I drew a bunch of dots to explain why social media is broken.
Two years ago last month, I shut down This., a social media platform that allowed each member to share just 1 link a day. The service was an attempt to shift the defining feature of social media from quantity, to quality. We saw a world where free and democratized publishing had been weaponized by platforms, publishers, and advertisers to distract and confuse us. We hoped a more deliberately designed and editorially-informed platform could offer a solution.
We didn’t make it (a story for another Medium post). But the problem has only gotten worse, and gone from a fringe interest of media critics and idealists to possibly the central business challenge of most of the big platforms and one of the central cultural challenges to our democracy.
And so, feeling nostalgic at this 2 year anniversary of the end of This. and hoping someone else is out there thinking about these problems and coming up with solutions, I thought I’d rescue a popular piece from the This. company blog explaining what I saw as the process that destroys our favorite platforms: the arms race for more. Enjoy!
~ Andrew, August 9th 2018
[Originally published: Jan 5, 2016]
Let’s play a game.
You sign up for a new social media site. You follow 5 accounts.
Each is a person or organization you trust, publishing things they think you’ll be interested in. Some of them are regular people with awesome taste recommending links from around the web; some of them are professional media organizations publishing their own stuff. Let’s call all of them 5 publishers (in the social media age, everyone’s a publisher!). Let’s say each of them pushes 2 things a day into your feed.
You have 10 things to look at each day, produced or recommended by folks you trust. And because you chose who to follow, it’s a custom 10 things just for you. Each publisher (again, person or organization) has 20% of your attention. Rad. Social media is great.
One enterprising publisher decides, one day, to expand their output. They start pushing 4 things a day into your feed.
Hey, now there’s 12 things in your feed! And that enterprising publisher now has 30% of your attention. That’s a 50% increase for them in a day! They’re psyched.
Not necessarily so great for the other 4 publishers, though. They lost a bit of your attention; 2 of 12 puts them down to 16.7% each. One of them decides to respond and match the first publisher, and starts to also push 4 things a day.
Okay! Interesting. Your feed’s now got 14 things in it every day. Two publishers have a bit more of your attention than they started with, at the expense of the other three.
One of those three sees what’s happening. They go raise a boatload of money from investors and, instead of matching the first two publishers at 4 things a day, they quadruple their output, going from 2 to 8.
Your feed has doubled in size! Whoa. What started as 10 things from 5 publishers you trust has turned into 20 things from publishers competing for your attention by pushing more and more into your feed.
One of the publishers has been able to double their share of your attention, from 20% (2 of 10) to 40% (8 of 20). Two publishers have been able to maintain their original 20% of your attention, but only by doubling their output. And two publishers have lost half of the attention they had by continuing to publish 2 things a day.
The process repeats itself.
Holy shit! That’s 44 things in your feed each day. Too much. Way too much.
And it’s not just that it’s too much. That one publisher, the one with its boatload of investor money that keeps tripling its output, is now more than half of your feed (24 of 44). The others are being drowned out. Your feed is getting way more homogenous: just one perspective, half the time.
And while some of the publishers, some of the time, were able to expand their output without sacrificing quality, many of them, much of the time, weren’t. (In fact, the savviest publishers realize that the cheapest way to produce more is to repackage the work of others.) So the quality of the average thing in your feed is getting worse.
More stuff. More homogenous. A little less great.
But don’t worry! The social media site you’re using can see, in the data, that you’re bummed. It keeps track of what you’ve clicked in the past and what you comment on, and it pulls a few things out of the pile for you.
Better! Those 5 are pretty good. Certainly better than trying to sort through all 44.
Of course, now the publisher with the money (who, by the way, has even more now, because look how successful they were before!) wants to understand what made a few pop up and the rest stay in the pile. They spend a bunch of time and a bunch of that money figuring that out, so that more and more of their stuff pops up to the top. They get back their dominance.
Your sorted feed is a little less bloated, but also a little less human. Both it and your full feed are more and more homogenous, and everything is getting a little less great.
This is a parable. It isn’t the only set of mechanisms playing out. It’s obviously a simplification. There are countertrends and nuances, to be sure.
But we’ve all seen this in our feeds over the last few years. The savviest digital media companies know they’re in an arms race (this 2013 count, even before the first two dramatically expanded, put Business Insider at 300, BuzzFeed at 373 and The Huffington Post at 1,200 pieces published a day). And “Audience Development” (essentially: Strategic Sorting Learner) has become one of the hottest jobs in media.
And, what’s worse, at the same time as this has played out, some of the media outside our feeds is getting better and better: more beautiful, more ambitious, more diverse, more accessible. There’s more noise, to be sure, but never has so much great culture been accessible with a click. Our feeds, then, aren’t just gradually degrading from what they were. They’re cutting us off from something even more powerful that’s emerging.
At This., we’ve turned this volume problem on its head. Like other sites, you follow publishers (people and orgs!) you trust, sharing stuff they recommend and/or made. But every member is limited to sharing just 1 link a day.
That 1 share limit doesn’t just stop this arms race before it starts. It turns every publisher’s share into something even more valuable: a statement of passion. When the publishers you trust make their pick, they’re telling you: “This is what’s worth your time today.”
And so your feed — full of the best stuff according to the people you trust — just looks like this:
Why should it be any more complicated than that?