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San Francisco and phpBB

There’s a common trait amongst Silicon Valley immigrants: they were all users of the same obscure forums and IRC rooms. kuro5hin, DALNet, Slashdot, and dozens others served as an online gathering spot for future founders and engineers. It’s remarkable that a physical exodus could have been predicted by a digital one. (Many of us discovered only after moving that we all used the same stuff growing up.)

From a casual survey, it seems as if the phpBB-effect is fading, common with the 2008-2015 cohort of immigrant founder-types and less noticeable later on. This might be because of (a) centralized platforms (Facebook, Twitter) and (b) startups are popular now. And popular things attract smart-but-very-normal people. People who didn’t grow up on weird forums.

There’s nothing wrong with normal people. Normal makes our banks function, our taxes get filed, and our military strong. It also seems that real, non-linear progress often comes from the fringe. From outsiders on weird forums.

This industry-wide Eternal September effect extends into the very atoms of San Francisco itself. Silicon Valley used to be a weird website, but it’s since become Reddit. Everyone knows about it, and everyone wants to visit.

The Three Eras

Physical or digital, all institutions go through three distinct phases:

1. Frontier. A place is unknown and edgy It attracts interesting people who go on to do interesting things. This is personal computers in 1990, the web in 1998, and [???] right now.

2. Famous. The success of the frontiersmen attracts normal people. This is a critical juncture as both outsiders and insiders are migrating to the system. Some insiders are “lost” through cultural assimilation. Management (mods, CEOs, or Presidents) often turns over at this point and things start going south.

3. Failure. The results of the normies are less impressive, more compelling frontier scenes emerge, and the ecosystem collapses.[1]

This process can unfold over hours in a demonstration, over days on a subreddit, over years in a company, and over centuries in a country.

Physical Frontiers

I see San Francisco in the second phase right now. It still attracts great talent, but it is also flooded with a lot of people that wouldn’t find themselves in California during the 19th century gold rush. It’s also terribly managed.

The network effects of a city often take decades to unravel, but 2020 changes all the rules. Many suddenly left SF back to family or elsewhere in the Bay Area. Just like folks are realizing they can live without handshakes, I think some are realizing California has better to offer than San Francisco. It’s not clear to me that SF will be the capital of startups in 2021.

It’s possible New San Francisco is one particular place, or that it just diffuses around the Bay Area. (I’m optimistic that it remains within California for now.)

Digital Frontiers

It used to be easy to find obscure cities on the web, but now it requires effort. Some small cryptocurrency Telegram groups, esoteric programming languages on IRC, and a few mailing lists that are interesting. But it’s not as plentiful as it was before.

It’s not just that the Internet is flooded with normal people, it’s also the standardization. Imagine every city was built by one company to the same spec. All houses look exactly the same. All stores look exactly the same. Would Japanese culture become more homogeneous in that world?

Facebook Groups and Subreddits have limited expression of personality. For all the security and usability flaws in Flash, it made the Internet visually weird. I’m hoping someone can bring some of that back, because I think the small stuff matters. Comic sans and blink tags are to a website what skylines and street signs are to a city.

Visual weirdness is only way to be unique. Topical weirdness is another, one of the reasons why the early cryptocurrency world was interesting. Pioneer is a third attempt at positive friction, where a modicum of effort is required before you can join.

I’d be very interested in any links or pointers to weird, interesting communities you find! Email me at daniel@pioneer.app.

[1] In online institutions, we start to see free market pressure destroy the product at this point. The market will (must!) monetize things with a lot of eyeballs, eventually making it unusable. Current case studies are web search or Amazon product search.