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Walled Gardens & Escape Routes

Slack and Snapchat are two of the platforms that best embody the current technological moment, the fastest recent gainers in Silicon Valley’s constant campaign to build apps we put on our home screens and not only use constantly but freely give our locations, identities, relationships, and precious attention. One of those products is for work and one is for play; both reflect values and aesthetics that, if not new, at least differ in clear ways from those of email, Facebook, and Twitter—the avatars of comparable moments in the recent past.

Recently I compared Twitter to a shrinking city—slowly bleeding users and struggling to produce revenue but a kind of home to many, infrastructure worth preserving, a commons. Now that Pokemon Go has mapped the digital universe onto meatspace more literally, I’ll follow suit and extend that same “city” metaphor to the rest of the internet.

I’m kidding about the Pokemon part (only not really), but the internet has nearly completed one major stage of its life, evolving from a mechanism for sharing webpages between computers into a series of variously porous platforms that are owned or about to be owned by massive companies who have divided up the available digital real estate and found (or failed to find) distinct revenue-generating schemes within each platform’s confines, optimizing life inside to extract revenue (or failing to do so). The app is a manifestation of this maturing structure, each app a gateway to one of these walled gardens and a point of contact with a single company’s business model—far from the messy chaos of the earlier web. So much urban space has been similarly carved up.


  Illegible space: the Bonaventure Hotel (source)

If Twitter is a shrinking city, then Slack or Snapchat are exploding fringe suburbs at the height of a housing bubble, laying miles of cul-de-sac and water pipe in advance of the frantic growth that will soon fill in all the space. The problem with my spatial metaphor here is that neither Slack nor Snapchat feels like a “city” in its structure, while Twitter and Facebook do by comparison. I never thought I’d say this, but Twitter and Instagram are legible (if decentralized): follower counts, likes, or retweets signal a loosely quantifiable importance, the linear feed is easy enough to follow, and everything is basically open by default (private accounts go against the grain of Twitter). Traditional social media by now has become a set of tools for attaining a global if personally-tailored perspective on current events and culture.

Slack and Snapchat are quite different, streams of ephemeral and illegible content. Both intentionally restrict your perspective to the immediate here and now. We don’t navigate them so much as we surf them. They’re less rationally-organized, mapped cities than the postmodern spaces that fascinated Frederic Jameson and Reyner Banham: Bonaventure Hotels or freeway cloverleafs, with their own semantic systems—Deleuzian smooth space. Nobody knows one’s position within these universes, just the context their immediate environment affords. Facebook, by comparison, feels like a high modernist panopticon where everyone sees and knows a bit too much.

Like cities, digital platforms have populations that ebb and flow. The history of urbanization is a story of slow, large-scale, irreversible migrations. It’s hard to relocate human settlements. The redistributions of the digital era happen more rapidly but are less absolute: If you have 16 waking hours of daily attention to give, you don’t need to shift it all from Facebook to Snapchat but whatever you do shift can move instantly.

The forces that propel migrations from city to city to suburb and back to city were frequently economic (if not political). Most apps and websites cost nothing to inhabit and yield little economic opportunity for their users. If large groups are not abandoning Twitter or Facebook for anything to do with money, what are they looking for?

To paraphrase Douglas Adams, people are the problem. As people, we introduce some fatal flaw to each technology we embrace, especially technologies that facilitate communication, and especially when they amplify some basic weakness in our nature. Almost always, the experience of using a technology can’t be regulated or moderated properly, some misuse of it becomes rampant, and that quality gradually or quickly drives its users to another platform that solves its particular problem. Then the cycle begins anew.

Slack is not the unbundling of another platform’s chat feature, then—it’s the reverse unbundling of email, an antivenom for email’s problems. The familiar version of unbundling is splitting off a feature from a product and building a more robust standalone product out of it. What I’m describing now is an equally powerful and prominent phenomenon in the evolution of technology.

Email, in work and in personal life, has strayed far from its origin as a joyous, playful technology that early adopters used to send one another jokes. It’s more essential than ever now, a supporting infrastructure for life in every sense, but it’s also something we feel the urge to hide from on vacation. We hate it. Email’s flaws are potent: Information lives forever; everyone has equal access to everyone else; spam marketers have optimized it as a tool for their nagging. Even the most powerful people in the world toil over email for an hour daily, while strategies like Inbox Zero have emerged to help us escape from under its burdensome weight.

Our uneasy dependence on email in professional and personal life created a massive opportunity for a tool that isolated its benefits and discarded its shortcomings. Slack embodies this opportunity. It offers freedom from the oppressive inbox, in which one owns everything that ends up there, and establishes a smooth space in which the most important information reaches its recipients indirectly but effectively. The streamlike work patterns enabled by Slack, which Venkat Rao calls Flow Laminar, “avoid the illusion of perfectibility of information flows implicit in notions like Inbox Zero altogether.”

Jenna Wortham, contemplating Snapchat in the NY Times, suggested that “maybe we didn’t hate talking—just the way older phone technologies forced us to talk.” Texting, she thinks, did for phone calls what Slack promises to do for email. She proceeds to praise Snapchat for its reverse unbundling of social media and even SMS: the escape from the coldness and flatness of text-based communication, the intimacy absent from Facebook and Twitter, the triumph of the stylistic over the literal. An essay by Ben Basche makes a similar point: “Perhaps the task of constantly manicuring a persistent online identity — of carefully considering what effect your digital exhaust will have on your ego — is beginning to weigh on people.” Traditional social media, it seems, has reached the point of maturity that email already attained: more rigid and less playful. We’re looking for escape routes and Snapchat is one.

If we’ve learned anything from recent technology, we can expect Slack and Snapchat to reveal their own serious flaws over time as users accumulate, behaviors solidify, and opportunists learn to exploit their structure. Right now most of the world is still trying to understand what they are. When the time comes—and hopefully we’ll recognize it early enough—we can break camp and go looking for our next temporary outpost.

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