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Rhodri Marsden

Journalist and musician Rhodri Marsden has been addressing common technology problems by stripping away the jargon and enlisting the help of readers in his Cyberclinic column in The Independent for the past two years.

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Being made Virtually Homeless

Posted by Rhodri Marsden
  • Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 08:06 am
One mildly beneficial effect of the current recession is that we probably won't be blighted with quite as many internet startups crowing loudly about their "fantastic new model" of social networking – models which are actually pretty indistinguishable from all the other social networking sites that are already a few months down the road. Here's a typical phrase plucked from a random press release: "It's the ultimate social tool, that keeps you in the know what everybody is doing or thinking of doing!" Jesus. Again?

It's hard to get inside the head of the people who launch what are effectively copycat services. OK, if you saw that Iranian restaurants were suddenly doing really well in Great Yarmouth, you might conceivably start one up in Lowestoft and be reasonably sure that you weren't competing for the same business. But catchment areas don't work on the internet, and if you had a great idea for a profile-based website called BookFace, its success would depend on luring a good few million people away from the service you're copying.

Early this morning, it was announced that social networking site Pownce would be shutting down in a fortnight, merely 314 days after it was officially launched to the public. The business has been subsumed within SixApart, (who run blogging platforms such as Vox and Typepad) but in doing so it has been quietly put out of its misery. This Google Trends graph gives a pretty clear indication of how it failed to make any inroads into Twitter's userbase – but, at the same time, it was used by a good few thousand people. Some people took the advice they were given when it was launched, and formed their own Pownce communities. It became a place for them to hang out, and to LOL at each other's messages. But in a fortnight's time, it'll be gone.

The obvious analogy is with your local pub going out of business – and it happens. Fortunately, the places that I go to "keep in touch with my friends" (LiveJournal, Facebook, Twitter) all look pretty solid and unlikely to eject me into the loneliness of cyberspace. But there's always the risk that your online community will be torn apart by factors beyond your control; for a while last year, FridayCities (now KudoCities) was a lively and reasonably interesting place to be – but when the business (as detailed in Paul Carr's book Bringing Nothing To The Party) started to flounder, people quietly abandoned the sinking ship. The glorious demolition of idiotic comments on the BBC News website at Speak You're Branes brought together a pretty vicious but enthusiastic group of readers – until a couple of weeks ago, when the chap who runs it, in a stroke of self-sabotaging genius, wrote an automated script to replace the majority of words in the comments section with the word "blah". The community went ballistic, and some decamped in a fit of pique to another messageboard.

You invest all that social energy, and then it's all taken away from you. Sheesh. Like a metaphor for life, really. Sorry, feeling a bit gloomy this morning.

Comments

mcgazz wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 10:47 am (UTC)
People falling out on messageboards is hilarious. I've done it. If another board is set-up, claiming to be the same but without the riff-raff, all is lost.
rmarsden wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 10:51 am (UTC)
The other hilarious situation is when a cosy community is invaded by a group of people who then proceed to "lower the tone". The parallels with real life are so profound that they're making me giggle.
crocodilewings wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 11:19 am (UTC)
I wanted to set up ArseBook, but discovered that someone beat me to it. Postmodern society, nothing's new, etc.
crocodilewings wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 11:22 am (UTC)
Having just followed that link for the first time in about six months, it's expired and gobbled up by a domain farmer. It used to be superficially identical to the default Facebook page, only red, and filled with angry swearing.
rmarsden wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 11:23 am (UTC)
I actually did set up arsetalk.com. It didn't catch on.
caramel_betty wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 11:51 am (UTC)
A friend set up http://www.arsebook.org/
Arsebook is an anti-social utility that connects you with the people YOU HATE.

Everyone Can HATE - Register

upload blackmail material or publish lies • get the latest gossip from your fiends • post videos on your profile • tag your fiends • use privacy settings to hide your info from enemies • join a hate-clan to disturb people who live, study, or work around you
rmarsden wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 11:58 am (UTC)
And then there's Crackbook.
giro_playgirl wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 11:21 am (UTC)
I only get the rss feed for Speak yr Branes so didn't realise that had happened. Pity it's owner felt he had to sabotage it-and thereby royally fuck it up. Personally I blame the weather and the global credit crunch AND Timmy Mallett being thrown of I'm a Celebrity.
rmarsden wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 11:27 am (UTC)
But did he fuck it up? The fact that you read it via RSS means that you were spared any nonsense that was going on in the comments section.

I'm sure the vast majority of people who visit the site do so for the posts, not the comments. And he's probably not that bothered if a few people who like the sound of their own voices decamp elsewhere...
giro_playgirl wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 11:36 am (UTC)
Ahhh, see, I kind of got the impression that it was folding due to this debacle. Never mind-carry on, just ignore me!
caramel_betty wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 12:00 pm (UTC)
almostwitty wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 11:47 am (UTC)
But if the whole rationale of the Internet is that people create their own content and want to watch it, what motivation is there for site admins to essentially tell them to go away if the content isn't good enough? They lose page traffic, kudos, and probably a small amount of revenue. That is, assuming it wasn't moderated...
rmarsden wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 11:56 am (UTC)
I don't know if that is the rationale of the internet.

There's no doubt that managing to create a vibrant online community as a good way to substantially increase traffic to a site, but a unique idea and great content will bring people in, too. Because - although it doesn't seem that way because a small percentage of people shout very loudly - the vast majority of those who read a blog post don't actually contribute their own thoughts.

In the case of Speak You're Branes, sabotaging the comments section seemed strangely appropriate, as the leaving of cretinous comments online was the idea on which the whole site is based.
mcgazz wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 04:30 pm (UTC)
its all gord-wrong mcbroons fault for allowing immigrants to eat swans - FACT. bet you wont print this
hoiho wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 11:54 am (UTC)
Dammit blah blah is blah. blah blah guess what blah other blah blah writing blah just blah occasional blah like blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah killed blah blah blah blah blah blah’blah blah?
rmarsden wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 11:57 am (UTC)
Can I reassure readers that I have no power to introduce such a scheme on this blog.
_moggy_ wrote:
Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 03:31 pm (UTC)
Did you like Paul Carr's book?
rmarsden wrote:
Wednesday, 3 December 2008 at 09:40 am (UTC)
I do like Paul. He's a funny, charming chap. I just can't fathom how someone could write so unironically about how useless they are, but in such a jaw-droppingly self-important way. His last Guardian column is a perfect example.

As someone who has a similarly self-depracating streak but with none of the flair for ligging and networking, it actually blows my tiny mind. If I'd written the aforementioned column, it would be stuffed with sentences like "of course, to pretend that my writing had any effect on the business plans of Web 2.0 companies is ludicrous - I'm just a really poor judge of what's good and what isn't."

I'd write more, but he'd probably put it on the back of his next book. Or he would do, if my opinion had any weight whatsoever. (There I go again.)
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