Social Media’s Tower of Babel Problem

Facebook and Twitter are either too big or too small for their own good.

The largest social media companies today are suffering from a serious problem: bundling gone overboard. By trying to absorb every type of communication into their cluttered UIs they commodify communication and open themselves up to more authentic competitors.

Facebook wants to bundle every sort of non-face-to-face communication you do and stuff it through its site and apps. Heartfelt messages to close friends, exhausted rants to semi-‘friends’, photos with your significant other. Doesn’t matter, throw it all on your Facebook timeline. But when you push all interactions through one medium, each one is reduced to the lowest common denominator.

Consider a simple type of message: birthday well-wishes. Pre-Facebook, we had many different, non-F2F ways of wishing someone happy birthday. Work colleagues might wish you well with a cake break and a semi-anonymous choir of song; friends might send you a card; close friends called you. Facebook has bundled these together into an impersonal list of dozens-to-hundreds of one-line, public “happy bday” posts. Facebook has commodified the birthday wish.

This doesn’t happen everywhere. In much of Asia, even non-technorati will use a dozen communication apps for twenty purposes. This all comes together in Hong Kong (where I live), a tiny city-state with Western living standards, Eastern community-oriented culture, and citizens that are too cosmopolitan to rely on cross-country call and SMS restrictions. Mobile phones are everywhere, from subways to protests.

A sea of smartphones at the Umbrella Revolution political protests

I teach college freshman in HK and polled them on their social media usage. Compared to the US, they live in the future. They will use WhatsApp for the never-ending conversation between friends and family, Instagram to show off and buy clothes, Facebook to stay updated on minutiae, WeChat for Chinese friends, Skype for long-distance relationships, Weibo for gossip, and Line for goofy stickers with close friends. Even within apps, there is wide diversity in usage. Most of my students are in dozens of active WhatsApp group chats, from family chats to ad-hoc groups made to pool photos of a night out. There may be as many use cases as there are users.

I have become a digital HKer more quickly than I expected. I can’t send texts or make phone calls to the US, so the way that I interact with someone — through Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype, etc. — is a choice, driven by subtle differences in app UI and features. And with choice comes meaning, a subtext to the interaction.

Hong Kongers switch between and within apps effortlessly but with incredible nuance. Just like sending a birthday card versus making a phone call, the medium is part of the message. It signifies intent, context — the whole world around the person. Think of the difference between talking to someone face-to-face versus whispering in their ear. Our voice box is an app that evolved to give us thousands of different mediums and contexts of communication. Why should our digital apps be any different?

A typical train ride in Hong Kong

What happens when one app tries to bundle every context into one? Users get confused. My college students emailing me with poor grammar, abbrevs nd emoticons :/. PR managers posting inappropriate jokes — the kind you might make at a bar with your friends and immediately regret —to the world on Twitter. Thousands of recent graduates failing social media background checks because of things they posted on Facebook a decade ago.

It is easy to mistake this user confusion for user stupidity, i.e. “He should have known better than to post that kind of stuff on Facebook.” But this is a poor explanation for what has become a macro-level social trend. So who is to blame? Facebook? Everyone says that Facebook is bad on privacy, changing privacy settings frequently without notice. But “bad on privacy” is itself a symptom of a broader problem.

The root cause is that Facebook has been aggressively absorbing new communication contexts into its platform from the beginning. It didn’t matter if your photos were set to “friends of friends” or if your wall posts were “public” when publicness was defined as the small circle of students at your university who viewed your profile. Post-college-only-signup, post-timeline, post-newsfeed, “public” is a whole new world. This context confusion is what we really mean when we say that Facebook is bad on privacy.

Twitter, the second great social channel in the West, is no better. It was cruel to define themselves as both a way to chat quickly with a circle of friends and as a public broadcasting channel for the world. As if one wouldn’t become the other. In many ways this convergence of contexts is Twitter’s whole raison d’être, but it has led to thousands of cases of ruined careers at the hands of Twitter’s outrage machine.

Unbundling and its discontents

Communication technology has been a story of progressive bundling and unbundling for centuries, starting with the Tower of Babel. When they become too bundled — whether into one language, or one social media site — they commodify social interactions, confuse context, and frustrate users. Then the tower falls down.

The babelization of communication is the fundamental product challenge that companies like Facebook, Twitter, and WeChat will have to grapple with.

It is not simply an abstract problem. There are hundreds of strong competitors chipping away at communication contexts that are critical to these companies. Think of Snapchat, which resurrected the spontaneous, the flippant, the experiential into digital life. It brought intimacy back to online communication just when social media experts were ready to proclaim it dead. Or think of Medium, whose Montaigne meets The New York Times model of content creation and distribution is probably the biggest threat to the Facebook Newsfeed.

There are a couple ways that companies like TWTR and FB can and have responded to this problem.

  1. Focus on one major communication context (e.g. updating friends) and own it.
  2. Acquire or create separated products for different communication contexts and keep them segmented.
  3. Shrink the social media and platformize.

(1) is out of the picture for the big, public Western companies like TWTR and FB, whose stockholders would not let it settle for small pieces of the communication pie.

(2) has largely been FB’s strategy to date, and they’ve been pretty good at keeping up Chinese walls between acquisitions (Instagram, Whatsapp) and Facebook core. But their acquire-or-clone strategy has had just as many failures.

(3) Both sites have had a fraught history with platformization in the past, and sometimes even still call themselves platforms. But it may be the only option left.

Platformization and its Discontents

“Let a thousand flowers bloom” — Mao

Mao said that the best way to promote cultural and scientific progress is to “let a thousand flowers bloom.” But in classic Maoist fashion this was pure doublespeak — just a way to trick dissidents into coming out of the woodworks. A thousand upstarts might be best for cultural progress, but not for maintaining the monolithic culture that a totalitarian regime demands.

FB and TWTR both tried platformization in the past. You can read about the rise and fall of Facebook Platform or Twitter’s fraught relationships with its 3rd party developers. The TL;DR is that FB and TWTR are looking very Maoist with their domination over social media in the West. That isn’t good for the users or, in the long run, for the companies.

But you don’t need a monolithic, state-driven culture if you don’t have a totalitarian state. In the West, most states try to be platforms — neutral-ish systems of rights and individual liberties upon which progress flourishes. WeChat is doing something like this in China, using chat to become a platform or Yahoo-style portal upon which users do everything from book a taxi to share stock tips. Instead of trying to dominate every context of communication they are are building a new operating system for the digital world.

FB and TWTR could do this, but they would have to start actually acting like platforms. They would have to give users and developers more freedom to create their own contexts and mediums for communicating with each other. Facebook would have to stop cloning every new social media app that goes viral (which are usually failures). Twitter would have to stop blocking Meerkat for a start, and instead encourage developers to plug into its social graph.

In other words, Facebook and Twitter would have to stop being social media companies to become social platforms. They would have to show some restraint. It’s that or get sliced up by a thousand upstart social mediums — the future Snapchats, Mediums, and Meerkats of the West, or many more from the East. Either way, social media is about to shrink fast.

Edit: A few weeks after I published this, Facebook actually announced the platformization of Messenger, its biggest step yet toward replacing the monolithic Facebook core with a platform of small apps with niche use cases.