M-Theory: Deliver the product people want, or they’ll find it on their own Melanie Baker October 26, 2017 Columns, Communitech, Featured, M-Theory Did you participate in Oktoberfest this year? Even if you didn’t, you might have heard of some new events. Local catering and event company Bingeman’s, for instance, left the official Oktoberfest fold and instead held its Koolhaus with local craft and German beers. For the last two years Craftoberfest has brought craft brews and Gemütlichkeit to downtown Kitchener. They moved to a bigger venue at the Market this year, and again sold out. A lot of the Craftoberfest crowd was young: really young, with many years of festing ahead of them. I didn’t hear a single complaint about missing Onkel Hans or commercial brews, and no one needs special permission to crank out the chicken dance. Times change, you see. First mover advantage, tradition, and humans being creatures of habit will carry you so far, but “official” and “original” become irrelevant if you’re not delivering a product that people want. Someone else will. It occurred to me this month that Oktoberfest’s evolution here bears a number of similarities to life on our biggest social platforms. Admittedly, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like are in it for vastly bigger prizes than beer kegs and sausage sales. But more and more, people don’t want what the big platforms are selling. With good reason. The past month has been exhausting on social media. The allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Harvey Weinstein dominated, and both the coverage of and responses to it have saturated social platforms. The #MeToo campaign flooded feeds, enabling many to feel less alone about a depressingly universal experience. For others, however, it was also painful and triggering. #MeToo is a campaign attributed to a white actress, but one that was started a decade ago by a Black activist. The voices of women of colour have long been sidelined on social channels, and they get an inordinate amount of the abuse, too. Actress Rose McGowan used her Twitter account to call out Weinstein and many other powerful men in Hollywood, and then her account was suspended. (Twitter claims she violated its terms by posting someone’s phone number. Indeed.) As a result, Friday, Oct. 13th became #WomenBoycottTwitter day. Except that that action itself is an act of privilege, since for many women, especially those of colour, Twitter is one of few ways they have of amplifying their voices and reaching their communities and beyond. Twitter released new rules for fighting hate and abuse on their platform after this all went down, but does anyone actually believe anything will change at this point? Didn’t think so. This is a company that responded to fears of the US president starting a nuclear war with North Korea via Twitter by Twitter announcing that it was raising message character limits. I’m a techie, but my older-than-Millennial (and mainly white) demographic is in decline on Twitter. We had our heyday. There are thriving, vibrant, positive communities on Twitter. I freely admit that I’m not part of them, my usage having dwindled to basically nil in the last three years or so. Andray Domise wrote a great piece in Maclean’s recently which outlines the extent and permutations of the good and the bad on the platform, and how some are using it to build community, amplify activism, and in some cases just have a lot of fun. I don’t think it’s enough to save the platform, though. (Vine, an acquisition that became a hugely popular feature in the Black Twitter community, was discontinued a year ago.) Platforms have a long history of lingering pocket popularity long after the mainstream has decamped. Russians and LiveJournal; Brazilians and Orkut; Indonesians and BlackBerrys. Facebook’s scale makes it a bit of a different story. Its two billion active users make it the most populous “country” on earth. More than one-in-four people on the planet log in. Unlike Twitter, it’s still growing. But at the same time, that size makes it bloody hard to manage well, and it’s subject to the same issues as other platforms. I’ve lost count of the number of times people I know have reported threats and abuse, only to be told that they don’t violate Facebook’s terms. I also know several Black female activists who’ve had their Facebook accounts suspended, commonly for the “offence” of calling out social injustice or, ironically, posting screenshots of abuse that Facebook habitually declines to address. Hell, they’re still not sure of all the ways Russians have been meddling with the Facebook ad platform. And apparently now Facebook is abandoning all pretense of caring about anyone who’s not directly paying them. Here’s the thing: platforms aren’t incentivized to change for the (our) better. Advertisers aren’t leaving, the user base isn’t leaving (at least not fast enough). Government or law enforcement isn’t penalizing their lax attitude toward abuse. Even if we want to leave, where are we going to go? Mastodon? Ello? Sure, some people have niche communities based on personal or professional interests, but many still want the status quo. Given how enmeshed our lives have become in online social spaces, we’re unlikely to go cold turkey and socialize exclusively offline. Raise your hand if there are people you know how to contact only via Facebook Messenger or some other proprietary service. Early on, Twitter was unstable garbage and sparsely populated … then eventually it killed my blogging. Facebook was a whole lot different when it was only accessible to university students. Before that we were on MySpace and Friendster. Do we even remember why we left? We did leave, though. We always do eventually. Few would argue that innovation has slowed down, be it for smartphones or social platforms. But it doesn’t stop entirely. There just needs to be a catalyst and an intriguing alternative. Someone will come up with something that’s just new and different enough. In whatever way, our current platforms will start to cost us too much. Enough problems will appear to be solved, access will be scarce initially … Then the dominant platforms will start to bleed for real. They’ll try to solve the problems we’ve been screaming about for years, or introduce new features that are old news now, but it’ll be too little, too late. They had their chance and our attention. We finally just got tired of being in a relationship that was at best, stale, and at worst, abusive. Oktoberfest in KW still has jaunty music, delicious eats, and plenty of beer. Your friends are there, too. But there are some new venues, new vendors, and new traditions in the making. Who knows what else the future will bring, online and off. See you there. Prosit! M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or email@example.com. Photo: oktoberfest, by 46137, is licensed under CC BY 2.0.