Yesterday I signed up to new social networking site Menshn. I must admit I did so to wallow in a bit of schadenfreude, as not only is it being launched by high-profile Tory MP Louise Mensch, but the co-creator and technical mastermind behind the site, former Labour “technology expert” Luke Bozier, had claimed it would “rival Twitter”. All indications suggested it would be rubbish and… well it is. But there are much deeper and more worrying problems than that.
Let’s start with the site itself. The name is actually fairly clever, until you realise it’s a pun on Mensch’s name. Imagine how different it would be if all masterminds of Internet startups were so vainglorious – would we have been so keen to embrace FaceZuck, Walesipedia or TomSpace? If I started a video streaming service and called it PeteTube would people do anything else but laugh in my face? Yeah “Menshn” is a nice pun, but it’s cringey to use it in this way.
So the purpose of the site is it’s very much like Twitter, except you have to speak on certain topics. These topics are very few, so far only consisting of US Elections, Tech, UK Politics, Euro 2012 and, um, Women. Want to talk about Wimbledon or the Olympics, or Greek politics, or what’s on TV? Sorry, you can’t. The masters have spoken – these are the only topics you can discuss. You can request a new topic, and if it’s deigned suitable for the site then they might add it if they feel like it.
(And “women” as a topic?! Really? Doesn’t it beggar belief that one of the most high profile female Conservative MPs approves the retrogressive shit that “women” counts as a topic of discussion?!)
This is both a failure to understand social networking, and a worrying insight into how Louise Mensch sees the Internet working. Twitter and Facebook work by allowing us to think that it’s our online space. They’ll wade in if you break the rules to a degree that’s illegal or obscene, but generally they sit back and allow you to do what you want, while they reap benefits from your personal data or ad clicks.
What people don’t want is to be told what they’re allowed to talk about, and go scraping and bowing to the web masters when they want to talk about something else. It shows up again Mensch’s stupid grasp of the Internet (remember this is a woman who said Twitter should be switched off during national crises – no Arab Spring for us then!). She obviously thinks the social networking should be a nice walled, carefully policed area where web masters vet everything that’s said and posted is moderated for its suitability. Do we really want that Internet? If she wasn’t a high profile and politically ambitious MP with an interest in these matters it would be funny, but as it is it’s very concerning.
The idea as well that this solves a problem with Twitter – that people just don’t know how to find stuff to talk about – is pathetic. Anyone who knows how to use Twitter properly can find a conversation in no time. Consider this – imagine something unexpected has just happened that people want to discuss, say half way through an episode of Time Team Live Tony Robinson sets his arm on fire. You want to follow people’s reactions? Click on the hashtag #timeteam (or #tonyrobinson, or #baldricklimbinferno). Job’s a goodun. On Menshn you’d have to either beg the web masters to allow you to talk about it, or lose the conversation among the whole of the TV Section (which doesn’t exist yet). So how is this better than Twitter again…?
Another big issue is scalability. To keep threads on-topic (which is the point of the site), there must be heavy moderation to weed out not just the trolls and spammers, but the genuine drift of conversation, and people plonking topics in the wrong place because there’s nowhere else to post them. At the moment – seeing as the contact details is to direct message Mensch or Bozier themselves – there seems to be a staff of two, and one of them is the MP for Corby and presumably (and hopefully) too busy serving her constituents to spend her time answering technical support queries and moderating troll attacks. And they do seem to have a very heavy-handed moderation policy – more on this later.
Another thing is that posts only stay on the site for a week. Supposedly it’s to keep topics fresh, but cynics would say it’s because the site only has piddly server space. So people can’t see how a conversation started if it began more than a week ago? So a big news story breaks while you’re on a two week holiday? Well, there’s no way of going back and skimming through what people were saying on Menshn. Ridiculous.
But let’s be honest – the site is terrible, but crapness is not a crime. It’s up to startups to try these things, and if people don’t like it they won’t use it. But there are far bigger issues than the fact the site isn’t very good, and that’s the gaping security issues.
I signed up via Facebook, and was on the site. There no warning it would install cookies although it did (naughty!), and I instantly started to get emails from the site with no mention on them of how to unsubscribe. But the worst part is the site has proven to almost pathetically easy to hack. For a social networking site, with ambitions to take over Twitter, the lack of security protocols and disregard for the protection of users’ personal details is unforgivable.
So the mix of utter pointlessness and security minefield led me to decide, a couple of hours after signing up, I’d delete my profile. Um… there’s no way to do it. Once you’re in there, you can’t leave. So I PM Bozier and the MP for Corby, saying I want to leave as the security issues are bothering me and, to be honest, the site isn’t worth staying around. Bozier replies (he’s going to be busy guy isn’t he?) and says:
‘The security reports are unfounded, and based on malicious rumours. We\’d be sad to see you go, but we are implementing a \’close account\’ function shortly.’
So… not only is he downplaying the security issues (either there’s a lot of lying geeks out there mocking up fake screenshots of hacks, or Bozier’s not being totally honest with his users), but he hasn’t thought of putting a ‘close account’ function on the site before launch. The whole fiasco is basically a complete exercise in tin-pot amateurishness, which makes me wish I had more than one face and more than two palms to really convey the utter ineptitude that’s going on here.
So on Menshn, one wag suggests I slag off the Conservative Party to get myself booted off, which seems to account for a lot of missing members. So I do. I post:
The Tory Party is a big pile of shit!
And within minutes when I revisit the site and get a screen blank except for the word “blocked” in the top corner. Result!
I’ve no idea why this actually caused my blocking – was it the profanity? Was it because I was trolling? Was it because I insulted Mensch’s party? Was it deemed off topic? Don’t they like you making obscure Spaced references? Who knows, because they didn’t tell me. They just hit the “block” button.
BUT! On using a different machine in a different building this morning, I decided to see if my account was deleted or I’d been IP blocked, and I find myself automatically signed in via Facebook, with a different username (PeteM2, rather than PeteM1) and signed up to a completely fresh account, without doing anything. What the hell is going on? This is getting stupid now.
Menshn is a bad idea, very poorly executed. Bozier’s a supposed tech expert that has shown terrible judgement and created not only an appallingly thought-out social network, but one that fails spectacularly on the technical front. And in Mensch it shows just what a terrifying prospect she is should she ever become a minister – someone who seems so interested in how we use social networking, but shows a terrifyingly misunderstanding of what it actually is. This, everyone, is her vision of the Internet – people told what to talk about, and pounced on it they transgress. Scary, scary stuff.
(EDIT – Just noticed there is now a “close account” button in your control panel, and it’s refreshing to see it’s a “delete” not a Facebook-style “deactivate”. ANOTHER EDIT – Although with Mensch on Twitter claiming she can “restore accounts” is this actually true?. THIRD EDIT – I deleted my account. It said “Sorry to see you go. Come back soon”. Job done, I thought. Then I go to the site’s homepage and it’s automatically signed me in again via Facebook. Seriously, this is getting ridiculous. EDIT 4… It seems that whilever you’ve got Facebook permissions set to access the site you will always be logged in with a new account if you have Facebook open, even if you’ve deleted your Menshn account. So if you delete your account make sure you delete the app from Facebook too.)