death of the user

A best practice in app design is to defer sign-up for as long as possible. Deliver value first, the thinking goes, before extracting personal information. Otherwise the person may not convert.

Why then is the first screen of any social network a sign-up wall? A prompt to connect with Twitter or Facebook, or, in very small gray letters, email?

This is not a case of social networks just spurning best practices. We can safely assume they've done their A/B testing, and people convert just fine. Actually, by prompting you to create an account, the app is delivering value. It is delivering the core purpose of the social network: to conspire with you to construct a better-connected identity than the one you currently have.

We see ourselves as victims of social networks whenever we forget this purpose. “Stop calling us users," we complain, as if it weren't our aspiration to become users.

If we chose another purpose, social networks could either defer signup indefinitely, or render user information invisible.

For example, imagine if we joined Twitter to help people understand the world and discover the best ideas.

If this were our purpose, we would not want identity to cloud our understanding or impede our discovery. We would want to engage the idea without bias.

If this were our purpose, we would not want identity to inhibit or pollute our own expression. We would want the ability to work out material, just as famous comedians have to avoid their fans in order to find out what's actually funny.

If this were our purpose, we would want to collaborate. On social networks we sign our name on a blank canvas and then wonder why no one will paint with us. As we see with Wikipedia, collaboration is trivially easy when identity is irrelevant.

This is not to say that there would be no authorship, no social graph. Our project would not be another x-chan.

Rather, a user would simply be another piece of context that a post has, available to the algorithm but not necessarily rendered visible. If you liked a post authored by a given user, the app might show you more of them. In the same way that if you liked a post of a dog, the app might show you more of them.

A user could be associated with a person, but it could just as easily be associated with a bot, or a group of people, or an idea.

This is all available to us already. No new technology is required. Our expectation of required and visible identity is holding us back.

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