With Twitter, Facebook and even LinkedIn “share” buttons plastered on every website, any online experience can become a social one with the click of a link. The ubiquity of social networks encourages the thinking that sharing is an unquestionably good thing, especially on the Internet when there’s no limited resource to deplete. The more people that know about something cool, the better, right?
Wrong. I’m here to tell you: People ruin everything. The next time you discover something secret and amazing, you should let it stay that way. Here’s why.
John Peel Archive
Earlier this month, something wonderful was discovered. Unfortunately, that discovery assured its destruction.
On September 10, the Liverpool-based culture blog Seven Streets wrote that an archive of 458 radio shows hosted by legendary DJ John Peel had “turned up on Soundcloud.” On September 12, The Verge picked up the story. By the time I attempted to access the Soundcloud archive eight hours later, it had disappeared. Soon after, “+dB,” the user account which had created this resource had disappeared as well. As Seven Streets wrote in an update to the original post, “Sadly, it looks like the Web police have struck as the channel is currently down.”
Sad indeed. A unique and invaluable cultural resource was destroyed by the publicity The Verge and other outlets brought it, and a passionate patron of the arts was hounded (further) into hiding.
This is far from an isolated case. Public attention destroys great things all the time, even in a digital world that’s supposed to foster sharing.
The Awful Forums
The private forums for the comedy website Something Awful make another ready example — only the Awful Forums didn’t need public news stories to be destroyed by the public.
Launched in 2001, the SA Forums were for years very close-knit communities of like-minded nerds. The success of The Forums could be attributed to two factors: a $9.95 sign-up fee (which kept less-determined users away), and curation by SA’s forum admins, who were never afraid to drop the banhammer to ensure the forums stayed the forums.
Unfortunately, the Awful Forums were irrevocably changed by explosive growth in 2004. It wasn’t just that there were massive amounts of new users. It was that most were joining for the wrong reason: to access the short-lived “BitTorrent Barnyard” — a family of subforums which hosted BitTorrent files when the legality of this activity was more of a grey area.
Tens of thousands of new users flooded in to the forums. Most weren’t up to the standards of the previous guard, and many were ignorant of the codes of conduct for the community. When the Barnyard was shut down on January 1st, 2005, this unwanted influx of new user accounts was cited as the reason. As one forum user wrote in SomethingAwful’s own SAClopedia in late-November 2004,
Fight club will be no more on January 1, 2005. This is because [SA Founder Rich "Lowtax" Kyanka] is tired of the newbies, and he thinks that it’s just bringing retarded people to the forums (which it is.)
Unfortunately, this change may not have come soon enough. After dilution by hordes of new users that arrived during this period, the forums and would never be the same. The public had ruined them.
I’m sure veterans of sites like Reddit, 4chan, and Digg pine for “the good old days” in a way similar to senior Awful Forums users. Long-time Apple fans may soon join these groups. This will be due to the unfortunate side effects of Apple’s ascent to hardware dominance: increased vulnerability by viruses and other exploits, and decreased coolness implied by ownership of the Apple device.
OS X has long-enjoyed (and promoted) a reputation for being more secure than competing operating systems. Apple’s engineering skill is one reason for this advantage. A bigger reason may be that hackers target Apple devices less often because Apple’s market share is significantly smaller than that for Windows. As Apple’s market share grows, this may change — causing, I’m sure, great dissatisfaction for millions of Apple fans.
Further, in the months following iPhone’s and iPad’s release, the novelty of each was so great that mere ownership of the device made for a solid 10 minutes of conversation with any non-owner. Fast forward a few years, and Apple now sells 2 million iPhones in its first day of preorders.
Moving from exclusivity to ubiquity has made Apple billions, but it’s also made its devices less interesting to own and maybe even less secure. We may have been better off had the excellence of Apple experiences remained a secret.
Not a new problem
The harm that a crowd brings to anything noteworthy can extend outside the digital world, too. See the reason shows at many of Portland’s best house venues are now secret. See the effect that many fear Portlandia and The New York Times’ affections will have on our fair city (which, incidentally, is a terrible place to which you should never consider moving). In each case, greater knowledge by the public threatens the very existence of the thing being celebrated.
The scientists who study the world’s most-exceptional trees understand this. The locations of trees like the 379-foot Hyperion, the tallest known tree, and the Del Norte Titan, one of the most-massive, are closely-guarded secrets. So too is the exact location of Methuselah, one of the oldest.
They learned their lesson from the tragic story of Prometheus, a ~5,000-year-old tree which was chopped down by a graduate student in 1964. This and other conservation fails have taught ecologists a valuable lesson: even if 99 percent of people will behave themselves appropriately, there remains that one person in one hundred who will not. That person may even have great intentions, but those intentions don’t make their actions any less destructive. Hence, secrecy — something more of us should consider when dealing with things both wonderful and fragile.
I think we could all take a cue from ecology and learn that cool, secret things deserve to remain cool, secret things. Even on the Internet.
Some things will be destroyed immediately, simply due to greater knowledge of them. Some communities are great in large part due to their exclusivity, and thus should remain exclusive. Some products are cool because few have access to them, and some are secure for the same reason. Some things are so rare and so fragile that secrecy is the only way that they can continue to be.
Yes, people might think (for a moment, at least) you are cool for sharing some secret. Yes, you may get some page views for your “discovery” of an amazing thing. But, if you really care about the preservation of that secret thing you’d best shut up about it.
Welcome to the antisocial.