The term “social network” has become a meaningless association of words. Pair those two words and it becomes a tech category, the equivalent of a single term to define a group of products.
But are social networks even social anymore? If you have a feeling of tech fatigue when you open the Facebook app, you’re not alone. Watching distant cousins fight about politics in a comment thread is no longer fun.
Chances are you have dozens, hundreds or maybe thousands of friends and followers across multiple platforms. But those crowded places have never felt so empty.
It doesn’t mean that you should move to the woods and talk with animals. And Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn won’t collapse overnight. They have intrinsic value with other features — social graphs, digital CVs, organizing events…
But the concept of wide networks of social ties with an element of broadcasting is dead.
From interest-based communities to your lousy neighbor
If you’ve been active on the web for long enough, you may have fond memories of internet forums. Maybe you were a fan of video games, Harry Potter or painting.
Fragmentation was key. You could be active on multiple forums and you didn’t have to mention your other passions. Over time, you’d see the same names come up again and again on your favorite forum. You’d create your own running jokes, discover things together, laugh, cry and feel something.
When I was a teenager, I was active on multiple forums. I remember posting thousands of messages a year and getting to know new people. It felt like hanging out with a welcoming group of friends because you shared the same passions.
It wasn’t just fake internet relationships. I met “IRL” with fellow internet friends quite a few times. One day, I remember browsing the list of threads and learning about someone’s passing. Their significant other posted a short message because the forum meant a lot to this person.
Most of the time, I didn’t know the identities of the persons talking with me. We were all using nicknames and put tidbits of information in bios — “Stuttgart, Germany” or “train ticket inspector.”
And then, Facebook happened. At first, it was also all about interest-based communities — attending the same college is a shared interest, after all. Then, they opened it up to everyone to scale beyond universities.
When you look at your list of friends, they are your Facebook friends not because you share a hobby, but because you’ve know them for a while.
Facebook constantly pushes you to add more friends with the infamous “People you may know” feature. Knowing someone is one thing, but having things to talk about is another.
So here we are, with your lousy neighbor sharing a sexist joke in your Facebook feed.
As social networks become bigger, content becomes garbage.
Facebook’s social graph is broken by design. Putting names and faces on people made friend requests emotionally charged. You can’t say no to your high school best friend, even if you haven’t seen her in five years.
It used to be okay to leave friends behind. It used to be okay to forget about people. But the fact that it’s possible to stay in touch with social networks have made those things socially unacceptable.
Too big to succeed
One of the key pillars of social networks is the broadcasting feature. You can write a message, share a photo, make a story and broadcast them to your friends and followers.
But broadcasting isn’t scalable.
Most social networks are now publicly traded companies — they’re always chasing growth. Growth means more revenue and revenue means that users need to see more ads.
The best way to shove more ads down your throat is to make you spend more time on a service. If you watch multiple YouTube videos, you’re going to see more pre-roll ads. And there are two ways to make you spend more time on a social network — making you come back more often and making you stay longer each time you visit.
And 2018 has been the year of cheap tricks and dark pattern design. In order to make you come more often, companies now send you FOMO-driven notifications with incomplete, disproportionate information.
I created a new Facebook account just so I could access an Oculus thing. Despite having no friends, apparently I'm really missing out on a whole lot of "fun" activity from all these specifically-named people I don't know. And I have two notifications already! "Cool." pic.twitter.com/uBHicji3pj
— Nick Farina (@nfarina) October 1, 2018
This isn’t just about opening an app. Social networks now want to direct you to other parts of the service. Why don’t you click on this bright orange banner to open IGTV? Look at this shiny button! Look! Look!
This navigation bar makes no sense Facebook. Also it’s an insult to trick people’s brains with animated to foster engagement pic.twitter.com/eMGxbh7r4a
— Romain Dillet (@romaindillet) November 27, 2018
And then, there’s all the gamification, algorithm-driven recommendations and other Skinner box mechanisms. That tiny peak of adrenaline you get when you refresh your feed, even if it only happens once per week, is what’s going to make you come back again and again.
Don’t forget that Netflix wanted to give kids digital badges if they completed a season. The company has since realized that it was going too far. Still, U.S. adults now spend nearly six hours per day consuming digital media — and phones represent more than half of that usage.
Given that social networks need to give you something new every time, they want you to follow as many people as possible, subscribe to every YouTube channel you can. This way, every time you come back, there’s something new.
Algorithms recommend some content based on engagement, and guess what? The most outrageous, polarizing content always ends up at the top of the pile.
I’m not going to talk about fake news or the fact that YouTubers now all write titles in ALL CAPS to grab your attention. That’s a topic for another article. But YouTube shouldn’t be surprised that Logan Paul filmed a suicide victim in Japan to drive engagement and trick the algorithm.
In other words, as social networks become bigger, content becomes garbage.
Centralization is always followed by decentralization. Now that we’ve reached a social network dead end, it’s time to build our own digital house.
Group messaging has been key when it comes to staying in touch with long-distance family members. But you can create your own interest-based groups and talk about things you’re passionate about with people who care about those things.
Social networks that haven’t become too big still have an opportunity to pivot. It’s time to make them more about close relationships and add useful features to talk with your best friends and close ones.
And if you have interesting things to say, do it on your own terms. Create a blog instead of signing up to Medium. This way, Medium won’t force your readers to sign up when they want to read your words.
If you spend your vacation crafting the perfect Instagram story, you should be more cynical about it. Either you want to make a career out of it and become an Instagram star, or you should consider sending photos and videos to your communities directly. Otherwise, you’re just participating in a rotten system.
If you want to comment on politics and life in general, you should consider talking about those topics with people surrounding you, not your friends on Facebook.
Put your phone back in your pocket and start a conversation. You might end up discussing for hours without even thinking about the red dots on all your app icons.
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