The Future of Social Media: Group Identities

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.
- John Donne

Last month Mark Zuckerberg published an open letter regarding Facebook’s new initiatives and directions for 2017, asking what we could do to help and sustain “supportive communities” on the web. He laid out a list of traits that healthy communities have, expounding on how Facebook might be able to nurture and foster these groups on their platform going forward.

While many are skeptical of Zuckerberg’s claims, I do believe that he at least has his heart in the right place: group identity systems are seldomly attempted in tech but it’s something that’s desperately needed in the world right now. It’s part of the reason why I used to work for a sports-based startup, even though I don’t watch sports; why I’ve been volunteering my time at Code For America/San Francisco’s Civic Hack Nights in search of people interested in the intersections of technology and community. In times where polarization and partisanship is the norm, ideas that counteract our tendencies to isolate ourselves from each other must now come into effect.

The devil is in the details, of course. It’s reasonable to be skeptical of Facebook’s ability to execute on Zuckerberg’s vision because the platform is fundamentally geared towards individuals, not groups. It’s difficult to imagine how the CEO’s vision will translate into an actual Facebook product because it requires a fundamental shift in how the company thinks of itself in an overall sense — something that will likely be resisted by both the company’s financial and cultural wings.

Since the elections, however, there’s been a major shift in sentiment by the public of what they want out of technology, especially with social media. If companies don’t manage to pivot to what people really want, it could prove detrimental to them in the long run — similar to the fates of Friendster and MySpace, it’s not unthinkable that another mass migration could happen again, if something definitively better were to come along.

Personality-Driven vs. Team-Driven

Even though I don’t really watch sports all that much, I found working at a sports-based startup very interesting because the way people think about social relationships in sports tends to be very different from what you normally encounter in tech.

Tech culture tends to be heavily personality-driven — both online and off. Communities formed around strong personalities tend to live and die with its founder, with its ups and downs mirroring the emotional states of its leader at any given day. (YouTube stars tend to fall into this category as well.) Sports fans, on the other hand, are loyal only to their team: players and coaches come and go, but you stick with your community through the good times and bad, because that’s what real sports fans do. The latter type of loyalty is basically what social media needs right now, if it wants its communities to last for more than one-term’s length.

As companies like Uber (another personality-driven company) starts to implode under its own weight, the libertarian-esque narrative of the tech industry may finally be coming to an end, opening up the space for a more “supportive”, community-minded approach. But it has to be more than just tacking on a messaging system to a list of people who happen to be searching for similar keywords online. Big or small, communities need to be treated like miniature societies with its own balance of politics, culture, and economics in order for it to be considered “functional”. Technology can do well to help facilitate these types of social systems, but would need to provide a number of basic necessities in order for it to really work.

While tech companies have gotten very good at doing individual profiles, there’s a pretty simple reason why they’ve largely avoided tackling group identities for so long: it’s hard. Two’s a company, three’s a crowd. For every person that you add, the numbers of issues and problems that you have to deal with just grows exponentially — dealing with one person at a time is just so much more easier!

But the model of the individual profile has been more or less mined out at this point, with not much room left to grow or innovate. The next big leaps in social technology are going to come from group identity formations, inspired by the communities all over the world in its many different forms. In that sense, Zuckerberg has the right idea to be interested in the idea of community development— whether he’s able to pull it off, though, is yet to be seen. (The CEO unfortunately doesn’t have a strong record in regards to his past attempts at getting politically involved.)

Below, we can dig a little deeper into what changes are needed to make Zuckerberg’s vision really work, but it’s not going to come from from the usual string of tech buzzwords — Big Data, Algorithms, AI, the “Deep Web”, etc. — none of those will help in building a real community, even if it manages to do everything it claims it does. No, it’s much more simpler...and harder, than that: it’s about actually changing the way we think about social relationships by admitting to — and letting go — of past mistakes.

Voting for Your Own Leadership (Politics)

Earlier this year I ran a small “election” for a Facebook group that I’ve been part of for several years now, after the founder expressed that he’d like to step down as the administrator going forward. We held a small vote at the beginning of the year, and the torch was passed on without any incident. There were no big surprises, no cheating, no complaints — everything ran smoothly, and business went about as usual.

It was disappointing, though, that we had to almost exclusively use 3rd party applications in order to make it work. I won’t go into all the details but it’s obvious that Facebook in its current form is nowhere near ready to support these types of endeavors on any level or scale. Having gotten so used to social media’s autocratic laws, the idea that you might actually have a say in who gets to be your admin sounds so alien to the ear — almost comical, in a way.

The next “election” is set for the next year, but I’m afraid we’d probably have to do all of this all over again, without any help from Facebook itself. The platform simply isn’t meant to handle democratic processes, by design, and it’s hard to imagine the company jumping at the opportunity to empower its users in this type of way, especially when it could potentially threaten the bottom line.

But…it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not unusual for even small, hobby-based clubs to hold semi-formal elections in order to elect members into leadership roles. It might not be as flashy and drama-filled as national level elections, but having the “consent of the governed” is an important part of giving legitimacy to those given the power to administrate political matters, even in small, informal settings. Bringing this process on the grassroots level will have a bottom-up effect on political issues at higher levels as well, given that people will have gotten used to the act of voting as a matter of routine.

Joint Ownership, Revenue Splits (Economics)

In short: there needs to be a coherent, transparent way for groups to deal with concepts of money and ownership in any given group. Online communities should have the ability to create a “joint bank account” of some sort, where members can collect, authorize, and track the use of funds as a collective entity. As it stands now, people have to rely on traditional or 3rd party banking systems to do this reliably — but having the means to do so natively and quickly on an social media platform would be a necessary step towards improving the functionality of communities that operate primarily online.

This is why any group larger than 25–50 people usually assigns a treasurer of some sort — it’s a basic building block for any community organization looking to expand their presence for the long term.

Content Ownership and Copyright (Culture)

Though the tech industry has long resisted digital rights management systems (DRMs) and copyright laws up until this point, we may have reached a tipping point where the ethos of “content should be free!” no longer makes any sense, even from an economic point of view. At the root of the “fake news” problem is the race-to-the-bottom content model that rewards the “pump-and-dump” approach — click-bait content that’s basically designed to catch a few views and be forgotten forever after it runs out of steam. In an environment of no barriers of entry, no meaningful tracking, and no quality control, it was only a matter of time before outright lies became a common form of media for people to consume.

Being a musician myself, I do like the idea of getting paid more, which has been suggested several times as a solution to the problem. But that doesn’t really do anything to the problem at its root — there needs to be a system that allows content creators to create, track, distribute, and collect royalties in an easy, reliable way. That system just happens to be the DRM.

DRMs are not only important to individual artists, but to the communities that they create as well. Behind every successful artist is a team that supports them in the background, dealing with all the “boring stuff” — admin, legal, management, bookings, travel, marketing, etc — and it’s only fair that these “middlemen” be able to own a portion of the work. It doesn’t have to be exploitative or stifling for the artist in any way, if the contract is transparent and fair. But there needs to be an easy way to identify, track, and split ownership %s per work so that royalties can be acquired and distributed in a timely and accurate manner. Doing a 8-way royalty split between the label, lead musician, 3 band members, manager, publisher and distributor is a pretty common thing to do — but it’s a type of complexity that a machine could easily handle.

Imagine if an artist could share partial ownership of their works, directly to their audience— wouldn’t fans be much more enticed to promote and share their favorite artists’ work if this was the case? Wouldn’t fans be more likely to stick it through the tough times that every artist goes through if they had an actual stake in the process? An artist should be able to “share” their work, in more meaningful and impactful ways, and those are the sorts of things that DRMs will let them do.

In a nutshell, it’s time for the tech industry to stop resisting its implementation and embrace the possibility that DRMs could be a good thing for everyone in the long run. And then maybe the artists themselves might actually start singing songs of them, in their favor.

Blockchain technology such as Ethereum might make the implementation of the ideas above easier — but the truth is, the technology to build these things out have always been around. The main roadblock to progress is our culture, not our intellect or our resources. It’s a big, daunting project to be sure, but the platform that manages to streamline all three (politics, economics, culture) into a single experience will likely take it all — simply because it’ll just be so much better than everything else that came before.