Aaron Swartz, whom I’ve talked about before, is one of the people involved with Reddit, which just got bought by Conde Nast. He reflects on the strangeness of it all, especially when viewed from outside the tech bubble:
At non-tech parties, I’d have trouble explaining what it was I did. (“So you, uh, have a web site?”) Once I went far outside the city to have lunch with an author I respected. He asked about what I did, wanted me to explain it in great detail. He asked how many visitors we had. I told him and he sputtered. “I’ve spent fifteen years building an audience, and you’re telling me in a year you have a million visitors?” I assented.
Puzzled, he insisted I show him the site on his own computer, but he found it was just a simple as I described. (Simpler, even.) “So it’s just a list of links?” he said. “And you don’t even write them yourselves?” I nodded. “But there’s nothing to it!” he insisted. “Why is it so popular?”
Inside the bubble, nobody asks this inconvenient question. We just mumble things like “democratic news” or “social bookmarking” and everybody just assumes it all makes sense. But looking at this guy, I realized I had no actual justification. It was just a list of links. And we didn’t even write them ourselves.
Where I work, I’m surrounded by people who believe deeply in a lot of this stuff, this — how do you describe it — democratization, socialization, personalization, whatever, that the web is doing to our society. I’m generally more wary, slower to accept, less willing to get behind the “new” than the people around me. It’s not that I don’t see the promise and the potential, its just that I’m a bit more the wry observer.
If my American Studies education taught me anything, it is that one can strive for great ideals and fail spectacularily in the implementation. You see something like Reddit and you think, huh, that’s interesting, its an interesting concept, its a clear framework, it seems like a good idea. But where is it leading us, how does it think to shape us, and how well will it succeed?