The new new frontier

It’s not often that I disagree with Seth Godin, but today I do.

In his post The New Frontier, he writes:

When Google+ launched, millions of formerly optimistic people became optimistic again. Maybe this was going to be the one, the social network with just the smart people and none of the lame stuff, none of the spam or the pitches or the people we’re trying to avoid.  […]  So much disappointment and so much bitterness. It’s never as great as you hoped it would be. Ennui and then, eventually, waiting for yet another new frontier.

I don’t buy that.  Experience going back as far as USENET in the 1980s tells me that there is constant “prolification treadmill”.  Every new community starts out as a pleasantly small group of like-minded people; and then as it becomes popular, it’s progressively taken over by people who want to talk about Star Trek and post pictures of their cats.

This is an irreducible rule of the universe.  Every community eventually ends up as a forum for posting pictures of cats.  But I am not too bothered about that, because — this is the wonderful thing about the Internet — there’s always somewhere else you can go.  It was true of newgroups, it’s true of social networking sites, and it’s true of news aggregators.

Back in the day, Digg was a pretty good place for finding new stuff.  When it got overrun, the cool kids moved to Reddit, which for a while was awesome — just packed with fascinating things.  Now it’s not unusual for three quarters of the front page to be imgurl pictures, most of them variations on the Scumbag Steve meme, or whatever has come along this week.  It’s inhabited mostly by horny, illiterate thirteen-year-olds, and it’s maybe one post in ten now that holds any interest for me.

But I don’t think there’s any need to get all You Kids Get Off My Damn Lawn about this.  It’s just the way the world is.  The point is that there is always somewhere better to go.  Right now, the best place I know is Hacker News.  Reddit still has a role to play (hey, sometimes you just want to look at pictures of cats), but Hacker News is where I go when I want to read something interesting.

But I’m pretty sure that will change.  Hacker News does an excellent job of policing itself but I will be amazed if in the end it doesn’t fall to the hordes of horny thirteen-year-olds and their cat photos.  No problem: just move on.  Among all the I Liked Hacker News The Way It Used To Be people, there will be some who set up new communities, and they will be where the good stuff is.

I envisage this as a constantly moving conveyer-belt, making each site bigger, more ignorant and more cat-infested until it collapses under its own crudulence and falls off the end of the belt; but the good news is, new sites are spawning on the leading edge of the conveyer belt — little ones with communities united by common interests.

And this is great, because it means that everyone can find the position along the conveyer belt that suits them bests.  The great masses of cat-lovers can happily squat at the far end, absorbing great torrents of cat pictures.  Meanwhile the same programmers who used to read about new languages on Reddit yesterday, and read about them on Hacker News today, will be able to read about them somewhere else tomorrow.  And no doubt there are plenty of people far more esoteric than I am, who won’t read The Reinvigorated Programmer because they are interested in harder topics than Doctor Who and don’t like the frivolity of random sushi photos.  There must be places for them, too.

Everyone gets what they want.  That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?

… and finally

Another irrelevant aside, but I note for my own records as much as anything else that I played and sang four more songs at the Forest Folk Club last Sunday: Crosby, Stills and Nash’s subtle, ambiguous Guinnevere; George Harrison’s classic love song Something; Greg Brown’s prayer-gone-wrong Lord I Have Made You A Place In My Heart; and Whitesnake’s atypically mellow farewell song We Wish You Well.  Together with the songs from my previous three outings, they give me a nice little set of a dozen songs.  At some point I am going to have to try to write some of my own.

9 responses to “The new new frontier

  1. “there’s always somewhere else you can go”

    I agree, this applies to most types of websites. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about our poor friend YouTube. It may just be my biased hatred of vloggers, but anyway… it was only two years ago where you can only be recognised on the internet if you worked for it. It was a place where only the most experienced of movie-making folk where the most famous on the internet, let alone just the site. Now, just like most things on the internet, it’s covered in thousands of worthless, talent-less, illiterate “hordes of horny thirteen-year-olds” who think that talking to a camera about your sad life qualifies as something remotely close to what someone would call an “accomplishment”, and now the brilliant indie filmmakers who had given us some spectacular works of art[*] have been pushed aside to make way for, *shiver*, Charlie McDonnell.

    The thing is, there isn’t anywhere else we can go to share our creative talents as opposed to our textual ramblings which Not As Many People spend their time reading (or, “blogging”, as we call it). There just isn’t. For social networking, if we don’t like Facebook, well fair enough. We can move to Twitter or Google+, hell, we can even move back to MySpace… OK, maybe not that far. For blogging we don’t have to fall prey to the atrocity that is Tumblr, we have blogspot and, well, wordpress. But YouTube is where the dead end is. I can’t see FilmCow or Neil Cicierega moving away from the 3rd(?) most popular site on the entire internet to Vimeo or Revver. I wish they would, but unfortunately, not everyone gets what they want….

    Side note: Ahh yes, Whitesnake, I need to listen to them again. I’ve been finding myself growing addicted to Indie Rock at the moment. My iPod is currently playing the hell out of We Are Scientists and The Wombats.

    [*] “Sheepfilms” has some brilliant and clever stuff on it, I’d recommend you take a look at some of his work.

  2. Whitesnake … strange band, and of course We Wish You Well is totally atypical. Formed from the ashes of Deep Purple, at one point featuring Coverdale, Lord and Paice all together; I really liked their first two albums Trouble and Lovehunter (despite the extraordinarily tasteless cover of the latter) — they had a very distinctive loose bluesy sound, and the twin guitars of Moody and Marsden sounded like no-one else. But from then on they started to become a parody of themselves, and once they’d divested themselves of Moody and Marsden in favour of a million identikit permed metal guitarists with awesome technique and no soul, they were Just Another Hair Band. Shame.

  3. I think the source of your disagreement with SG is one of focus. He is focussed on tools for marketing to the most people, so he wants to be behind the leading edge, behind the cool stuff. He doesn’t want to be inventing or learning the newest technology because it’s only used by the smartest people, not the most people. When the smart people have established the technology and made it so it doesn’t take quite as much effort for him (but more than most of the people) he will sweep in and take advantage of it just when the masses are about to get a handle on it and he’ll get their money.

    That’s not a criticism of him, it’s what he’s amazingly good at. It’s just that he’s so focussed on what he does that he doesn’t necessarily understand where you or I are coming from. Using your analogy he’s just focussed somewhere else on the treadmill and can’t see the whole treadmill from his vantage point (but he can see where the masses are headed).

  4. Interesting observations, Mike. I’m one of the “Hacker News ain’t want it used to be, and GET OFF MY LAWN” crowd, and I am, indeed (no doubt like several others) building a replacement.

    But the question is this: Are there lessons to learn?

    HN has survived longer than expected, no doubt in part because of the early relentless flagging of things that weren’t “deeply interesting.” Can that be made to work better?

    I think not, which is why I’m trying a new approach. This time it’s right, it will work, and no one will have to get nailed to anything …

    Sorry – I appear to be channelling …

  5. Ensignexpendable, I think your analysis is right: Seth and I are just looking for different things. And, no, I certainly don’t mean that as a criticism of him! I think his blog is outstanding: regular, commendably brief, and featuring real insights with an impressive frequency.

    Colin, do you think Hacker News has already degenerated, then? It still seems pretty darned good to me.

    As for lessons to learn: I wonder whether Reddit might outlast them all because of the ease of creating subreddits. The front page may be useless now, but http://www.reddit.com/r/programming/ is still good, and when that’s not true any more it will be a very lightweight operation to move to http://www.reddit.com/r/programming2/ or wherever.

  6. Mike: Yes, I do think HN is going downhill. There’s very little that’s of “deep interest” and a lot of fluff and gossip. It’s still the best I know, but it’s not as good as I remember from 3 years ago. I might, of course, be remembering with advantages.

    It is still good, but I regularly and frequently see technically challenging items fall off “newest” without getting any votes, let alone getting to the front page. A more disturbing trend is that lately I’ve put two or three items on that are genuinely technical, they’ve got a few votes, got to the front page, then been flagged and gone to rank 600 or more.

    Perhaps I just have a stalker who’s taken a dislike to me and flags everything I submit – it certainly feels that way.

    The system I’ve got partly developed creates implicit sub-sections and automatically works out which ones you’re likely to be interested in. It has the benefits of auto-clustering people who share an interest, without requiring that you first work out what you should join.

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