WTF is Social Media?

Facebook launched when I was in high school and I remember my older friends who were graduating and going to college telling me about it. They were joining an exclusive new university network. It was unclear what they could really do on the network then, but it quickly became evident that they were participating in the early stages of the mainstreaming of social media. Social media was all about being able to easily share things on the internet: photographs, links to articles, text, video, etc.

The iconic tumblr CTA for sharing media

You could also befriend people you knew in real life or had never met before and consume the media they shared in a chronologically organized newsfeed. And soon networks emerged where you could follow anyone on the service and see all the things they shared. Then you could interact with that media, liking, commenting, and resharing it. This content was social media, and it was accessed via social networks.

The world of social media has changed a lot since then. Things have become less about the network and more about the media. Ben Thompson just wrote an excellent essay about this evolution. This image in particular stood out to me which highlights the transition from networks that organized media in timeline of people you proactively selected to follow to a platform that algorithmically presents user generated content from the entire corpus of contributors.

Ben Thompson's social/communications map

We all experience this now whether we are cognizant of it or not. The networks we used to visit for the content from our friends and people we were interested in are now loaded with media generated by people we don't follow. The algorithm controls the experience and content we are surfaced, not the network. This transition has happened for one simple reason: platforms are incentivized to make as much money as they can, and that only happens when people spend as much time as possible consuming content so more ads can be served. Incentives drive behavior, so this is a rational evolution. The algorithmic feed is not social media or a social network, it is the product of a global media company that uses AI to capture your attention so you continue to consume content created by everyone else but the company itself.

But just because this is a rational evolution of social networks does not mean it is good. The incremental monetization that a platform gets by prioritizing addiction to its experience generally comes at the expense of the wellbeing of its users and the integrity of the network itself. I personally dislike how these incentives influence the behaviors of the network participants. I don't know anyone who feels great after scrolling through these media platforms. Memes are fun and awesome, but the dopamine hits always end in a crash. Scrolling is the new smoking, and we collectively waste an inordinate amount of time consuming garbage. This isn't a new phenomenon though. We've done it since the dawn of media proliferation. I can't count the hours I sat glued in front of a television watching nonsense that rotted my brain. Digital media is just more pervasive and accessible than other mediums.

I like to think that we are on the precipice of change. People are waking up to the fact these experiences are bad for their mental health and they are experimenting with building new networked products that cater to our desires (ie creating, sharing, and consuming content from people we know and find interesting), but are packaged in more user-friendly ways. (GroupMe is an attempt at this - we thought it was a platform for people to manage their "close ties" networks. It is a network of small networks.) Unfortunately, any product that relies on networks sharing and consuming media will, like the incumbents before them, be a victim of its own success: their underlying business model incentivizes them to capture as much of your attention as possible.

It's unclear to me what breaks this cycle. I don't think consumers are going to pay for these services and eliminate the ad-based model. There is plenty of room for smaller networks that are oriented around specific interests, identities, cultures, etc. These will never achieve the economic scale of the biggest players, but they can potentially thrive as viable, important and good businesses so long as their founders and communities are strong-willed and okay with not taking over the world. Perhaps these have different corporate structures or profit-sharing models? I do believe (and am most excited that) web3 can ultimately create a new set of incentives and architecture that enables a social network/media to thrive, but we haven't seen anything yet that has mainstream appeal. I am optimistic that enough people feel strongly enough about reorganizing the incentive structure and creating a suite of better experiences that we will begin to see antidotes and viable alternatives to the current crop of incumbents within this decade, and with that, perhaps the rebirth of social media and social networks.

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