Caught In The Webb

A Call for an Anti-Social Network

 A Call for an Anti Social Network

Mr. Webb.

A year ago this month my old agency made a joke website. The Barbarians were, and still are, quite fond of the joke website. This one, though, people seemed to really dig. It was called GroupMeh. It was a “revolutionary, game-changing social network for the tragically apathetic.” It was a big hit with the nerderati. I was reminded of this this weekend while at Coachella, when I ran into two of the co-founders of GroupMe, Steve and Jared. “Oh you were one of the guys who did GroupMeh.” Jared said. I was slightly embarrassed, but then I started rambling on about how we wanted to take it further.  I started babbling incoherently about our plans for GroupMeh. It was awkward. But the whole encounter reminded me of an idea that has been bouncing around in my brain, and a few other brains, for a few years now, even before GroupMeh (or GroupMe). The antisocial network.

When we launched GroupMeh we included a signup page that asked people for a reason why they wanted to join. Many of the comments people left were touching, and sad, and all too human. For example: “Reason? I moved in to a new city more than a year ago. I still have zero friends. Correct. Zero! Couple of banks are after me. Not to mention that I’ve never been in a relationship in my life. And I am 29 already!” Or how about this: “Got dumped by my girlfriend of ten years after living together for six months. Now live alone 20 miles away from hometown so utterly alone. Alienated all my friends for this girl. She’s very successful while I have a middling job with no future, no friends, no prospects. Oh also work overnights so very little human contact at work.” Not everyone has friends.

GroupMeh convinced me and several of my coworkers of the need for an antisocial network. After the success of GroupMeh, we submitted a proposal to Kickstarter elaborating on the concept of an antisocial network. We brainstormed all sorts of great ideas about the functionality of the site: a different randomly generated “anti-social” network every time you log in. The only emoticon is a neutral smiley face. Yelp for the best restaurants to go to alone. Trending and popular topics are omitted (God, I would love that one). Or how about this potentially very useful feature: friends you don’t interact with frequently are automatically dropped.

Several of the most pervasive and important web tools were developed by pre-existing startups that iterated and continued development in an ongoing manner until they hit on something truly revolutionary and useful. The YouTube Flash video embed. AdSense. The Facebook Like button and its Google +1 twin. Facebook Connect. The Reblog. They are all incredibly useful.

And all of these are in some manner “social.” But this should come as no surprise, since all of these were invented by companies with SOCIAL products, constantly iterating.

In this age of privacy, however, I can’t shake the thought that if an ANTI-SOCIAL network could continue to develop and iterate, eventually it would find some truly useful privacy features, over time. And considering the massive debate about privacy we’re having right now, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone developing in the same rapid, iterative, continuous process as the social networks and most of our other web products?

What if we constantly iterated on privacy?

We have Diaspora, of course. Diaspora is the Kickstarter-funded social network with an increased focus on privacy. But Diaspora is, in some ways, at odds with itself. Bear with me here, but if we put sociability in the same camp with sharing and, thus, transparency, it’s hard to see how we can expect truly great privacy features to come out of any sort of social network. It would seem to me that we need an equal and opposing camp, that of introversion or anti-sociability, not sharing, and privacy. Disapora is a social network thinking about privacy. This makes about sense as an oversharing introvert. This is not to say that social people don’t always want to share everything to everyone.

There could definitely be a niche for Diaspora and I mean no disrespect. I just think that perhaps there is a need for innovation in privacy technology, in the same way that Facebook constantly innovates on sharing, and Google constantly innovates on search. I, for one, would love to see what 2-4 developers, a designer (or anti-designer) and a product person could come up with in the typical runway of 24 months, developing, iterating and innovating constantly on the concepts of anti-sociability and privacy.

One could argue that the early results would perhaps be pretty predictable. Maybe, though it only took my coworkers ten minutes to come up with the very intriguing concept of auto-unfriending anyone you haven’t communicated with in a set amount of time. And that, alone, is a pretty interesting feature. I, for one, would not be opposed to Facebook implementing something like that. That has real privacy value. And imagine what they could think up after a few months! Imagine what a bunch of anti-social users would suggest as features.

I can’t shake the feeling that eventually some real, useful privacy functionality would come out of the exercise. Auto-un-liking of brands based on consumer sentiment. Auto-unsubscribe of emails based on lack of response. The constant re-setting of all privacy settings to their most strict unless they are continually undone. The possibilities are endless!

Would any of this be implemented in the larger world? I don’t know. I can’t help but think that a few of them would prove so compellingly useful someone would HAVE to implement them. And if the larger “social” networks resisted, perhaps new upstarts would gain a competitive edge through them. Because, after all, Facebook knows it can be potentially toppled.

Of course, this is basically impossible to fund in this day and age, given that the only real way for a web product to get funding is to not just have it have users, but to have it have users engaged in a viral loop, continuously adding more users by recommending their friends as additional users. Which is why, originally, we resorted to Kickstarter. We figured there were enough antisocial people out there who would pitch in a few bucks to get the ball rolling.

Unfortunately, Kickstarter declined our project. They didn’t really say why. They just said “Unfortunately, this isn’t the right fit for Kickstarter.” Of course, this isn’t entirely surprising. Kickstarter is a pretty friendly company. And I can’t say I blame them. After quitting my job, I briefly thought of starting up this project on my own, funding it on my own. I got really excited about it for a couple of weeks, but then I realized I am an intensely social person and, besides, I didn’t want to be “that guy.”

But the need, I am convinced, still exists. And so, I give it to you, world. Someone, please, start an anti-social network. I will kick into your seed round.

Rick Webb co-founded The Barbarian Group, a digital ad agency, and is now a writer and angel investor in the tech industry.

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