Do we need Weird Social?
On Facebook's E.gg, taming Weirdness, and three flavors of nostalgia
|Maxime Eyraud||Sep 1, 2020||2|
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Today we’re looking at Facebook’s latest experiment, what it stands for, and why it’s bound to fail.
A New Experiment
The NPE Team at Facebook recently announced E.gg, a new nostalgia-inspired app for freeform creativity. Part Early Web in its aesthetic, part Tumblr in its intentions, it's the latest addition to the team's growing list of niche apps.
If you haven't heard, NPE stands for "New Product Experimentation." The team was created by Facebook in July 2019 with the mission to launch new consumer-focused apps around specific use cases. As stated in its introductory post, Facebook chose to create a separate developer name to
help set the appropriate expectations with people that, unlike Facebook’s family of apps, NPE Team apps will change very rapidly and will be shut down if we learn that they’re not useful to people, as well as to minimize disruption to the billions of people who use Facebook apps every day.
The team has held good on these ambitions. After a surprising hiatus - almost a year went by between its initial announcement and its first release - it has been shipping new apps at a fast pace, as its blog can attest. Three apps were released in April this year, four more in May, and another one in June. E.gg, announced in July, is currently in a limited beta.
Every new release seems to address a use case more specific than the previous one. Tuned is "a private digital space for couples to create, save and celebrate artifacts from their relationship." Kit is a voice messaging app for the Apple Watch. Forecast is "a community for crowdsourced predictions and collective insights." Facebook's only goal with these is to experiment and see what sticks. In that, E.gg is no different.
Cracking the E.gg
So what is E.gg, exactly? Because it's still in beta, there's very little information out there, but let's take a look at what we do know.
At its core, E.gg is a social app that lets you create freeform mixed-media collages, or "canvases." You start with an empty vertical frame, which you can then fill with pictures, GIFs, text, emoji, and clickable buttons. The app lets you position, tilt, and overlay every element any way you like, like you would with an actual paper collage. Judging from the few canvases currently visible, the initial frame seems to expand downward as you keep adding new elements to it. This makes it essentially an infinitely scrollable moodboard.
Following the same format, your personal profile serves as a meta-canvas, where clickable thumbnails take you to your individual canvases. You can view and share your creations anywhere on the web via a personalized e.gg URL.
E.gg also has this neat feature that lets you see attributions for the content of a specific canvas. When it's activated, hovering over an element surfaces its source. However, the feature currently only works for GIFs - a serious limitation, considering most of the content consists in static pictures.
E.gg very much feels like a work in progress, as you would expect from an artsy app released a month ago, by an experimental team to boot. Though the app's news page shows no recent announcement, the NPE Team has made it clear that every one of its experiments is always subject to change.
A Weird manifesto
To understand E.gg beyond its features, to understand what it stands for, it's helpful to look at its official About page. Here's what it says:
We started working on E.gg after a few of us found ourselves missing a certain raw and exploratory spirit that was so emblematic of The Early Internet. Sure, it was clumsy to use — dangerous at times, even — but in that awkward mess was a weird and enlivening bazaar of manically-blinking GIFs, passionate guestbook entries, personal webpages made by people who cared deeply about a niche interest of theirs and wanted simply to carve out their own digital space. So we wondered: Is this misplaced nostalgia? What if people could express themselves more freely today? Can we make more room for the weird and off-beat? Give creative control back to people? Create a low-pressure space for the really unpolished and mismatched things? We offer to you our experiment at recapturing that atmosphere: E.gg.
There's a lot to unpack here! But mainly, the statement seems to conjure up three different flavors of nostalgia.
First, aesthetic nostalgia - that of "The Early Internet," a "weird and enlivening bazaar" that supposedly juxtaposed interests and genres ("the really unpolished and mismatched things") in a more permissive fashion than we do today.
Second, technical nostalgia - the claim that creativity back then flowed more freely because the underlying infrastructure itself wasn't yet constrained. This enabled mixed media experiences (the "manically-blinking GIFs" and "passionate guestbooks") that today live separate from each other. Giving "creative control back to people," then, seems to be mostly a matter of features and formats.
Third, social nostalgia - the idea that our creativity over time has been curbed by our obsession with likes and our desire to belong. A "low-pressure space" is posited to be a way out of our creative self-consciousness.
All this reads like a very peculiar kind of manifesto. One that wishes to retrieve and revive some supposedly extinct forms of creativity, rather than to design and enable new ones. One that laments what was, rather than celebrates what is. One that looks backward, not forward.
In their call for "the weird and the offbeat," these words also stand in sharp contrast with Facebook's unifying pretensions. In fact, if it weren't for the credits at the bottom of the website's main page ("By NPE Team from Facebook"), or the "Data Policy" link pointing you to Facebook's own policies, you'd be hard-pressed to identify E.gg as part of the Facebook portfolio. It's arguably a bit surprising that the company behind an all-encompassing mega-platform would suddenly seek to appeal not to the masses, but to the niches.
Do we need Weird Social?
E.gg's manifesto and, really, its very existence, raise the following question: Do we need Weird Social?
It's not an obvious one. Today's mainstream platforms have grown to scales that were deemed impossible even a few years ago. Facebook alone closed the second quarter of 2020 with 2.7 billion monthly active users. Instagram reaches over 1 billion users today. TikTok (excluding Douyin) surpassed 1 billion users worldwide in less than four years.
As these platforms continue to grow, reaching ever more diverse audiences wherever they may be, the need for niche services seems to fade. It looks like everyone will just end up on the same few platforms in the end.
E.gg's answer to that question, however, appears to be an unequivocal 'Yes'. Yes, it tells us, we need dedicated platforms to:
make room for "weird," "off-beat" creativity (aesthetic nostalgia);
open up possibilities through mixed media, in ways that mainstream platforms don't allow (technical nostalgia);
empower us as creators to experiment without pressure (social nostalgia).
Here, I want to explore the underlying assumptions behind each of these claims. I'll start with aesthetic and social nostalgia, before ending with technical nostalgia.
Let's dive in.
Take one look at E.gg's website, and you might think the app as a whole is all about that retro vibe. Everywhere you look on the featured canvases are bright colors, flashy GIFs, and tumblr-esque bits of wisdom ("Sometimes the most meaningful things take the longest time to show signs of progress"). Whether pop- or dark wave-inspired, every element has something deliberately passé to it.
The NPE Team is aware of the confusion, and has tried to clear things up right away on its About page:
We acknowledge that a lot of this seems like misplaced nostalgia, and maybe it totally is, but it's important to note that we are _not_ looking to create a 90s-throwback platform. We built E.gg to enable all sorts of content / visual styles (ideally, the rougher the better) — the 90s infomercial/webpage style just happened to be fun so we ran with it for this page.
The Early Web aesthetic, apparently, is here only to demonstrate what's possible with the app: it's a showcase, not a guideline.
Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that the team's intentions with E.gg are indeed about bringing the past back into the foreground. Weirdness here is a substance to be retrieved from the archives, presented as the only viable way out of our contemporary visual boredom. If aesthetic dullness is the disease, a vintage shot of Weird is supposed to be the antidote.
There's something strange about such an ambition - to establish Weirdness as a rule, and to hold it nice and quiet within the confines of a single, dedicated app. Creating a well-defined place to house our most rule-breaking creations feels somewhat contradictory. As Aaron Z. Lewis told me:
Most Weirdness comes from going against the grain of an otherwise normal context. Weirdness is a relative quality rather than a property that's inherent to the medium. In other words, what makes something weird is the contrast between the frame break and the broader context that it's happening inside of.
The very idea that Weird Social could stay weird for long also sounds like wishful thinking. One of the Mainstream's greatest strengths has always been its ability to absorb more edgy subcultures, to tune them down until they're digestible by the average consumer. Jazz. Rock. Punk. Pop. Rap. And that's just music. Subversive aesthetics in every medium suffer mainstream integration until they're nothing but distant (but highly lucrative) memories of cultural rebellion.
The internet has only accelerated this trend. Today, ubiquitous access, smartphone proliferation, global social networks, and our Extremely Online-ness together mean any piece of innovative media content that can go viral, will. As Toby Shorin puts it in The Diminishing Marginal Value of Aesthetics: "Novel aesthetic strategies are brought to market much faster, thanks to zero marginal cost distribution." They've inherited their velocity from their software surroundings.
No matter how inherently niche or weird an aesthetic, the Mainstream picks it up, amplifies it, copies it, integrates it. Until Weird isn't weird - or weird enough - anymore, and Weird-minded users move on to other weird stuff to indulge in.
In his essay, Toby Shorin describes a general "dampening of the effectiveness of aesthetic strategies." Cheap to produce and to distribute, aesthetics no longer make for durable moats. They're easily copied, disrupting the very notion of authorship, as well as the livelihood of the creatives who until recently could leverage their upstream position in the aesthetic stream.
While Toby's focus is on the creators, the same phenomenon affects social platforms too. Aesthetics today travel seamlessly across platforms as users circulate the most creative content within their own networks. Through billions of individual nodes, an ever-more efficient content supply chain has formed that can popularize and commoditize aesthetic innovation in a matter of days.
With so many entry and exit points, no platform is an island, exempt from external influence. Nor can a platform prevent its own native aesthetic from leaking out into the wilderness, either online or offline. If an aesthetic is appealing enough, it's bound to spread no matter what - losing its edginess in the process.
That the NPE team thinks E.gg can remain a haven for "the weird and the off-beat" is oblivious. If the Weird aesthetic it's trying to bring back makes enough of a cultural splash, the flocks of new users will soon make it into a boring blob, or the Weird itself will grow successful elsewhere beyond recognition. In any case, it's a losing battle.
At the core of Egg's social nostalgia is a belief in the loss of our creative innocence - something like the social media equivalent of the Bible's original sin.
The story goes like this. In the beginning, there was the Early Web, full of enthusiastic pioneers exploring the creative possibilities of new interfaces and media. With everyone excited about this new world, early users felt free to experiment. There was no judgement, no censorship; people could be unapologetically themselves.
But one day, something changed. (Here, the story gets a bit blurry.)
Maybe it was the massive influx of new internet users that suddenly made people self-conscious about the content they were posting. Or context collapse, which made every post online a potential liability. Or the birth of the social profile, which made our online presence into an open book. The addition of a social interaction layer through likes and comments turned our digital life into a global competition. Likeability, not originality, became the driving force behind our creations.
It's a compelling narrative, but a simplistic one. It's possible that we've lost part of our creative innocence as an aesthetic consensus emerged online and started pushing the Weird out of the field of possibilities. But this process isn't linear: it's a fractal.
Each and every social platform unconsciously reenacts the story from start to finish. From its digital birth to its mainstream peak to its demise, it subjects its users to varying levels of social pressure. Even if we postulate that online creativity as a whole has declined for fear of peer judgement, in effect every platform finds itself at a unique stage in this process.
In his piece on Aesthetic Inflation, Ryan Dawidjan touched on how a platform's original aesthetic inevitably shifts over time.
Aesthetic inflation is a steady increase in the baseline expectations of ‘quality’ and style of content shared within a social network. 📈 The photo you may have posted in a heartbeat four years ago isn’t something that you would feel compelled to have others see today. Slowly but surely aesthetic inflation tends to root out the raw, candid, and whacky visuals that may thrive in the early days.
This can occur in two ways:
Content: "The actual scenery, objects, experiences, or landscapes within a photo.[...]Think bathroom mirror selfies, airplane wing shots, kale salad bowl, girlfriend leading with her arm behind her back, ordinary sunset, etc."
Style: "The visual style, layout, pattern, and format of a photo. Think heavy filters, screenshots, black borders, collages, etc."
As expectations shift and social pressure makes itself more pervasive, Aesthetic Inflation ends up reconfiguring everything that's produced within a network - not by force, but in a subtle, sweeping way. When everything around you starts looking more refined, you tend to adopt the same aesthetic just to keep your spot in the cultural loop. All these individual micro-adjustments add up, together leading to a collective shift.
Among the reasons for Aesthetic Inflation, Ryan lists three that I think pertain more directly to social nostalgia.
Subtle or explicit modeling after other user group’s behavior: for example, groups like brands and influencers "have natural incentives to produce more striking and interesting content."
Increasing rates of context collapse: the convergence of many personal selves forces your profile to be a public catch-all for multiple relationship types
Natural law of messaging: “All apps with DMs eventually become dating apps:” The need to please (or, rather, date) pushes users to make their content more refined and aspirational as "a profile's surface area becomes a point of evaluation."
All this affects not just some platforms, but indeed all of them. Aesthetic Inflation is inherent to social networks as their audience grows and evolves.
Therefore, just as it's impossible to authoritatively institute Weirdness as a creative rule, so too it's impossible to rid a social platform of any and all traces of self-consciousness.
Hoping to, once and for all, free users creatively by making a platform "social pressure-free" might be a noble intention, but Aesthetic Inflation catches up eventually. There's just no stopping it.
Still, you can tell the NPE Team takes this responsibility seriously. One of its founding principles is "Creativity as its own solitary reward." For example, it chose to leave out like counts and comments - now common fixtures of most social platforms - to encourage more experimental content on E.gg. In a sense, that's starting where Instagram left off.
Sure, it's a simple way to prevent social incentives from ever swaying users' creativity. But it also reads a bit naive. Social incentives will exist; they just won't be allowed on the platform. Does it work all the same?
Again, what initially seems like a good idea might prove misguided pretty quickly. As Eugene Wei writes in Status as a Service (StaaS), we're all just "status-seeking monkeys," seeking out "the most efficient path to maximizing social capital." Depriving its users from building that capital with their creations means E.gg is essentially sentencing them to a social vacuum, with no feedback loop for them to iterate on their work, or to incentivize them to create at all.
Judgement-free also means reward-free. And in a world where every product is now inherently social, being antisocial is a weakness, not a strength.
Is Weird Social a matter of features?
The NPE Team seems to think so. E.gg's manifesto mourns the Early Web for its legendary "clumsiness," a mixed-media mess of GIFs, guestbooks, links, and pictures - all juxtaposed, fighting for the visitor's attention. Central to E.gg's trademark canvases is the idea that the partitioned media experiences we have today (music with music; pictures with pictures; videos with videos) fail to give us the creative room we crave. And that freeform, being more open, is the only option for "the weird and off-beat."
This makes sense. If the interfaces we use shape our thinking, it stands to reason that they would also influence how free, or how constrained, we feel creatively.
Each media format fosters a specific kind of personal expression. Snaps being ephemeral meant people could use Snapchat to share content they wouldn't on other platforms. The introduction of Stories later enabled users to weave their once disconnected impressions into more cohesive personal narratives. Similarly, Instagram's grid is a very different framework from Facebook's all-encompassing profile. A platform's features are its creative idiosyncrasies.
Yet creative innovation often works in spite of a platform's features, not because of them. The history of social media - short as it is - offers numerous examples of how users work around these limitations, or even leverage them to innovate on a platform's accumulated creative norm.
Consider "Open for a surprise" photos, which made the most of Twitter's limited image preview to hide a surprise out of frame. The big reveal - a hidden subject, object, or punchline - was then made visible only on the enlarged image.
Then, in January 2018, Twitter started using machine learning to crop photos to their "most interesting part" - the one that users were most likely to want to see. The tweak suddenly made the surprise element much harder to pull, largely stopping the trend in its track.
Something similar happened when users tried to exploit Twitter's... color palette. Picture previews on the platform use white backgrounds, while enlarged images have black backgrounds. Knowing this, creators started using transparent elements that would appear only when users clicked on a pic.
The hack, however, was compromised when Twitter introduced its "Dark Mode" - and an even darker "Lights Out" mode shortly after. The once transparent elements now appeared upfront on image previews, retroactively messing with the tweets that had used the effect to great success only a few months before.
And the list goes on. Take this Beyoncé-inspired, choose-your-own-adventure Twitter thread. Or how meme-and-theme accounts transformed Instagram into a sort of public diary. Take Weird Twitter. Or Weird Facebook.
The most exciting acts of online creativity happen on the margins of a platform's use cases and features. They manifest spontaneously through bottom-up innovation, not authoritatively through platform direction.
There is no need for Weird social platforms, because the Weird is not a matter of features. It pops up organically as users themselves look for the most appropriate ways to share their stories and obsessions, or just to have fun. It lives on mainstream platforms, half-hidden from us normies, but thriving. Not even hiding per se - just unnoticed, because we're not paying attention.
But once in a while, a splash of Weird reveals itself and spreads like wildfire, catching everyone's attention, if only for a brief moment.
Back in January 2019, the Instagram egg (aka @world_record_egg) came to life: a simple image of a brown egg, with the caption, "Let's set a world record together and get the most liked post on Instagram. Beating the current world record held by Kylie Jenner (18 million)! We got this." The post reached 18.4 million likes in just under 10 days, becoming the most-liked Instagram post of all time. It now has over 54 million likes.
It's perhaps not pure chance that the NPE Team chose to name its new app E.gg. In fact, I like to think it was a nod to the Egg's accomplishment, its Weird tour de force. But I also think the decision was ill-advised.
What was it, really, that made the Egg so successful? It wasn't a feature, or a format. In fact, the @world_record_egg was an image like billions others, displayed in the same rigid grid as every other post. It wasn't interactive, or even visually striking (the picture came from Shutterstock).
What was exciting was that its deliberate randomness enabled it to stand out from Instagram's otherwise manicured content. That it aimed to compete with Kylie Jenner, one of the platform's most representative figures, only made the contrast more obvious. It was a well-executed fringe use case, not a technical prowess.
In its belief that it could put creative control "back" in the hands of users, E.gg misses the whole point. Freeform canvases won't save creativity, because creativity doesn't need saving.
The cost of safe bets
Whether aesthetic, social, or technical, E.gg's nostalgic manifesto ultimately fails to impress. No matter how you slice it, its retro rhetoric feels oblivious to the dynamics at play on and across today's social platforms.
In all this, the NPE Team also fails to address the blue elephant in the room: that Facebook itself is largely responsible for the aesthetic neutralization and standardization of the web. (In her article for The Atlantic, ironically titled "Even Facebook Is Pining for the Internet It Destroyed," Kaitling Tiffany made sure to point out the paradox.)
That the call for weirder social networks would emerge from inside the most mainstream of them all is quite striking. At the end of the day, E.gg’s attempt at weirdness was made possible by the very powers it says it’s fighting against: an experimental team, insulated from Facebook’s pressures yet enabled by its riches, ventured into new consumer territories without having to suffer the consequences.
But safe bets don’t make for lasting impact. Without proper incentive structures in place (Who stands to benefit? What does success, or failure, look like? Does the NPE Team see any upside?), Facebook’s growing list of experiments is sure to remain inconsequential.
Does it mean there is no room for new networks to develop and claim their own aesthetics? Are we forever bound to use generic platforms for everything, with no hope of escape?
Fortunately, no. The larger the platform, the more obvious its deficiencies become to its users. As the Reddits and Facebooks of this world continue to aim for the lowest common denominator with universal features, the most demanding communities can feel the urge to build their own creative refuges. As Greg Isenberg writes: "There is too much surface area for Reddit to possibly cover within constraints of subreddits."
In Come for the Network, Pay for the Tool, Toby Shorin argues that: "Just as built-in social networks are a moat for information products, customized tooling is a moat for social networks." He goes on to list a number of opportunities, from "chat groups for gaming and fantasy sports" to "food influencer communities." A "community chat for Dungeons & Dragons players," for example, could include "character creation interfaces" and "dice tools."
The key here is that aesthetics serve a purpose: unlike E.gg, Toby's suggestions go beyond sheer creativity. Their interface manifests their mission; they make obvious who they're built for. They have value because they fill a community's need, not because they claim to heroically bring creativity back from the dead.
We'll know soon enough if E.gg's premise has struck a chord. Hobbi, the NPE Team's app for short-form content creation around personal projects, folded in July after just a few months, having reached less than 10,000 downloads. The consumer social space is make-or-brake - let's see how long E.gg's Weird experiment lasts.
The best hyperlinks you’ll click on today.
🃏 The Stockbrokers Of Magic: The Gathering Play for Keeps | Cecilia D'Anastasio
I’m only starting to discover the insane amount of passion and money that goes into hardcore collections. This piece is a good intro to how Magic card trading has gone from a nerdy hobby to speculative investing. Jerry Lu also has an excellent thread on designing Magic cards.
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