The state of social media vs. the original vision
Over the last few years, a belief has emerged that social media is inherently screwed. It's a cancer to society that can't be cured. I think the side effects we've been seeing warrant this kind of reaction. Strange ideologies act like information viruses, spreading through these networks and fracturing a shared sense of reality. The President is using Twitter to signal mobs. Normal people have the reach of large media companies, creating a culture of micro-celebrities. On top of that, data harvesting!
It's interesting to compare Facebook's mission statement with reality: "...to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what's going on in the world, and to share and express what matters...". The mission statement is a noble one, but it's at odds with the way the social network is both reflected in the news and experienced by the average person.
Maybe the original vision for social media was to revolutionize how people maintain relationships remotely with their outer circles. We might be taking for granted how easy it is to stay in touch in the Internet-age (vs. the 1980s). But the 1990's vision of a utopian peer to peer network became crowded with brands, politicians, celebrities, advertisers, trolls, and influencers. The companies running these networks prioritized capitalizing off of traffic and selling user data, instead of tweaking the network design to fulfill it's actual mission. It resulted in networks that are profitable, but also ones that most people want to avoid. Even though it's never been easier to stay in touch, most people don't to the extent that they can.
But maybe social media isn't inherently screwed. What if the effects we're experiencing are a result of companies being financially incentivized to make BAD design decisions? What if every network is making the same mistake, and that mistake is correctable? Maybe it's possible to design a social network that can have a good user experience while also having a business model that doesn't rape our collective psyche?
The celebrity:consumer ratio vs. a peer to peer network
Before we define the qualities of a well-designed social network, I'm curious if there is a metric that can prove how existing networks aren't fulfilling their original mission. It would be interesting to see how many "unique weekly posters" a network has in comparison to its "weekly users." Some social networks flaunt the "one billion active users" tag, but what is the ratio of citizens:lurkers? 1:10? 1:100? 1:1,000? 1:10,000?
This ratio (posters:users), could be very revealing. It could show how the networks we design result in celebrity:consumer relationships, instead of democratic peer to peer systems. Even thought the networks we have seem crowded and vibrant, it's a result of the vocal minority. It's strange to think how the silent majority, those who have accounts but don't use them, are alive in a time of digital connectivity, but don't have a platform that feels right. The irony is that the network designers are optimizing for engagement, but that process has created a toxic place that most people want to avoid.
Each person has a well of thoughts and experiences that they could be sharing, but don't. Conversations that could easily be happening don't, and people unintentionally fall out of touch. These thoughts are too personal to share on a public metric-fueled stage with everyone you've ever met, and they're not specific enough to message a single person. This means you either keep it to yourself, or you only share with the people you come across in your day (which has been much less in the last year).
What is the core problem? Surveillance or design?
So what is the real issue with social media? The traditional culprit is the flawed "business model" of social media. "If you don't pay for the product, you are the product." The fusion of surveillance, computer science, and marketing is a psychological bomb that we're only starting to experience. It's something that needs to be addressed, but I don't think it's the thing that makes social media suck. The problem is the design of the network.
If you took the design of Facebook, but stripped away advertisements and promoted posts, and then put the whole thing on a blockchain so that users owned their own data, it would still suck. The people who don't participate in it now still won't participate.
The average person's psychological avoidance to social media might all comes down to the unrealized side-effects of the design of three fundamental features: the feed, the social graph, and public metrics.
All of the main social networks (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, LinkedIn) differ on the nature of what a "post" is (character limit, required image, vanishing content), but they all share fundamental design assumptions.
The feed is a public stage to show the most "engaging" content within your network. When you connect with someone, you are subscribed to everything they ever post. Metrics are publicly displayed like a synthetic status badge. Wherever you go, these three design principles are present, and maybe these are the things that make people avoid social media.
Streams, private replies, private metrics
1) the average user has a reason to post daily
2) people have control over their feeds
We need something that is between a digital town hall and a text message. There is no middle ground between public and private right now. How can we connect a person's posts to the relevant people in their network (not their whole network), and then create a context to spark private 1:1 conversations (instead of a public one on a stage).
- Instead of 1:1 connections, you follow facets of a person
Public feed, private replies
- Your feed is the facets you follow, no public engagement, but replying to a facet leads to a 1:1 conversation
- traditional culprit, real issue
- features: feed, metrics, social graph
why these features
- optimize for engagement
proof of failure
- unique weekly posters
results of features
- town hall & a text message
- streams (content tag)
- nature of connecting
- feed of relevance + incoming streams
- private replies
- no metrics