The Masked Social Network

There’s something incredibly unnerving the first time you start “following” the liked items of other users on Instapaper. Instapaper makes no suggestions to you of popular users and offers no list of current users — this is quite unexpected.

You get the option of looking up people via other social networks, or just by email address, this is of course in stark contrast to just about any other social offering you will encounter — as they much prefer shoving as many users in your face as possible.

It’s a purposeful mask that has been pulled over the “social” offerings of the inherently non-social activity of reading.

Even if you use Instapaper you can still “hide” yourself from other users, if you so desire. Perhaps most jarring is that you get no indication if anybody is actually following you.

There are no follower counts.

No following counts.

No popularity contests.

No cliques.

No ego stroking.

There’s just a list of articles that people you chose to follow decided that they liked. All without knowing who, or if, anybody will ever see that they liked that article.

It’s a fascinatingly private social system.

I want more of it.

Effectively Instapaper has found a way to keep its users engaged with the site’s main purpose, reading, while offering users ways of keeping tabs other readers. It’s like getting a peek at someone else’s bookcase, without them knowing that you peeked.

Imagine what would happen if Twitter operated this way: you have no inkling of who is following you and others have no clue if you are following them. You just have an account that you post to, occasionally a person responds to you. The only way you know if a person is following you is when you go to Direct Message them.

Imagine that, because what would really change?

Some numbers go away, sure, some egos are deflated — that’s a bonus. But what is the worth of a follower? To businesses it is bragging rights, and job security for “social media experts” — but for you the individual, does it matter?

I would argue not only does it not matter, but knowing these counts makes the service worse.

The service is made worse because people behave differently given the setting they are in. Would you say the same things if you have ten followers as you would if you had ten million followers?

I know I wouldn’t.

Actually I know exactly what Twitter would feel like: blogging.

If you have a site with no analytics on it at all, then you have an exact sense of what such a Twitter-without-counts would feel like.

I know roughly how many people read this site (blogging equivalent of followers), but I don’t know who most people are — it’s a blind count. I know who some of you are because we have conversed via email and Twitter, but the overwhelming majority of you are, well, anonymous.

I like it that way, I am guessing most of you like it that way too. Maybe Kim Jong-il 1 reads this site, maybe he doesn’t — but if he did and I knew that? Well, my message would certainly change.

Follower and friend counts play to the human ego and our curiosity, but sometimes I think it would be better to let us be curious. The knowledge of not only that you are being “watched”, but of who is watching you makes social networks far less interesting. 2

  1. I cite him because, well, it amuses me — feel free to substitute any name.
  2. I like to look at this in the context of dancing — something I hate doing with a passion. I am far less likely to dance around people that I know. Slightly more likely to do it when intoxicated around people I know. Even more likely to dance around people I don’t know. And most likely to dance in front of people that I don’t know while intoxicated.
Originally posted for members on: September 14, 2011
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