I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member

JANUARY 8TH, 2016 — POST 004

We all know Aaron Sorkin has a few issues with technology. Recently, on one of The Hollywood Reporter’s award roundtables, Sorkin gave even more insight into exactly what scares him so much about the internet. In bemoaning the web’s democratising power, Sorkin pointed out:

“The internet takes away credentials.”

Sorkin’s point here is, in a place where every voice is theoretically given equal weight, how is the consumer to determine the valid and true from the rest? And yet, Sorkin does seem to be missing something here, specifically present in his choice of words. “Credentials” are institutional, and inherently exclusive. Some voices have them but most don’t. As such, the valid and true voices Sorkin claims become lost in the wilds online are those qualified through institutional means. It is rather these institutions that dissolve through the inclusivity of the web, specifically in places like Wikipedia and Reddit. This is really what’s got Sorkin itchy. It’s not credentials that the internet takes away, but rather the internet undermines the very institutions who’ve historically done the credentialing. But there are plenty of online credentials. And, furthermore, the future of online social networks seems destined to be built upon new exclusive institutions.

There is a hunger on the part of the user for these institutions. For me specifically, the fallout from the Facebook experience has indicated that no matter the size of a mass, there is more to gain from an informed few. Facebook has become a place where people post complaints to Walmart, where most people’s Instagram feeds are fed, where I’m targeted with promoted posts to buy self-balancing scooters. Facebook has no mechanism for highlighting informed voices, instead relying on the weight of popularity measures of Shares and Likes. Facebook epitomises the inclusive internet, and has fundamental problems because of it.

Product Hunt is the perfect illustration of the exclusive internet institution. The site seeks to foreground the “best new products, every day”. From tech to games, books to podcasts, Product Hunt operates on an up-and-downvote system similar to Reddit. However, distinct from Reddit, only select members of the community are able to post products to be featured on the site. Furthermore, even the commenting on product posts is limited to an inner circle. Product Hunt forges the exact kind of credentials Sorkin believes the internet was set up with the intention of eradicating. In garnering a credentialed subset of the community, Product Hunt as an institution is securing its relevance and longevity whilst exemplifying a new online social model.

And it is here that I will admit that Sorkin is right, just a decade too late. The success of sites like Product Hunt (I would also include Medium in the same category) can be accounted for by its institutional value of informed voices, a value that was absent during the Great Digital Migration of the mid-2000s. With the web saturated with every voice, the new social paradigm must incorporate a mechanism for credentialing those voices that consistently speak sense.

Would Sorkin be one of them?

Read yesterday’s