Over the past twenty years, social networking has transformed the way we keep in touch with friends and loved ones both globally and next door. They have allowed us to share incredible moments with friends and loved ones; and it was all free, or at least “free” for the “user”. Remember, however, the user is not the customer, and it is the customer who ultimately decides the fate of a product. From the earliest days of the Internet, there was the promise of free; email, search, news, social networking: all of it was free. Of course, it is only free for the user, are customers who pay for all this: they are advertisers, large corporations with products to sell, independent startups looking to get a foot in the door, politicians, and a million others who have the ultimate say in the direction of these networks. This is not inherently a bad thing: newspapers subsisted for centuries selling advertisements, television and radio are ad-based mediums. There is nothing wrong with advertising. However, the effectiveness of both market research and targeted ads on the internet is lightyears beyond the best market research from a 30-minute sitcom. Alexander Nix the former CEO of Cambridge Analytica once bragged that they had 4,000 - 5,000 data points on /every/ adult in the United States. This info is constantly gathered whether or not you’re on actually on a social network, trackers follow you around the internet gathering and monitoring any shred of usable data and useless data which is boiled down to trends of your life. Unlike thousands of other, far more researched, posts on the topic, this is not to convince you that this is right or wrong, this post is not about ethics or privacy rights.
Let’s think, instead, about the effect this has on our experience. As users, we should demand the very best user experience. So how has this modern model affected our experience? Take a moment and think about how this data is gathered, where does this power come from? It comes from a 20+ year series of ongoing experiments into human psychology. Everything on your favourite social network is designed to keep you returning as often as possible and staying for as long as possible. Notifications buzzing start a dopamine response cycle, which is fulfilled when you see a like on a post or that you have been tagged in a photo. There is the promise of a beautiful photo or a funny video just out of frame. If you fail to keep scrolling you will lose it forever. Thus we become addicts in a very real sense to these dopamine hits. The content doesn’t even have to be that interesting, as long as the next swipe will give us a little dopamine it can sustain us until we get to the 1 in 10 or 1 in a 100 post that’s actually worthwhile.
Speaking of advertising, you need to remember that there is a data cost to the sometimes hundreds of trackers and ad networks embedded in every page. Pages slow down, data transferred between the server and your browser increases, and your bandwidth usage goes up. This may not sound like a big deal but it is. The Brave Browser blocks most ads and tracker by default, in the past 10 months since I’ve started using Brave at home and work I’ve saved a combined total of over two and a half hours: that’s not trivial. This wasted data is slowing down your experience, pages load slower, more hardware resources are required draining your battery faster and none of this serves to give you a better experience using the service.
Social networks were created to support and create communities. Scroll through your feeds, try to find something meaningful from someone you care about, it’s become increasingly difficult. Why? Because as important as a picture of your niece is the algorithms know that you are more likely to engage longer with an incendiary political post. What you’re seeing is not what’s most important, it’s what will get you the most engaged with the platform. That’s a problem, when engagement with the platform becomes more important than engagement with the people the social network has failed.
Mark Zuckerberg has said that one of the central goals of Facebook is to build communities, and Facebook is extremely good at this. Conspiracies have gone mainstream, radical political ideologies have become dominant movements, hatred, racial violence and ignorance have been amplified. This is not because there are tons of people out there who are hateful, racist or ignorant, actually, most people aren’t. Modern social networks have amplified the voices of a few, used the tactics mentioned above to create massive audiences and patted themselves on the back for building communities. But we don’t need help building communities. Since the literal beginning of civilization, people have been building communities, and in many ways, the communities we built in the offline world were more engaged, more meaningful and more proactive than the ones we have now. Of necessity, they had to be there was no other way to build a community.
We joined the social networks because they were fun, we used them to keep in touch, they felt safe, they felt like a community. Then, little by little they started feeling less and less like a community, the friends we had in real life seemed more and more like automatons online, they started to feel less safe, yet a daily or hourly visit felt like more of a necessity.
How could we fix this?
Building communities shouldn’t be the aim. Social networks should support existing communities, not build new ones. Your family, your friends, your neighbours, your team, a few fellow hobbyists you know: these are your communities and they already exist. You travel, people move away, people get busy. As we’re seeing right now with COVID-19 there are situations, sometimes out of our control, that keep us apart. Social networks should be about keeping in touch with these communities. When your community goes from 2,000 to 20 you start to feel safe again, you can share photos of your children, you can open up, you can be vulnerable because these 20 people are your closest friends and loved ones. Again, the aim is not to find new friends, a new group, the aim is to support those relationships you already have to share the most meaningful things with those that mean the most and that’s not just some funny video or a meme, it’s family photos, embarrassing and hilarious videos, journal entries, the sort of things you share with old friends or your siblings. Maybe some communities are built along the way, many people have found great fulfillment and meaning in the communities they formed online but this should not be the aim of a social network. There need to be other services, MeetUp, Match, Tinder, EquestriaDaily, where people find and build communities, and once they have those communities then they can create that intimate environment in a social network that feels real and sincere.
A social network should provide a way to prioritize what is important, photos, memories, relationships. This can only be done by removing the clutter: memes, third party content, anything that you can share from a random website with a “share” button. It may be worthwhile but it’s not good for strengthening existing relationships. Historically, people have chatted about what was on TV last night, but they didn’t go to people’s homes and start nailing newspaper clippings to their doors. Too much “sharing” and not enough communicating.
Finally the kicker: advertising needs to be eliminated. At least scaled back to “newspaper levels”, anything more is invasive and will inevitably lead to a degradation of the user experience. Advertising reliant services such as DuckDuckGo have proven that you can have an ad-supported business that is profitable without being invasive. It can be done! However, I’d advocate for a complete elimination of ads on my dream social network. This of course leads to a thorny issue of funding: how does it make money? Simple answer: you charge for it. Not everyone, there would be no barrier to view content, to be invited to a community space. But it would cost a small amount to start a community, to create a space. The owner of this space could be considered something of a community organizer, it may be a new mom whose family back home is desperate to see baby photos, it may be a father who wants to keep up with his children as they are leaving the nest, it may be the captain of the softball team who wants to humblebrag stats. These people would create the community and invite others as many or as few as they wanted to be a part of it. Think of it as group chat meets social networking meets a library archive.
Yes, I know the idea of charging for something readily available for free sounds like a spotty business proposition but if any of what I have said so far is worth it to you, then you can already see some inherent value. From a business perspective, it’s easier to get 1000 people to pay $10 a month than to get 100,000,000 people to sign up and use your free product for hours a day. If only 1000 people were willing to pay for this service then $10 a month would provide a good living for a single developer, if 10,000 people wanted to pay then $3 a month that would be a solid business. Sure we’re not talking a billion-dollar company, maybe not even a million-dollar company, but why does it have to be? It’s the global dominance mindset that largely got us into this mess in the first place. You don’t need to disrupt, you don’t need to dominate, you don’t need to create a platform, just create something great and I believe social networking is worth fighting for.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to compete with free, so I say, don’t. This network wouldn’t be competing with tech giants, it wouldn’t be trying to pull users from other platforms. It would simply attract the people who want a better experience, a more intimate experience, a more private experience. A small platform for small communities it wouldn’t have to change the world, just make social networking a little better for a few thousand people.
Photo: Hugh Han