ENTERTAIN ME … so screams every social network, from the moment you wake to the moment you sleep … FEED ME FAVOURITES AND GIFS AND HASHTAG MEMES … this is what constitutes society now, shovelling great lumps of triviality onto the heap … THROW COLD WATER OVER YOURSELF SO THAT I MAY FIND MIRTH IN YOUR DAMP BENEVOLENCE … so much for discourse and debate.
Maybe I'm reminiscing an imagined calm, but didn't we once use things like Twitter and Facebook to just talk to each other? Nobody wanted to be bored, but it was okay to be boring. Now there's so much noise and flailing, as everyone tries to hold everyone else's attention.
Are we allowed to be calm and boring and quiet, or is that inherently at odds with online culture? After all the working and parenting and brow-furrowing is done for the day, I just want a comfortable corner of the internet where I can be socially dull for a little while.
I don't mean the online equivalent of a shed, a place to break and fix things on my lonesome (I'm a designer – I've already made that preoccupation an occupation). And I don't mean a hermitage, a stark cave way up in the digital mountains away from everyone. I want somewhere familiar and friendly and quiet. A nice old pub. Somewhere to – this may sound crazy – socialise and network.
But social networks aren't designed for the serene or the sensible. They're either off or they're very on and very loud. And they don't keep still. Locked in a great arms race, Twitter and Facebook are constantly adjusting themselves to provide the ultimate social experience. And the problem is that this state of flux is the experience. The natural state of a social network is uncertainty. Perhaps our manic behaviour is a product of this.
They twist and fracture, sometimes violently, sometimes furtively. It used to be that you were compelled to keep up with Facebook in case you missed what yours friends were up to; now you have to keep up just in case you fall behind on the ever changing UI.
Look at Myspace – it has gone through so many iterations over the years, little remains of the endearingly ugly network that we all had to be part of in the mid-noughties. Features and content have been moved and redesigned and deleted and replaced. And now it's something different entirely, only the name is the same (never mind principles and loyalty, the last thing an online brand will ever give up is that precious domain). To quote the eminent Colin Ball, “this old broom's had seventeen new heads and fourteen new handles in its time”.
This is what all social networks have in common: don't get comfortable, it won't be like this for long. It's hard to keep track of suitable metaphors for them: once an impressive synthesis of its namesake, Facebook has since turned into the online equivalent of a children's party held in a supermarket; Twitter is rapidly mutating from fascinating conference to frantic bazaar. They won't stay in these guises for long. How are we ever meant to remain settled in these conditions?
But as the tectonic plates of the internet slowly shift and grind, new networks pop up in the gaps that appear. A standalone (and app-only) network with little commercial interference, Path is one such network. If Facebook is for people you don't want to know anymore and Twitter is for people you'd love to know, Path is simply for people you do know.
It's a little flakey, but the closed environment makes it nicely isolated from the rest of the web. It has a refreshing smallness to it. There's no selling or campaigning or link-baiting; nobody is demanding anything of anybody else; it's just a bunch of people sharing stories. It is here that I find solace.
Amongst my little network (mostly other bewildered parents in the creative industries), we talk about vacuuming technique, the pleasures of going to the tip and whether or not you should laminate your National Trust membership card. It's slow and normal and brilliant (and all littered with an 'Allo 'Allo level of innuendo and pun – it's essentially a dad-humour think-tank). It's mundanity rather than inanity.
This works because Path mostly stays out of the way and leaves us to it. But the calmness is forever under threat from commercial pressures. When will the currency of favouriting take hold? When will the adverts appear? Can such a network make revenue and survive without losing integrity?
Recent updates don't bode well. Just like everything else that wants an extra little square on your home screen, Path recently introduced a separate messaging app. This has simply fragmented and disrupted the closed experience. And it involved the deliberate deletion of user content – several year's worth of conversation was binned overnight. Needless to say, it did not go down well, but so what? Users are secondary to the march of progress.
And so the ground continues to shift underfoot. No matter what peaceful corner of the internet I settle in, one day I’ll wake to the unfamiliar and the noisy. Until then, Path is that old pub I've been looking for. I've found a comfy booth next to the fireplace, I'm having a good sit and I'm chatting with some chums about the day. It's nice and boring. Enjoy the silence.
Written for MacUser