White flight, or early adopters of a new old economy?

What follows is my response to Whitney Erin Boesel’s post, and her response to me. I encourage you to read her post and comment first.

Thanks for your reply. I’m glad to know there’s a bit of hyperbole going on in this post!

You’re absolutely right that developer culture/values isn’t raceless, but then again, neither is any occupation or community of practice.

While you may be right that the short-term effect may be a return to the early culture — and demographics — of Twitter, I think the other side is that we (I’m a backer of App.net) see ourselves on the forefront of an enlightened movement that (speaking for myself, anyway) we hope will spread beyond those “enlightened few”.

Now, before you accuse me of being elitist, let me point out that such “enlightenment” stems from awareness, which is influenced by circumstance, which naturally varies with SES, occupation, community of practice, etc. I’m not personally a Twitter developer, but I’m active enough in the community to be aware of the issues that have angered Dalton and others. Developers’ grievances with Twitter aren’t that they aren’t be catered to hand and foot, and they certainly aren’t that the culture created by Twitter users has shifted, but that Twitter is being hostile toward them as a result of trying to monetize a free-to-use system. Twitter app developers made Twitter what it is by creating the ecosystem that made it so useful in the early days. Now Twitter is turning toward advertisers, turning its back on developers. It’s the much-written-about shift from platform to media company.

And as a PhD student, I also think a lot about issues of data ownership and privacy, particularly with respect to the corporatocracy. So, like you, but, importantly, unlike many “regular” users regardless of race or SES, an opportunity to disrupt the “you’re the product” economy struck me as immensely appealing.

The “geek culture/values” you write about are about wanting to keep Twitter a content- and user-agnostic platform, not about caring who the users are. I don’t know about you, but to me, “the beauty of a follow model” has been that I can choose — or, dare I say, curate — my Twitter community. And that’s the whole point: the way I use Twitter is as a platform, as infrastructure. It’s not a platform company’s job to curate the content I see; that’s the job of a media company. That’s why developers — and many users, like me — are upset.

As with any platform, my daily life isn’t impacted by who else uses the infrastructure. I don’t particularly care who else has a phone, who else uses electricity, or who else drives a car. What I care about in a macro sense is equality of access.

That distinction, I think, is what is somewhat lost in your post. Is the cost to get in high right now? Yes. Remember the cell phone commercial in the mid-’90s that was a take-off on the Grey Poupon ads? “Do you have a cellular phone?” “Well so do I!” I don’t have the data in front of me, but I think the latest Pew numbers show that 50% of blacks have smartphones, while only 30-something% of whites do. If less than $5/month is unaffordable to someone with a smartphone, I’ll be honest: I’d question that person’s priorities.

So, like I said in my original comment, I absolutely am concerned about online privacy becoming a privilege rather than a right. We’re at the very beginning of what I hope will be a broader market shift away from treating personal information as currency and back to treating, well, currency as currency. New sociotechnical systems will have to be built to support that. Let the those who are traditionally early adopters be the ones who have to put up with the bugs, the fail whales (or whatever they’ll be called), and everything else that goes along with immature systems. They know what they’re getting into. And, yes, they can afford to put up the “are you serious” money.

But down the road a little bit? “Are you on App.net?” “Well so am I!”