Social Media is Impossible

The toughest barrier for a new social media network to overcome is adoption. People will refrain from adopting the new service because not everybody is already on it. This is why keeps Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media networks remain in business. Since everybody is already using them, nobody wants to migrate no matter how terrible the services become. But this raises an important question, why do you want everybody to be on the same social media network?

A small number of people can become a tight knit community surprisingly fast. These tight knit communities form norms. If a new individual wants to join the group, they are expected to adopt these norms. Likewise, established members are expected to teach prospective members the norms. However, it’s easy for an influx to new members to overwhelm the established members. When that happens, the tight knit community often falls apart.

The Usenet term for this is Eternal September. Back in the day colleges often had their own Usenets. When freshmen arrived in September, they would log into the college Usenet for their first time. Because they didn’t know the norms of the group, they would often violate the Usenet norms. In time the established members would teach the freshmen the norms of the group and those freshmen would either adopt those norms or drop out of the Usenet. This changed in 1993 when AOL provided subscribers access to Usenets. Suddenly a never ending stream of new members were joining Usenet groups and it overwhelmed the established members. This changed the nature of Usenet entirely.

The same thing happened to Facebook when it went from a social media network exclusive to college students to one open to everybody. Suddenly everybody and (literally) their grandmother joined and the entire network changed.

When a group is overwhelmed by new members, the old norms are usually destroyed. What compounds this issue is that new norms are seldom established. I often bring up Dunbar’s number when talking about social media. Humans have a limited capacity for stable social relationships. When that number is exceeded, some social relationships become unstable. What happens when the number of unstable social relationships exceed the number of stable ones? Current mainstream social media networks.

Let’s once again look at Facebook. Facebook is suffering from a widespread breakdown of social cohesion. The site administrators are attempting to force new social norms by implementing an increasingly long list of unapproved behavior. Because Facebook is trying to appeal to the largest number of people, it is making the mistake of adopting what might be considered mainstream norms. However, mainstream norms don’t actually exist (it turns out that you can’t get hundreds of millions and especially billions of users to agree on anything). So rather than establishing new norms and creating stable social relationships, Facebook is angering more users and creating an even more unstable environment.

Facebook isn’t unique in this case. Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, and other large social media networks are suffering from the same problem.

I’ve increasingly become disillusioned with the idea of social media networks. Instead I’ve sought out small niche communities. I run several groups on Element and Signal and participate in several groups on both services run by other people. The groups are closed. In order to join you need to be invited. The invitation process ensures any prospective member has already been vetted. Vetting doesn’t guarantee a prospective member will fit in, but it greatly improves the odds. This is the opposite strategy used by mainstream social media networks, which try to interconnect everybody to everybody else. The difference between groups that follow one strategy or the other is stark. The groups in which I participate that are invite only, have remained stable for years. The social media networks in which I used to participate that were open to everybody, became so bad that I left.

So I return to my first question, why do you want everybody to be on the same social media network? Different people have different interests and personalities so it only makes sense that different groups exist.

Many people believed that the Internet would lead to a new era of peace because people all around the world would be able to talk out their differences. This hiccup in that theory is that people seem less inclined to invest time and energy seriously discussing their differences unless they already have a social relationship. This makes sense. Why invest the not insignificant time and energy discussing complex issues with people whom you have no preexisting relationship? That takes time away from your stable social relationships into which you’ve already invested greatly and are therefore more inclined to maintain.

In summary if you want a better online social experience, establish small groups. Social media as most people envision is impossible.

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