Can you be yourself if everyone’s watching?
The sharing model of the major social networks limits authenticity at scale.
Here’s a cliché you’ll have heard about a social network or two: “It was so much better before! Before everyone was on there. Before everyone became obsessed with Likes. Before the algorithms took over…”
This common complaint from early users is hard to deny, but it doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. At least not for growth and engagement. With virality like a dirty secret and dependence like hard drugs, the major social networks are on fire. We’re glowfacing in bed, scrolling to infinity, and crafting enough content to keep the algorithms busy. And those early users mostly seem to stick around. What’s going on?
People you may know
The major social networks are all designed around roughly the same sharing model: people follow or befriend you to subscribe to everything you post, and vice versa.
Atomized decisions to follow or befriend people determine both the audience for your posts and the posts you’ll see in your feed. People being people, these decisions aren’t always made with the audience and the feed in mind. Users follow and befriend people they know and people whose posts they like, and powerful social graph suggestions encourage it.
It varies by individual, and by platform, but over time the audience for your posts, and the group of people whose posts you see in your feed, gets bigger and bigger, and more and more random. Friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, siblings, colleagues, parents, even grandparents. More or less in that order. Good numbers are hard to find, but estimates put average friends and follower numbers in the hundreds, usually multiple hundreds.
What starts out as a small gathering slowly turns into a mega-party. As this transition unfolds, early adopters lose their tight-knit communities and sound the alarm. Many delete their accounts and a mass exodus is reported, but it never fully materializes.
A small gathering isn’t necessarily better than a mega-party. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. And while the platform grows exponentially, the company behind it attracts buckets of cash and top-flight talent. It adds dazzling new features and gets smart about marketing and retention. The platform doesn’t die, but the benefits of the small gathering are lost.
What’s on your mind?
The dynamics of the mega-party, brought about by the underlying sharing model, produce significant side-effects which explain a lot of what we see happening with social media.
As your audience grows in size and becomes more diverse, the more likely it is to contain individuals you don’t feel comfortable being totally open with.
You fear old school friends will think you’re boasting if you share how happy you are with a new job. You fear colleagues will think you’re weak if you share how stressed you are. You fear family members will get ahead of themselves if you share news of a new romance.
It’s perfectly human. Clive Thompson described it best in a 2010 Wired article:
…when the conversation gets big enough, it shuts down. Not only do audiences feel estranged, the participants also start self-censoring. People who suddenly find themselves with really huge audiences often start writing more cautiously, like politicians.
If everyone’s watching, and no one responds to what you share, it feels very significant. Likewise, if the response is positive, it feels amazing — and the numbers can be inconceivably big.
Ironically, a bigger, more diverse audience has the opposite effect on content. The feedback loop incentivizes only the most popular posts. Coupled with the reduced psychological safety, this explains the abundance of similar content which invariably makes people look good, or merely garners attention. Holidays, engagements, weddings, babies, cute animals, fancy food. Many bemoan those who invest the time and energy into crafting successful social media posts, but it’s perfectly rational at the individual level. They’re long-tail celebrities.
At the macro level though, the mega-party highlights and idolizes unrealistically glamorous lifestyles. Wedding smiles, no arguments. Incredible bodies, no sacrificial diets. Sunny holidays, no hours at the desk. Stunning dishes, no waiting in line. Kittens, no shit on the carpet. Laughing babies, no screaming. And we don’t hear from the quiet people who aren’t comfortable on stage. The mental health issues are unsurprising.
The sharing model creates such a mess, it’s no wonder these platforms aggressively filter the content we see.
Even with fewer people posting, the volume of content hitting your feed will rise as you follow and befriend more and more people. And as the diversity of this group increases, the average relevance of a given post decreases. All that combined with the convergence of content around popular themes and the exclusion of those who don’t want to play the game makes for a particularly contentious feature of these platforms, without even mentioning fake news and ads.
John Battelle covered many of the issues in his piece On Facebook a month ago, and this was the top highlight:
It’s simply untenable to have one company’s algorithms control the personalized feeds of billions of humans around the world.
It’s not only Facebook. Twitter and Instagram have both turned on algorithms in recent years. People like to be in control, but I suspect the sharing model forces the hand of the big platforms. I expect they noticed a drop off in engagement as users’ feeds became busier and more varied. If they turned the algorithms off, our feeds would be much more realistic, but we’d need to do a lot more scrolling to be entertained.
It’d be foolish to say these social behemoths are broken, but they do exhibit these mutations as they grow, and the key reason for those mutations is their common sharing model.
They start out as inclusive platforms for authentic connections at internet scale and slowly morph into exclusive stages for social entertainment. The latter is an extremely engaging thing, especially when “everyone’s on there”, but I miss the former, and based on all of the above, I think other people do too.
What’s really on your mind?
In order to authentically connect with someone about something you care about, (A) you need to be comfortable sharing it with that person, and (B) you need them to listen.
You can’t have one or the other, it must be both. You complain about how stressed you are at work to a new mother, they don’t buy it — (A) not (B). You secretly discover a colleague is suffering from depression, you feel compassion but they don’t want you to know — (B) not (A). I write a 1,500 word Medium article on sharing models, you actually read it — (A) and (B)! Meaningful connections are two-way.
This is why Google+ Circles and Facebook’s audience settings, which let you control who can see a post, do not solve the problems identified above. They neglect (B). Just because I put you in my Acid Jazz Circle doesn’t mean you want to be there. And Facebook still filters what you see, despite having audience controls.
This also explains why the solution isn’t simply to avoid scale. When Beyoncé sings her heart out to an audience of thousands, it’s authentic connection enabled by the construct of the concert. It’s easier to find common ground and build trust within a smaller number of people, but the sharing model isn’t doing any of the work for you and you miss all of the advantages of scale.
So what’s the alternative?
A social network designed around channels.
A channel is like a concert — it works because it’s a contract. You know what you’re getting if you buy tickets for a Beyoncé show, and you know what you’re getting if you follow my Acid Jazz channel.
Channels uniquely provide for (A) and (B) at scale by giving you control of your audience and your audience control of their feeds. Here’s how:
- You create public or private channels for whatever you want to share updates about — e.g. music, a trip home, learning to cook, police training, a vacation, personal life updates…
- Other people browse your channels and follow the ones they want in their feeds (approval is required to see and follow private channels).
- You can post as much as you like to a channel, safe in the knowledge that you know who’s following and they’re interested in the topic. Or just post for yourself, like a journal — only you can see your channels’ followers.
We feared it’d be too much work, but it’s surprisingly fun. Control of your audience is achieved through an act of creation and control of your feed through browsing and following channels — no organizing people into groups, fiddling with settings, trying to Like the right things, or algorithms.