Facebook didn’t invent vanity. But it did give us about a million new opportunities to express and confirm our fragile belief in our own coolness/attractiveness/intelligence. With every like, retweet, reblog, and upvote, our confidence levels jitter upwards then crash when the endorphins wear off. Vanity is human nature. You can complain about it, but that’s just another form of vanity. Otherwise you’d simply shut up about it.
But there’s a small movement fighting against vanity. A couple weeks back, Nathaniel Mott drew a line in the sand between what he called “communication tools” and “vanity tools.” Snapchat and Vine are communication tools. Facebook and Instagram are vanity tools. The distinction isn’t always clear, and it certainly depends on the user, but to a large extent this bears out. Snapchat is about intimacy and immediacy. When there are only two people talking, the cost of embarrassing yourself is much lower. As for Vine, I agree with Nathaniel that the mechanics of creating a Vine lend themselves less to presentation and more to pure creativity, at least when compared to Instagram’s new video tool. (For anectodal evidence of this, watch a few minutes of the looping Vine platform Vinepeek and a few minutes of its Instagram equivalent, Gramfeed, and count the number of “selfies” you see).
But no platform better embodies the push against vanity than Josh Miller’s Potluck. On Potluck, no one can see how many friends you have. There are no profile bios to carefully construct, showcasing how funny and accomplished and yet totally nonchalant about it you are. no pressure to think of an “RT is not an endorsement” joke that hasn’t been made a million times before. Even the avatars are nearly nonexistent, just tiny images that look like they were shot through a peephole.
When you click on a user, the first thing you see are your mutual friends. Are there a lot of names there? There’s no reason to feel jealous of that community because you’re already a part of it. Below that are the list of stories the user has shared along with how many comments each story has, not how many likes it has. You have to click on the story to view that metric, and even then there’s no number to be found, you have to manually count them. And finally, if a link has already been shared, Potluck directs you to a conversation already taking place about it. On Twitter, thousands share the same link over and over again, and stories age quickly. On Potluck, a story link is like an anchor for conversation, timeless, the picture to Twitter’s Dorian Gray. Practically every aspect of Potluck’s design exists to keep the focus on the conversation, not the user.
Of course if you’ve played around with Potluck or have read one of the many articles written about it when it launched, you already know all this. The question I have is, is the movement against vanity it represents here to stay? Or is this little more than an aberration?
The recent statistics on Vine and Instagram do not bode well for the anti-vanity fair, if you agree with Nathaniel and me that Vine is less vain. Since Instagram launched video, the number of Vine links shared on Twitter has plummeted. AllThingsD’s Mike Isaac points out that the dip in Vine usage could be attributable to other factors, and that Instagram use has always been spiky. However, it doesn’t change the fact that Instagram is up and Vine is down.
As for Potluck, it’s far too early to know if its slow, shame-free social movement will catch on. Looking at the links I’ve shared and my friends have shared, only a handful of stories have more than two or three comments, which doesn’t provide a whole lot of incentive to post or participate. Maybe I need more friends, or maybe the friends I have simply aren’t talking, and there are great, illuminating conversations going on right now as we speak. But how would I know since Potluck isn’t searchable?
Of course, Snapchat proves that you don’t have to be searchable to be immensely popular. By embracing intimacy over narcissism, Snapchat has taken the world by storm, and if Potluck can find a way to bring a similar intimacy to online discourse (albeit more inclusively than Miller’s other project, Branch) then it could really take off.
But again, social networking didn’t make us narcissistic. There’s also the notion that vanity can be a good thing, boosting our self-awareness and therefore increasing the value we place on privacy. Yet even if Potluck never reaches the scale of Facebook and Twitter, it serves as a reminder that the way people view you online isn’t everything. And that might just keep us from drowning in our own reflection.