Discover more from Social Warming by Charles Arthur
The velvet rope: let the right one(s) in
Plus those damn kids are getting away with using ChatGPT
If you’re very old, like me—though of course I’m only approaching the foothills of the glimmerings of the first signs of early middle age—then you’ll remember how Facebook first began. Basically, you couldn’t sign up unless you were at one of a small number of American colleges. Even so, it attracted a lot of attention, because the people who were on it were fascinated, and the people who weren’t wanted to know what was so great about it.
Then it crossed the Atlantic, but even so not everyone could sign up; you had to be in an academic job of some sort. (I recall vicariously looking at what it was like when a friend who worked as a primary school teacher showed me what it was like.) Then, two years after first launching, in September 2006 registration was suddenly made available to everyone, and everyone eagerly took the opportunity.
The consequent stampede made MySpace, then the biggest beast in the social networking space (and owned by Rupert Murdoch!), look rather passé and tired. It was a brilliant move, which was helped by Facebook’s design being far cleaner than MySpace’s, and also meant that there was time to ramp up server capacity and make calculations about what demand would look like when the floodgates were eventually opened.
Putting the velvet rope across the entrance to the internet’s latest Studio 54 has always been a clever ploy, for those two reasons: people become much more eager to join, and the service’s operator has time both to see how long the queue is and thus determine how much server capacity is needed. It also affords time to figure out what new features you should offer once you do open things up, and in what order. (You thought that social networks just made this stuff up? It’s called a business plan. People create them to run years into the future.)
The “velvet rope” technique was last used to some effect by Clubhouse. Remember Clubhouse? It was the live audio chat system that was going to take over the world. “What is it and how do you get invited?” the BBC helpfully offered in February 2021, when the app was about a year old. A subheading asked, sensibly, “Why should I care?” Because, it noted, “Some of the world's super-rich and famous are already big names on the app: technology giants Elon Musk and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, rappers Drake and Kanye West, media mogul Oprah Winfrey.”
And to the question “What makes it so good?”
The audio-only format gives it the intimacy of listening to a podcast or a talk-radio show.
And although many people just use the app to speak to their friends, you can hear famous and influential people such as Tesla and SpaceX billionaire Mr Musk casually chatting as if you were in the room with them.
Leaving aside the question of whether I’d really want to be in a room casually chatting with Musk—watching Succession’s bite-sized party small talk has persuaded me that billionaires have less small talk than normal people—the idea of an app you can use to “speak to your friends” is already fulfilled by multiple other apps on my phone.
This didn’t stop some people getting wildly out of kilter about its prospects. Ben Thompson, who I know personally, is usually pretty astute on technological forecasts, but for Clubhouse he missed wildly:
Just how popular social audio will become is still open to debate. Tech analyst Ben Thompson believes Clubhouse will revolutionize audio and surpass podcasting in terms of importance and popularity. Daniel Ek, the co-founder of Spotify, said this week he believes on-demand programming (read: podcasts) will maintain their supremacy over this new, live offering.
…"Clubhouse is about a real-time exchange of ideas, not just consuming highly-edited, static content," Andrew Chen, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, wrote in a recent blog post explaining the venture capital firm's investment in Clubhouse. "It’s a fresh experience that brings humanity and context to online social engagement."
Surpass podcasting? Not really. And as for Chen, that’s a16z pumping its book there, as it was an investor. We know now that Clubhouse wasn’t all that at all; its popularity was part of the fever dream of Covid lockdowns, along with the booming valuation of exercise malarkey Peloton and winner-because-it-was-easiest Zoom. Only Zoom has really managed to survive, but even that has been battered by Microsoft Teams, the choice of businesses. And of course these days if you want to hear Elon Musk casually chatting as if you were in the room with him, you’ll want to go to Twitter Spaces. Not only was Clubhouse not the greatest thing on earth, it had no moat—it was comparatively easy to clone. In my mind I catalogue it along with Google+, which if you know me means I really don’t rate it. And I never even signed up.
But without the velvet rope at the start, without the VIP lane that let in selected stars to pump up their egos and leave everyone else hoping for samizdat recordings of never-previously-heard revelations between Such Famous People, it’s likely that Clubhouse would have been just another new network that fell unlamented by the wayside.
Which brings us to the latest New New Thing: Bluesky. From the description of those who use it, it’s got the underpinnings of Mastodon (qv) and the dynamics of Twitter—notably, including quote tweets, an element that is missing from pretty much all the good Mastodon clients. I know that the inventor of the quote tweet thinks they’re bad, and that they can be used to bad effect, and yet I also find them irresistible as a way to comment on things, as long as they’re not used to be snarky or to hold individuals up to ridicule.
One thing Bluesky has been quick to do is to invite the technorati and the high-powered names on board. Getting AOC, aka Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on board is an absolute masterstroke. She’s still active on Twitter, but getting her to use the new network (which she is doing) is a clever move.
And what happens when you go and try to join her in the New Hotness? You find the velvet rope. Unless you’ve got an invite, which is what everyone on Twitter seems to be after right now. (Either that, or asking “have you tried it? What’s it like?”) I haven’t got an invite, so I haven’t tried it, but I have put my name on the surely gigantic waitlist, because I’m interested to see whether it can get any purchase in a world where three or four big social networks already capture our attention. Mastodon hasn’t really achieved that: I don’t see people posting from Mastodon back onto Twitter, but I see plenty when on Mastodon reposting Twitter stuff. But there are the first indications of people bringing things over from Bluesky onto Twitter, which starts to give an indication of where the news is being made in the first place. But Twitter remains, for now, the place where the spoils are fought over. Bluesky, however, looks like it might be the first network able to disrupt that situation. We’ll have to see when the velvet rope goes up. If Twitter’s left as a ghost town of Eight Dollar Ticks, I guess we’ll have our answer.
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Glimpses of the AI tsunami
(Of the what? Read here.)
• All of Google I/O, its developer conference where it lifts its skirts to show what is coming up, really.
• Wikipedia is worried that AI is going to be a serious problem, and is trying to figure out how to head it off.
• Chatbots are not the future because their interface doesn’t tell you what they can do (a bit like smart speakers). Maybe, but I think we’re more used to framing questions in text than into the air.
• Which jobs will be most affected by ChatGPT et al? White-collar ones, this study claims.
• Which jobs are actually being affected right now by chatbots? Low-paid ones taking orders at Wendy’s drive-through burger joints in the US.
• What’s going to happen if AI threatens copyright resting in published articles? IAC’s Barry Diller (and his mate Rupert Murdoch) will get copyright law changed to prevent “fair use” (aka “fair dealing” in the UK). No damn AI is going to drive journalists out of a job—that’s Diller’s and Murdoch’s job.
• Casey Newton, the journalist who has done excellent coverage of Facebook and Twitter, documents his struggles in how to think about covering AI.
• “Online learning platform” Chegg says ChatGPT is taking away its business. “This is not a sky's falling thing,” the CEO said, which is totally one of those comments that will come back to haunt him in, what do we think, about six months?
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• I’m the proposed Class Representative for a lawsuit against Google in the UK on behalf of publishers. If you sold open display ads in the UK after 2014, you might be a member of the class. Read more at Googleadclaim.co.uk. (Or see the press release.)
• Back next week! Or leave a comment here, or in the Substack chat, or Substack Notes, or write it in a letter and put it in a bottle so that The Police write a song about it after it falls through a wormhole and goes back in time.
Unless the individual is so powerful that neither snark nor ridicule is going to make a difference. What grinds my gears is when people use quote-tweets to pretend to be having a discussion, when in fact their aim is to hold the quoted to ridicule; even worse when two people “argue” via quote tweet, which makes following it back to the origins akin to unpeeling the world’s most unrewarding onion.