Network Inequality

The way we build and grow social networks and apps can amplify and exacerbate the existing inequities in society. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

This piece is part of my series about how we can move toward humane tech.


The conventional advice for gathering initial funding for a tech startup is what’s called a “friends and family round”, a creator raising money from their own circle of loved ones. Of course, this means that the barrier to entrepreneurship is limited to people whose family members can afford to bet significant amounts of money on very risky investments that are most likely to fail.

Similarly, the typical advice for growing the audience for an app is for a creator to start with people they know. Sometimes the advice is even more extreme: “Build an app for yourself!” And almost all apps rely on an existing social network like Facebook to help a user find their connections, starting with the social network of the app’s creators themselves. The implications of this are obvious when we consider that most founders of tech startups in America are white, and the average white American has only one black friend. (75% of white Americans don’t have any black friends.)

An increasing amount of public discourse and access to opportunity is accessed through social networks or messaging or the other social apps that are now the dominant reason we use technology. Yet the advice to the people creating these tools is to explicitly make the tools fit only their own networks, which are deeply insular in terms of economic class or race.


Who gets famous?

Of course, these concerns about inclusion and access only arise at the founding of a new social network or platform. But similar problems arise when we choose which users get to benefit from these networks.

For example, most of the big social sharing platforms have given rise to social media stars, the ones you can find among the most popular users on YouTube or Instagram or Snapchat. But if we look closely at most of these stars, they’re either traditional celebrities who made their names through conventional media like movies or TV or the music industry, or a small cohort of “native” stars.

In almost every case, these native stars were simply talented people who were early to the platform, and often were chosen by the platform as “featured users”. Is PewDiePie significantly better than other similar video bloggers on YouTube? Not really. But he was early to the network, and therefore early to find a niche to exploit, and YouTube used him as an example of what to do on their network. That’s not to deny or diminish that he’s also very talented at what he does. It’s just saying that talent alone isn’t enough — one has to be early, too.

And who gets to be early or featured on these apps? Well, mostly friends and family of the people who created the network, and those who are closely connected to them. It’s de rigueur for any social app launched over the last decade to use an invitation system, further cementing the centrality and dominance of its first users in its social hierarchy.

But isn’t social media a meritocracy? Can’t anybody else just repeat the same steps as these early users? As I outlined in “You Can’t Start the Revolution from the Country Club”, the most common reaction from many networks once they’ve birthed a few featured stars, is generally to remove the ability for others to follow in their footsteps. Typically, this is not malicious, but a normal evolution that happens in tandem with a successful app maturing and adapting to its growing community. Along with improved tools for discovering content or connections, a community will close the door on the possibility for its new members to ascend to the same heights of social stardom.

My social network on Twitter resembles that of a minor celebrity. While I’d like to pretend that’s because my tweets are so good, a lot of the reason is that I was early to the network, and friends with its founders. You might be a far better tweeter than me, but you still wouldn’t have those advantages. There should be a way for anybody to achieve the same level on the same network.


The fix

The good news is, we can start to undo these patterns of exclusion by making smart choices in how we fund and build new apps and sites.

  • Crowdfunding has the potential to help support more creators who don’t have wealthy friends and family to fund their efforts. While most of the big crowdfunding networks don’t do it yet , they could start to affirmatively promote underrepresented or marginalized creators. Such an effort could be incredibly powerful, even mimicking the community-based funding efforts that are commonly seen in immigrant cultures.
  • People who create apps need to explicitly include people outside their own networks among their first users. Some of this is just good product management — understanding a broader set of users can help an app improve much more quickly. But the better reason is to ensure the long-term sustainability of the product, by making sure it’s a fit even for people who aren’t friends and family of the founders. For example, since we started Makerbase, we’ve explicitly worked to make sure the projects and creators that we feature are from as diverse a set of candidates possible. That’s been rewarded by a much broader set of people finding the community to be welcoming.
  • Early adopter users can be explicit about expecting diverse members in their online communities. People who create new apps and social sites are always closely attuned to the wants and desires of their first users, and if they hear from those first users that the nascent community is too homogeneous, they’ll respond.
  • Don’t let “featured users” be the only ones who can succeed on a network. Most social platforms will promote certain users as examples to show off what their community is doing. Typically, these featured users are used to signal what’s cool or desirable in the community. And if the platform takes off, those featured users are often among the “stars” of the community. That’s why it’s key to design a system that allows new stars to flourish, and to involve new community members in ongoing efforts to support their ideas.

The issues around who gets to found and fund today’s apps are well known. It’s an exclusive club. But if the people making those apps make smart choices, the users and beneficiaries of their efforts might look like a much more equitable cross-section of the communities they’re trying to serve.


I’m the cofounder of Makerbase, a community for people who make apps and websites. Join us! (Thanks to opensourceway for the image.)