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It took me a little while to write this post on Pebble. Pebble was a start-up that looked to build a more civil microblogging platform than Twitter. Unfortunately it closed on November 1, 2023.
It supported 280 character posts, replies and messages. The staff validated prominent users such as journalist accounts. The service had its own mascot rather like the famous Twitter fail whale; it was a snail called Herbert.
It was the little touches in the user interface that most impressed me when I first started using it, like the ‘radio button’ functionality that showed you what mode you were using the service in. In the screen shot above you can see how the profile icon on the left is filled out to show I was looking at my profile.
The Pebble community
The founders set out to build a community that more resembled early Twitter than the reactionary discussion dominated platform of today. Along the way they also looked in improve the Twitter user experience design. The product was launched as T2 and slowly built up a community. There are good reasons for slowly building a community.
As co-founder, Gabor Cselle put it
“Twitter, but back to the roots”From T2 to Pebble: The Rise, Challenges, and Lessons of Building a Twitter Alternative by Gabor Cell on Medium.com
Years ago, I got to see George Oates talk about how the community around photography social network Flickr built up. The key was a slow build up of the right people to ensure a community was built with a set of norms that would morph into community rules and culture as the platform scaled larger.
Which begs the question is Pebble a platform at all, or a common state of mind that bonds the community together?
The Pebble community was surprisingly diverse from designers, fantasy authors and Silicon Valley insiders to Japanese cat enthusiasts and a few random netizens like myself. It was odd and eclectic like Twitter circa 2006 / 2007. In this respect it certainly met the brief of “Twitter, but back to the roots”.
This diversity was even more surprising that the platform had about 20,000 registered accounts in total. Media coverage of T2 had garnered an original waiting list of 33,000 interested people.
T2 is dead; long live Pebble
Originally the platform was called T2, a not so subtle allusion to the ambition of building a better Twitter microblogging service. One that isn’t full of reactionary content, or the erratic policies of owner Elon Musk.
T2 rebranded to Pebble. This was to provide a name that was more human-friendly than T2. The move to Pebble pleased investors, but didn’t help attract new consumers.
Pebble didn’t work for everyone, my friend Stuart claimed that he found it unusable with Microsoft Edge. Pebble didn’t have an app, which would have taken time to develop and so would APIs.
If Pebble had started licensing APIs to social listening platforms, this may have driven more brand interest in the platform over time and would have been a clear differentiator vis-a-vis Threads, Bluesky, TikTok and Instagram.
In the technology sector, scale is considered to be everything. But that’s the approach that left us with TikTok, Facebook and Twitter with all of their attendant problems. Yet despite the attendant problems of large technology platforms, trust and safety were not clear compelling differentiators for Pebble.
A second problem that the founders identified was that there wasn’t enough content coming in to make it a daily destination. Like Twitter and Threads before it, I found I had to ‘wind up’ to putting content on the platform on a daily basis.
My timing wasn’t great.
The last post was by Serge Keller, who posted a video of Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again.
“This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”Winston Churchill
Pebble didn’t completely die. As soon as news broke of the platform’s demise a few things happened. Participants started rallying around, sharing their details on other platforms and sharing invites for Bluesky and Mastodon.
Gabor set up a sub-Reddit for Pebble participants, which didn’t get too much take-up. But a Mastodon instance that he skinned in the Pebble UI and put up as a social experiment did manage to take off.
It provides an improvement on the user experiences I have seen on other Mastodon instances so far. A surprisingly large amount of the Pebble community kind of held together across Bluesky and Mastodon. This indicates to me that to those that know safety and trust might be more compelling than we currently believe. I find myself using the Pebble Mastodon instance more than Bluesky at the moment.
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