Back in the dark ages, before Twitter and Facebook rose to prominence, circa 2007-8, when I started professionally giving people advice about this “blogging” thing they were all suddenly so interested in, I would say that it took a good 3-6 months for a new blog to bed in and find its audience. This was based on my experience with Created in Birmingham which, despite a kick-start from my personal blog readers when it started in January 2007, didn’t really start hitting the right people in the right way until the Feel The Heat post in August.
At the time the slow burn was an inconvenience that needed to be dealt with, and the rise of the centralised social networks dealt with it rather well. Over the last couple of years I’ve seen, and been involved with, various projects which have benefitted from the sudden injection of attention and support that a Twitter / Facebook campaign can bring in. Indeed, at the Preclusion guerrilla gallery launch on Friday Harry told me it was down to the power of a WordPress.com blog, Twitter and Facebook that allowed it to happen in a fortnight from scratch. And nothing I’m going to say here should take away the importance of this new kind of connectivity. For the likes of me it’s easy to get blasé about how the Twitter model has, for many people, changed things for the better because it’s become normalised now.
But when something becomes normalised, it’s time for people like me to start picking at it and seeing what the problems are. Not in a tedious reactionary way like so many commentators who really should know better have been doing, but in a progressive, constructive way. The “Social Media revolution”, in which I played a role in my city, is only a chapter in something bigger. We have enough history on the Internet to see that things we take for granted, like Google and Facebook, are, like Yahoo, not guaranteed to be there in a decade. And as new things normalise, they get colonised by the old ways, the frontiers become heartlands and, well, it all gets a little dull.
It’s no great secret that I’ve been getting a bit frustrated with my pseudo-addiction to Twitter. Ever since it was discovered that you could only back up your most recent 3200 tweets, followed by the realisation that Twitter was never going to “fix” their search to go back more than a week, I’d been wondering why I was pumping all my valuable stuff into this black hole.
Alongside this the talks I give about the social internet, specifically about how artists can use it both to promote themselves and as part of their practice, have started to include a thread on the meaning of “free”, citing Richard Stallman‘s “Free as in Freedom vs Free as in Beer” dichotomy. There’s no such thing as a “free” service – someone somewhere is paying for it and that makes them the customer, not you. And as anyone who’s worked in retail know, the customer is who the company listens to, not the suppliers. Users is not the same as customers and in Facebook and Google’s case the customer is the advertiser. You and your content is the product while the service is merely the conduit between the two.
This isn’t to say people shouldn’t use “free” services. It’s a trade-off and you need to make that decision for yourself. For example, I’m happy to use Google’s Gmail in return for them data-mining my correspondence for commercial gain because I have no real interest in running my own email management system. I’d rather be able to pay for Gmail and have a mature customer-relationship with Google but that’s not on the table so I make a compromise.
With Facebook I’m not prepared to make that compromise. I’m not interested in the benefits Facebook can offer in return for what I see as a substandard product. I will use the service because others I wish to stay in contact with do but I will not dive in.
An example of better practice is Flickr whose “free” offer has always been substandard. I pay Flickr $25 a year which means I, and the other users, are their customers. As far as I know Flickr does not make a significant amount of income from advertising and while they are not by any stretch perfect at least the user is also the customer.
In my defence, Twitter’s relationship with the users was, until recently, not that clear and we could have become customers if they’d gone that way. Twitter was a great model that the company stumbled upon and never really figured out what it was for. I always had the sense that as long as Twitter Inc just kept things ticking over without interfering too much, Twitter the model would be fine. Twitter didn’t need leadership – it just needed maintenance. Now Twitter Inc has a much clearer sense of what they want to do and their relationship with the communities that use their service and it’s not to my liking.
Another frustration I’ve had with Twitter is with how this platform which I do not own, control or have full access to has become the dominant platform by which I communicate with the world. Certainly this is all my own fault for putting all my eggs in this basket, but that’s no reason to not try and fix it.
Some might say that this too is a reasonable trade-off as the Twitter model, currently monopolised by Twitter Inc, brings more attention to my work than would otherwise be possible. And yes, being in around 2,500 Twitter streams certainly hasn’t done me any harm. There’s no denying that Twitter increases reach. But what concerns me in the manner in which it does so, something I’m going to call the flashbang effect.
Here’s a snapshot of a few month’s visitors to ASH-10.com:
I don’t post that frequently to ASH-10 so it’s maybe not the best example to use but it’s certainly the most dramatic. On the whole I don’t get much traffic there – 10 to 20 visitors a day. But when I write something and post a link to Twitter then, boom, 150+ hits to that post. That’s great, but within a day I’m back down to the trickle.
Now, you could say that I’m getting that sort of attention across my blogs and online presences and you’d be right, but the focus, the entry point for it all, is my Twitter. And from a political and aesthetic point of view, that is not a situation I’m happy with.
There’s also the question of how much reach Twitter actually gives. I currently have 2911 followers yet when I can measure the clicks on a link I post it tends to be between 50 and 100, if that. Twitter gives me no way of measuring how many of those followers are active users, let along the nature of that activity. And the ambient grazing, jump-in-jump-out nature of the platform doesn’t lend itself to a solid relationship.
That’s not to dismiss the Twitter model. I think it’s awesome for lots of things, but I’m not sure it’s the best way for me to be distributing my thoughts, ideas and work. It’s too flighty and too noisy, particularly now everyone’s using it. (As always, the nature of a platform during the early adopter phase has little in common with it’s nature as a mature platform. More = different.)
In short, it needs to be on the periphery of my activities, not right in the middle.
I’ve concentrated on Twitter a lot but the same goes for Tumblr. I’ve been using Tumblr a lot for my side-projects blogs, from my own internet scrap book to things like 8bit Pete, brianduffyhasabigbrain and Fuck Yeah Stirchley. It’s great for disposable blogs – easy to set up, easy to post to and easy to forget about if the project never comes to anything. But I feel very uneasy when I see people using it as their primary blogging platform. This is because, despite being one of the main blogging services on the web, Tumblr has no business model that I can see.
At least with Facebook you know who the customer is, even if it’s not you. With Tumblr they’re cruising on venture capitalism money with no exit strategy in sight. They’ve been talking about “paid features” since 2008 but very little has come from that. It’s not that I don’t trust Tumblr to be there in a year, it’s that I can’t, because there’s no evidence that they will be. Which is a crying shame because it’s a great service with a great community. If only they’d build an actual business out of it.
In short, even though the stuff I posted there wasn’t really that important, I’m not longer posting stuff to my main Tumblr.
FYPA.NET is my response to all this and the process by which I’ll be dealing with it.
To begin with it will house any links to websites I might have posted to Twitter or pics / videos I might have sent to Tumblr. I am effectively reclaiming my short-form blogging and putting it into a space over which I have complete control.
In time it will become whatever it is I need it to become to do whatever it is I need to do online. I obviously don’t know what that is right now but because I have complete control it can adapt to my needs.
It might even become a group blog. In fact that was the original idea behind getting a new domain name – that it would be separate from my personal identity online. But that didn’t really work out.
Ah yes, the name. There’s a story there.
It started with my 11th blogging anniversary on June 10th which I noticed I hadn’t bothered noting this year. I thought it might be a nice way to mark that by using the number 11 in this new site that was bubbling in my brain. the11plus.com sat there for a few weeks but didn’t really bite, so I moved on.
For a few days I hit refresh on the Sound Effect Generator and putting any likely candidates into a domain name search. Some neat results came through (you can see them on the right) but none quite felt right. So I moved on.
“95% of everything is shit” is a term that I’ve often kept around the place and I thought about reversing it. This blog would show you the five percent that is good. I wanted something short, for silly reasons related to the scarcity of a good short domain names, and I wanted something that didn’t need knowledge of what it meant to make it work.
In the end the process devolved “five per” into “fypa” which was available as a .net and I liked the feel of it. It had that silly space-age feel about it “Quick, to the Fypanet!” and didn’t really feel like anything I’d set up before.
A couple of days after I’d registered it Fiona pointed out that it stood for “Fuck Yeah Pete Ashton”, the fuck yeah being a classic Tumblr meme. I had managed give my new blog, that was supposed to free me from the formats of the hosted services, a name that is intrinsically connected with one of them.
Still, make lemonade and all that. I shall just have to work twice as hard to transcend the connotations.
My others blogs remain pretty much as they are. This one is for personal stuff, be it photos from holidays and things that are to do with me. In time it might even take the micro-diary stuff back from Twitter, but for now it’s freed up to be as uninteresting to people outside my family and close friends as it needs to be.
ASH-10 is for my money-earning activities and my theorising about the Internet in general. While it needs some tweaks I’m happy with it as it is.
Art-Pete, previously known as TTVPete, is as schizophrenic as you’d expect my art-driven website to be. It’s on hold for a bit but I expect to return to it in the autumn. It will do whatever it needs to do.
If you like, those three all point inwards – they’re about me. FYPA.NET points out. It’s not about me, at least not directly. It’s me showing you the world through my window.
The weirdest thing about all this is going back to the slow burn. The only publicity I’ve done for the site has been a daily Twitter post linking to the home page. As such there’s been a bit of traffic going there but it’s not much, and if I don’t do the tweet then the traffic dries up completely – the flashbang effect.
But it’s important to me that I take this slowly. I don’t want to be constantly pointing people to the stuff I’m doing. Not only is it exhausting and boring, shouting like some street hawker, it’s also increasingly futile as the networks get more crowded. I want people to want to seek it out – to make it something they check as well as Twitter, not merely on Twitter.
This is a lofty goal and I doubt I’ll ever achieve it, but I think we should all have impossible goals. Reach for the stars and touch the moon, is a misremembered aphorism I may have just made up there.
As I worked on this post Fiona asked me why I would write 3,000 words which no-one was likely to read and I had three answers. The first is some people like reading my absurdly long posts, actually. So there. The second is this is a necessary part of my process – by getting it all down in once place I can move on and produce the stuff that people can digest. (It’s how I get my ideas straight for my paid work, for example).
But the third is more relevant to FYPA.NET. I’m not doing it for the readers. Sure, it’s great to have an audience, but to write, or blog, exclusively for that audience creates an artifice, a performance. Certainly, everything we do in public is to some extent performance and there’s nothing ostensibly wrong with that, but I’m getting tired of performing and am worried at some point I’m going to lose it on stage.
Blogging is something I do to get my ideas straight, to make tangible a narrative which I can revisit, extend and continue for my own benefit. If others choose to follow my narrative, or to twist it into their own where appropriate, then that is fine, but it’s not the primary goal.
This is not done “for the community” because that is not sustainable. It’s not done to promote or sell because that’s leads to craven begging and desperate number chasing. It’s done for personal reasons in a public way because that’s the only thing that makes sense to me.
I am part of my audience, and if I have an audience of one then that’s as valuable as an audience of a million.
If you take away from all this that I am “quitting Twitter” then you’ve missed the point. What I think I’m doing it taking a healthy, if over-thought, approach to it.
FYPA.NET will, of course, be syndicated out to the social networks. There’s a Twitter feed, when I can be bothered a Facebook page will emerge (It’s currently spamming my personal profile along with my other blogs.) and the RSS feeds are there for the taking. But they’ll all be pointing back to FYPA. These are outposts and must always know their place. If that means losing something by not joining in the conversation then so be it.
And for me personally this is not a complete split from the proprietary networks. Dogmatism is always a bad thing and, as I’ve always said, Twitter is a powerful tool that can be immensely beneficial for certain things. I will continue to use Twitter because, despite my reservations about the stewardship of the model, I enjoy it. And I will play around with things like Foursquare (which is proving great fun once I realised there’s absolutely no point to it at all) if it pleases me. There are as many benefits as problems with a centralised network.
This is all about being aware of the pros and cons and making an intelligent, mature decision about how I want to engage with people over the Internet. It is conceivable that I’m being as stupid as the old-media control freaks I’ve been sniggering at all these years by wanting to keep my toys in my basket and not accept the new reality of the omni-shared infosphere. But I don’t think I am.
What I’m doing is taking the model established by those bloggers I’ve always admired – the likes of Jason Kottke and John Gruber – and get back to basics. To do what we did in the fanzine days and build my own publication that I, and only I, have control over. To be a part of the network that is autonomous and free, and stronger because of it.