Parallels — Neopets, Xanga and Twitter?

My journey on the interwebz began with Neopets when I was eleven. For the uninitiated, it’s a virtual pet community with “free games, shops, auctions, chat and more!” Personally, I couldn’t care less about feeding my pets or clothing them. I knew they weren’t really hungry or dying as they liked to remind me (Neopets are immortal), so that part of the game never held my attention. I was hooked however, to the social aspects of the site — the forums and the guilds. Essentially it was a popularity contest. How many people replied to my thread? Did my post on the forum hit the reply limit of 200 messages? Did my guild have the coolest members? It was pre-pubescent elitism at its best and the rules of cool were completely different from the real world, which served me well at the time.

Once I grew out of Neopets, in around 2006 I switched to a different kind of community — Xanga. It was really an extension of Neopets for me, except for the fact that the conversation here was centered around a blog instead of a forum. I blogged on Xanga for about 5 years and I was featured on the home page on about 20 different occasions. I wasn’t an extraordinary writer (I’m still not) but I had somehow managed to build an actual following. A lot of content on Xanga was very meta, in that only power users could really understand the lingo and references and who was cool and who wasn’t. The players were different, but the game was the same.

Xanga is a real puzzle: rarely talked about, but seemingly a massive force in social networking. And yet, there are only a handful of Mashable readers we know of who are dedicated Xangans, and we rarely receive emails about it. Almost certainly, this is something to do with the Xanga culture: it just seems impenetrable to outsiders.
– Pete Cashmere on Mashable in 2007

Xanga died a slow, painful death for reasons I find startlingly similar to problems that Twitter is facing today. A lot of Twitter’s features aren’t obvious to anyone who isn’t a power user. I got on Twitter years ago and I abandoned it soon after because I didn’t find enough value in it at the time. I was mostly just following friends, who rarely tweeted and I didn’t know who else to follow. They have fixed some of these issues over time, as I recently discovered when I started using Twitter actively again — this time, to keep up with the tech world. But I soon discovered that even now, Twitter has a rather steep learning curve.

I found it impossible to wade through the sheer amount of content on my feed, so I had to prune the list of people I follow, which is definitely sub-optimal. It’s hard to find people that are into the same stuff you’re into. For instance, I had to Google “people to follow on Twitter in tech/startups” to actually find people that I should follow. I know Twitter is already working on a lot of these problems especially after its dismal numbers in the fourth-quarter, but I’m afraid it might be too little, too late. There is also a deeply rooted sub-culture inhabited by early adopters and tech enthusiasts that makes it difficult for an average user to get involved in the discussion. Unless you have significant clout, your tweets disappear into a black hole. There really isn’t much incentive to keep tweeting and producing original content when it’s nearly impossible to be heard. It’s the same problem yet again.

The cool kids have taken over, making the barrier for entry that much stronger. It’s a problem endemic to blogging/micro-blogging/content platforms, but I think the way that this is handled (algorithmically or otherwise) makes a world of a difference. Case in point: Reddit and to a smaller extent, Quora (full disclosure, I’m a redditor). I’m still finding my way around Twitter and I think it is such a brilliant product with huge potential. I hope it is given the time, space and resources to live up to that.

Side note: While writing this post, I discovered that Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter was actually the Creative Director at Xanga. Mind = Blown.

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