Some thoughts on Pete Ashton’s FYPA.net

Alright so this is going to be some nit-picky bullshit because that’s what I’m training to do. A Doctor of Philosophy is a nitpicky asshole and eventually I’m going to have to prove to the world academy that I know what I’m talking about via a fuck off 80,000 word long thesis that’s going to be all about this kind of crap – social media, or rather, media that becomes the social.

So what’s going on here? Well, earlier today I read a post by the artist Pete Ashton (who also uses the totally super cool awesome subdomain ‘iam.xxxxxxxx.com’, hey buddy! Great minds, &tc.) that I thought was super interesting, and a very encouraging sign that there are still some people out there willing to question the received wisdom about platforms/social media/whatever bullshit buzzword we’re using today/technology… because that’s what we’re talking about. Technology. At the end of the day, anything that has been made or designed by a human mind (even a semi-human mind! I discriminate not against venture capitalist startup types!) counts as technology. Or maybe it doesn’t because fuck, even a stick in the hands of a monkey hungry for some god damn ants in a rotten log counts as a piece of technology under the right circumstances (intentions? uh oh), so hey why not just say everything is technology, but we’re not going to go there tonight… that way madness lies.

So anyway, Pete Ashton. Top bloke, I reckon. Don’t know him from Adam, but he seems like my kind of thinker. Except… here’s the thing. There were some statements in the original post that were a bit… malformed, you could say (if you’re being a nitpicky jerk – which I am, do not forget that!). Or if we’re trying to be charitable to a relative stranger on the internet (and that’s always a nice thing to be), we’d say they were a bit imprecise perhaps.

To summarise the post, Ashton has decided some of the technology he uses (twitter; tumblr; facebook; websites) probably aren’t doing the job the way he wants them to and so he’s decided to go start his own website called FYPA.net (Fuck Yeah, Pete Ashton!). tl;dr – I have some comments about the his thoughts and the rationale he uses to get to his conclusions and so, rather than plop them down in his comments like some kind of well-meaning-but-rude-nitpicking-asshole here they are, ripped from their context.

Yes, I’m almost certainly reading them too specifically and not in the context he was likely to be writing them in (i.e. not academia), yes, he’s probably thought about all these issues but here’s the thing with the internet (and, to a lesser extent, writing more generally) – it’s really hard to know what you might mean, and a lot easier to try and figure out what you do mean.

That preamble out of the way, here’s my comments to Ashton’s words.  He says,

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.

True, yes! But it’s hardly a super new concept. Cf: “Television delivers people” from 1973. Still, it’s probably worth being reminded of every so often, so point well made. However, his analogy with retail industry breaks down when examined. Facebook users often protest changes to the Facebook service, and while they often just get the hell over it (remember “new” faceook boycots? ha!) they’ve sometimes been successful! Remember the hoo-ha over all the privacy settings last year (2010)? Users got mad, the press got mad (even the NY Times!) and people generally made quite a bit of noise, till eventually Zuckerberg and co. felt such pressure, presumably from their users (the suppliers, not the customers in this analogy!), that they added all sorts of privacy customisations.

Sure, I’m critiquing an analogy – way to fucking go Ben, you criticised something most people know is  imperfect anyway, well done. But the point I want to stress here is that we need new ways of talking about technology. Analogies don’t work! Assuming some sort of inevitable, inexorable McLuhan-esque media affect doesn’t work either, except when it does and that’s just as much of a problem! When is it inevitable? When is it not? How can we tell? Technology (everything?) is dynamic and unpredictable and past performance is no indication of future behaviour. We need better ways to talk about the specificities of technology, and precious few seem to recognise it as a problem. But before we lose too much hair, let’s move on.

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.

No! No no no! Twitter may not let you search back that far, but there are tools to do this! Snapbird lets you search far, far further back than a week (to years even, when it works). It is a myth that tweets go into a black hole. They actually never go away unless they are deleted. And that is almost an even more scary prospect.

Instead of disappearing, they just get nigh-impossible to find without a saved hyperlink or some way of forming the URL for that individual tweet. Want proof? Here’s a tweet from September 23rd, 2008. Don’t want to have to save links, and instead back up all your tweets on an ongoing basis?  Here: ThinkUp runs on your own webserver. Ashton seems pretty keen on keeping control, (as we’ll see) and it’s actually a worthwhile pursuit – nevermind that he probably don’t even own his own webserver, but rather rents it from a rack in some giant cloud warehouse somewhere. Again the specificities slip so casually away, eliding serious implications… the only person I know who has actual, physical control of his own webserver is David Carlton. If the Feds ever want to raid the rackspace of mine or Ashton’s website all they’ve gotta do is go to that giant warehouse with a warrant and there they are where I can’t stop them, collecting all my damning anti-capitalist statements to use against me at my inevitable trial for treason-against-the-dollar. At least David Carlton could smash the crap out of his harddrives if they came knocking (provided he was home, had time, etcetera, etcetera (OMG DETAILS FUUUUU–)). That’s the thing with talking about anything with any certainty. There’s always caveats and provisions. We need better ways of talking about this stuff.

Moving right along.

…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.

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.

NEWSFLASH[bang]: No, that’s not just twitter, that’s BEING LINKED ANYWHERE that has a ‘stream’-like operation/audience. Blogs do it too (but the flash happens over days, not hours); Forums do it too and I have no way to describe the way that audience comes in (omg details). Point being: the duration of the flash is not some cumulative function or algorithm of the media that links to it and the way that audience uses that media – the duration of the flash is an abstraction of something real happening. X visitors clicking a hyperlink. Joe Goofey clicking it at 11:59:11 on 12/4/11, and Mary Magdalene clicking the same link another 17 seconds later, etc, etc. The former is proscriptive, the latter descriptive (details! always with the details!) and this is no co-incidence. There’s a reason I keep harping on about that Bruno Latour character – he’s on to something.

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.

Really? Complete control? Complete is pretty freaking complete. Do you have the rackspace or a local server in your house? And are you always going to “be there” to control it? When you leave the room and your site suddenly gets DDoS’d or hacked by LulzSec or whatever are you still in control?

Okay, okay, I’m being a dick I know. Ashton and his readers probably don’t care all that much about this kind of eventuality – Ashton has comparatively more control.

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.

Ha! Funny thing: I never heard of Pete Ashton till I heard about what he was doing with FYPA (via twitter retweets from both Mat Wall-Smith and Andrew Murphie). That’s the funny thing about the internet, it’s unpredictable. And yet, at the same time it’s like sometimes we feel like we get a handle on what works (cat pictures; tumblrs starting with Fuck Yeah; etc) but really… when we do, we’re in a sense deluding ourselves.

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.

Yup. Me too. Blogging is way cool.

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.

Aww, seriously? Doing stuff for other people is “unsustainable”? Well, maybe it is, but it can be totally kick ass and amazing while it lasts. There is a very real benefit gained by the blogger by blogging (tweeting? tumblr-ing?), even if it’s an intangible thing like ‘reputation’ as an expert, a go-to-person, or just being known as a hilarious captioner of cat pictures or whathaveyou. Have you seen? People have been commenting on your stuff! How can you say you’re completely ignoring doing it for “the community” when people are commenting? And commercialisation of blogging is some kind of sell-out? Dude, living off blogging is like living the dream! It doesn’t have to kill of integrity, etc, etc. My favourite example is Rock Paper Shotgun, professional, independently started and owned blog now doing reasonably well for itself commercially. That took them hard work and I don’t begrudge them their wage at all.

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.

Um, really? Autonomous is stronger, necessarily? You’re sounding a bit techno-utopian (and I guess really shouldn’t be surprised by this point) but could I politely suggest Evgeny Morozov’s excellent ‘The Net Delusion‘?

Aaaand on that half-finished note I think I’m done, just because I’ve exhausted myself and my ideas. I hope there’s something in there for everyone.