Country Clubs on the Web: Exclusivity and the Myth of Early Adoption
How different the social media landscape would be if sites focused on more than the good ol' boys network to drive their initial growth.
For all that people have proclaimed the ‘death of blogs’ with the rise of Twitter and Facebook, they remain one of the most important creative platforms for people on the web. Developers continue to build new technologies and reimagine the blog — with postach.io, sett.com, ghost and scriptogr.am being just some of the most recent entrants. Indeed, with the current proliferation of blogging platforms and services, we could consider the ‘blog’ to be entering a new phase of development. It is far from dead.
But what explains the growth and user base for Tumblr while Medium and Svbtle, in particular, appear to be floundering as platforms? In a word: exclusivity. With Svbtle only open to the ‘public’ for just over a year now and Medium for a year and a half, the notion of ‘exclusivity’ was a defining feature of their early years. Both Medium and Svbtle were founded to be exclusive country clubs for the ‘desirable’ type of blogger whereas Tumblr reduced barriers by making multi-media blogging easy at a time when it really wasn’t. All you’ve ever needed to sign up for Tumblr has been an email address.
Exclusivity is the defining reason that one of these blogging services is flourishing while the other two are not.
Demographics and Other Numbers
Why does exclusivity and creating country clubs on the web make such a huge difference? One easy way to tell is by looking at the demographics of these services.
Between Tumblr, Medium, and Svbtle, Tumblr is the largest platform. However, it is important to note that Tumblr is often described as a ‘micro-blogging’ site, rather than the longer-form blogging that Medium (especially) is geared towards . Medium is the next largest and Svbtle the smallest. Svbtle has also begun charging a monthly fee to use its platform while both Tumblr and Medium are free.
In 2012 Buzzfeed studied the demographics of Svbtle, App.net, and Medium, finding that Svbtle was 81% white men, App.net 88% white men, and Medium 61% white men. Of the three, Medium had the highest percentage of women using the site. Tumblr’s users in 2012, in contrast, were about half women and half men; another source noted that ‘Hispanics and African Americans make up 29% of Tumblr’s audience’; and Pew commented that while Tumblr isn’t as popular a social media site as many others, it was (and remains) popular with young users with 13% of internet users 18-29 using it.
If we look towards Actual Teen(tm) Andrew Watts’s popular post on Medium giving “A Teenager’s View on Social Media”, we find yes, Tumblr is an “alluring” site for teens/young adults. However, the post is hosted by Medium and is the platform he recommends for blogging (but also notes that it is not well-known amongst teens). So what makes Tumblr ‘alluring’ but Medium an undiscovered gem for teens (and, based on user stats, millions of other people)?
In the Buzzfeed demographic analysis of Svbtle, App.net, and Medium they attribute the overwhelming white maleness of these sites to the phenomenon of ‘early adoption’. This post was published on August 29, 2012. It is now more than two years later and we can firmly say that these sites aren’t ‘new’ anymore, and they’ve all attempted to grow beyond the so-called ‘alpha geeks’ who were the early users. Here is how the services were described two years ago:
Svbtle, an invite-only blog publishing network; Medium, a minimalist publishing platform from the Twitter dudes (also currently invite only); and App.net, an open infrastructure-level version of Twitter (open to anyone, but charges $50 a year). The results paint a portrait of typical early-adopters: white, male, and (at least in the case of Medium) mostly influencers based in major tech hubs.
Framing this issue as one of ‘early adoption’ is flawed and, very likely, incorrect.
The 2011 Ignite Social Media analysis reveals a different story for Tumblr’s mid years than Svbtle and Medium, particularly if we look at gender with just under 60% of early Tumblr users being women. In 2013, Pew reported that the gender demographics for Tumblr were roughly equal, while TechCrunch remarked that Tumblr users “tend to reflect a more ethnically diverse makeup”.
Demographic data for Tumblr’s first two years isn’t easily found on the open web, so it is hard to make a very clear comparison beyond noting Pew’s observation that between 2005 and 2009, social network sites had undergone a ‘democratization.’ In the slideshow, they note that social media users went from slightly more men than women, to slightly more women than men. Interestingly, they note in slide 10 that the ‘classic early adopters’ — ‘male, highly educated…’ — had disappeared over the four-year period.
Meaning that, social media after this period should no longer be assumed to have ‘classic’ early adopters as the first users of the site. If we look at the trend for Tumblr users, if in 2010 (the ‘11 report reflects data from ‘10) roughly 60% of the users were women, but in 2013 about half of the users were women, the gender imbalance on Tumblr appears to follow a downwards trend. There appears to be no data to suggest when, if at any point, there may have been more men using Tumblr than women (other than the narrative of white men being ‘early adopters’).
Perhaps the most obvious ‘exception’ to the ‘rule’ noted by Buzzfeed and early adoption is Pinterest. It is different from Tumblr because the site, like Medium and Svbtle, started off as invite-only during its beta phase. However, Pinterest is (in)famous for the fact that it was in the early stages and remains hugely popular with women, who are the large majority of users of the site.
Considering the early years of Tumblr suggest it was largely ignored by most tech reporting, despite being a vibrant and growing site that would eventually be bought for over a billion dollars, and the current neglect of Pinterest, one begins to wonder if the presence of a female majority user base is related. These sites challenge the notion of ‘classic’ early adopters, the sway that white men have on the success of a site, and the rather convenient narrative that a site’s success is tied to attracting exactly those ‘classic’ early adopters.
What explains this difference in demographics and the failure of sites like Medium, Svbtle, and App.net to thrive?
Old Boy Networks
The previous section should make it clear that the issue isn’t just that Medium and Svbtle were ‘invite’-only for a lot longer than Pinterest. Neither is it an issue of early adopters. What appears to be the key difference is exclusivity. From Svbtle’s announcement of opening up the platform:
Until now, we’ve been an exclusive platform open only to approved users. We took this initial approach because we wanted to ensure that the software worked, first of all, and that the platform was seeded with great content by seasoned and experienced authors.
Both Medium and Svbtle grounded their brands, in their early days, on trying to be places where great communities and content would be found. They were about reducing ‘noise’ on the internet and boosting signals people wanted to hear. And when you look at the demographics, it becomes clear that the ‘noise’ they wanted to filter out was women and/or people of colour. This definition of noise appears all the more fascinating when we look at, especially, one of the fastest growing social media sites of recent times: Pinterest. Or even if we look at the success of Tumblr as a platform (by any measurement, Tumblr has ‘succeeded’ in terms of growth, user engagement, and by paying off its investors via acquisition by a larger company).
Diverse sites like Tumblr may appear ‘noisy,’ but it also looks like the Medium and Svbtle definition of ‘noise’ amounts to ‘engagement’. Their method of reducing ‘noise’ was by not just being ‘invite’-only, but by heavily policing who was issued an invite (especially early on) and what kinds of ‘signals’ they deemed desirable. I know that Medium, back when I first started blogging, was a platform I was interested in since it was one of the first minimal publishing interfaces (something which is now a trend). But the conditions for being accepted to publish were unclear and I didn’t want to wait (on top of the fact that the most visible bloggers were people who appeared to be opposite of me: rich, white, Silicon Valley men and none of the people I actually knew or cared about reading). I was only able to get an account when they opened up the platform to the ‘unwashed masses’ (i.e., people like me, who are neither white nor male). But by this time, I’d already established my blog elsewhere, so why would I switch platforms?
The answer? I wouldn’t and I didn’t.
Svbtle ends up looking much worse as they opened up their platform only to begin charging for the service within the same year. The monthly charge is to ensure that the platform can survive. While I can only speculate, I’m guessing all the users who weren’t waiting at the gates of this country club made them realize they’d need to try something other than opening the gates to survive. And the question remains: why pay them $6/month when they are no longer the only minimal blogging platform? At least Medium is free. Tumblr, likewise, is free and if you are a person of colour and/or a woman, you likely already have an account.
Cautionary Tales and Sweet Cacophonous Noise
The problem with defining ‘noise’ on the internet as the participation of women and/or people of colour , is that it reveals just how little the good ol’ boys of tech understand what drives growth for platforms and social media. It also is a way to understand how and why certain sites will doom themselves by creating country clubs whose members are, more or less, composed of their friends and their respective networks. Perhaps most notable for this is the fact that App.net no longer has any full-time employees, which strongly suggests that it has failed to thrive as the Twitter alternative it strove to become.
Recent interest in #BlackTwitter is a great example for how little white men in tech (and many of the white people who write about tech) understand or even care to notice the ways that marginalized people engage online, something also highlighted by the continued neglect of Pinterest by many media and tech analysts, writers, and the like. When you look into the historical demographic numbers for Twitter, you notice that a significant amount of Black people in the US have been using the site for a lot longer than #BlackTwitter has been in the headlines. Black people (and other marginalized users) have been helping drive growth and engagement on Twitter for many, many years but are only being given attention now that people think Black women, for example, are “ruining” the site.
It leaves one to speculate how different the social media landscape would be if most sites focused on more than good ol’ boys to drive their initial growth. But more to the point, if these sites were actually designed for (better yet, by) women and/or people of colour. Sites designed with our needs in mind, rather than people bemoaning how we are ruining social media and the internet itself for the desirables . The reality is, is that the demographics and the impact of women and/or people of colour for social media engagement cannot be discounted. More to the point, it is often omitted in narratives like Buzzfeed’s that women and/or people of colour are often early adopters out of necessity, since many social media sites are unsafe and hostile environments (this includes both other users and the site itself).
And these unsafe, hostile environments means that many of us are always on the lookout for a safer, less hostile site. For example, I know many people who switched from being active Tumblr users to Twitter for the more effective blocking feature alone (Tumblr’s ‘ignore’ function has frustrated many marginalized people for years, same with the procedures to report abuse). It also happens, every so often, that a bunch of Tumblr users will attempt to find a decent replacement site, thus are constantly trying out and testing new services. I know many marginalized people who tried out Ello while it was the big new thing… only to run screaming when they realized that a block feature hadn’t been implemented yet.
Beyond the issue of early adopters, there isn’t very much data or evidence to support the notion that marginalized people are an undesirable ‘noise’ that needs filtering. Rather, there is a great deal of evidence showing that our participation on a site is key to high engagement and, thus, growth. It also shows that the needs of these ‘undesirable’ demographics should never be second thoughts or late-arriving features (as in the case of Ello). Pew’s presentation about the democratization of the social web was posted six years ago and yet most social sites still start with an eye towards attracting white men — sometimes exclusively. Medium, Svbtle, and especially App.net should act as cautionary tales for what happens when a service starts or is founded on something other than facts, data, and reality.
 And, as a Tumblr user for four years now, this is anecdotally true. Tumblr text posts rarely go much longer than 500 words, in part because the UI doesn’t lend itself to comfortably reading posts longer than this (the scrolling seems endless in longer posts).
 Or young people (e.g., teens and young adults). Everyone seems to want this demographic to participate — except for Medium and Svbtle — in their early days. By relying on ‘seasoned and experienced authors,’ Svbtle, for example, is purposefully excluding young people who are less likely to have built up a ‘professional’ reputation. And yet, we can see from engagement numbers that young people tend to be very engaged online and engagement is one of the factors behind growth and popularity.
 There are some projects in development that appear to be doing this, like Quirell, which is being built by a collective of queer and/or trans people.