This is Tom Lee, getting into into stuff I don’t really care about (lifecycle of social networks, blah). But I am interested in the publishing criterion shift he describes.

Here’s how it goes. First, a network achieves viability — enough people are using it to send non-”hello world” messages that the community can sustain itself. Next, users experiment, publishing and republishing content that they find compelling. The system amounts to a collaborative filter, and the quality and novelty of the results are surprisingly good. At this point people begin to notice and discuss the potential for the network to have greater relevance — and, inevitably, those who don’t understand that participation in the filtering activity is non-negotiable begin whining about taking the medium seriously when they see so much trivial content on it. Despite this carping, more users join the network and its value and potential importance begin to be more widely understood. At this point users change how they identify content worth publishing or republishing: rather than the first-order “how compelling is this?” they begin using the second-order “how compelling will other people find this?” Although they were excellent and determining what they thought was interesting and appropriate, they’re comparatively terrible at determining what other people will like. Quality declines (“I blogged: links for 2009-07-02″). Worse, as users continue to try to shirk their collaborative filtering responsibilities, experimental uses of the medium are discouraged or otherwise become less viable. The system ossifies, and soon enough everyone is sick of having to check Facebook. Time for a new no-pressure medium for goofing off with your early-adopter friends. Rinse, repeat.

Makes me ask: do I do that? Because it makes sense that this would lead to a depressing kind of homogenization. To be clear, I don’t care about the quality of content in some sense related to the viability or importance of particular social networks. I’m interested in the way this kind of other-checking thinking leads us away from our real interests and idiosyncrasies and starts us trolling the internets for stuff we think other people might think is interesting so that they’ll think we’re interesting. I can’t help but think this is a damaging dynamic. And I can’t help but wonder if I’m doing it right now!

Maybe we should all just be idiosyncratic and let the power law do the work of deciding what gets socially recognized. That’s certainly what Mill would say. See also kottke in 2003 doing power law stuff. Oh boy, that’s kind of his hobby for a while.

Now I have to add this from a really great interview kottke does with Yochai Benkler. It sort of speaks to what I was getting at up there, re individuality:

The probability that any newspaper, however well-heeled, will be able to put together the kind of legal analytic brainpower that my friend Jack Balkin has put together on his blog, Balkinization, is zero. They can’t afford it. On the other hand, even the Weekly World News is tame and mainstream by comparison to the quirkiness or plain stupidity some people can exhibit. The range is simply larger. That’s what it means to have a truly diverse public sphere.

I’m not sure I agree with kottke that Benkler’s book might be seen in the future as on the order of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. But it is free.

Original Lee quote via slate