number of which I'm connected with in multiple networks -- have come to me, sometime by my initiative, sometimes by their own, through a number of different electronic media.  I engage with them in different manners, though with a consistent persona.  Would it be better to have all of this gathered into one comprehensive electronic platform for the sake, on my end of convenience, on the end of the provider, out of what seems to me a murky, poorly ordered desire to be all-in-all?

I do not think so.  Or better, in this case, I feel not -- for that prospect, and the allied imagination of platforms actively planning  and devoting resources to supplant each other, to kill each other off, to absorb and replace each other evokes in me a sort of repugnance tinged alternately with indignation and anxiety.  The simply amazing -- from a historical perspective -- proliferation of internet-based platforms and institutions, has afforded innumerable tangible benefits going beyond those projected even by speculative fiction or futurist literature, and I'm admittedly less often as grateful for -- even happy about -- the possibilities of communication, information, sharing, community-building, and dissemination of my writing and talks, scholarly or otherwise, as I doubtless ought to be.

But, the present setting is not all sanguine, unmixed with a sense of being at the mercy not so much of mysterious "market forces" as subject to the far-off decisions of those planners and projectors whose platforms successes seem only to inspire in them a yen to leverage, to cast their eyes elsewhere.  It's as if in the internet zone of the major, integrative, truly general, clout-wielding platforms, Hobbesian psychology -- ultimately false unless one does indeed inhabit a world of agents so motivated -- paradoxically holds sway -- and the rest of us are stuck with its consequences.  I'll end on that acknowledgedly alarmist note -- leaving much more yet to be said or thought out -- with a passage that, in what is now archaic language for us, does not exhaust but crystallizes that perennial mindset:
In the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.
The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men's persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.

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