Rethinking social platforms

posted by Jeff | Saturday, November 12, 2022, 12:28 PM | comments: 0

About two years ago, late into pandemic 2020, when I built my own cloud music player, I started to prototype a social network app. Basically, I was thinking about how I just wanted something like Facebook, only without the ads or the algorithms. And I didn't want to do it for free in the long run either. I mostly let that sit on the shelf, but I started thinking about it again recently. Facebook has become nearly useless, especially the mobile version, which shows almost nothing from people I know. And of course we have the whole Elon-Twitter mess going on too. Watching him throw shit at the wall to see what sticks makes me think that social platforms need to be something different, though I'm not sure what. It makes me want to dust off my old product manager hat and think about the personas of people who use the existing things, and where I fit in that universe. If I'm going to build anything, I'm going to build it for me first, as I have all of my projects.

Facebook in its original form made a lot of sense, as its name comes from the old printed booklets they handed out in college with photos of your classmates. Putting that online and letting people interact with each other in that closed network was a mashup of old school forums, photos and really short messages. The photo part was the best thing early on, to me, because we didn't have photos on our phones, but most people had digital cameras. They would take a few dozen photos and upload them, and while you could certainly edit them to appear a certain way, those albums were far more "real" to me than your average filtered selfie showing how awesome your life is. It evolved in a shitty way. Add in the engagement algorithms and ads, and it's really nothing like it used to be.

Twitter, I never really understood, even in the beginning. I didn't set up an account until almost two years in. The post size restriction was a function of the fact that people early on would text to the service from their phones (using T9 on the dial pad!), before smart phones. People called it "microblogging" at the time, which I found to be weird. You can't really say anything meaningful in 140 (now 280) characters. It was a lot of, "My sandwich is delicious," posts. It quickly morphed into a lot of link sharing, and it seems to do that a lot now. My hang up is, is there any real reason anything I have to say in short form is of any value to anyone? Isn't that extremely narcissistic? Sure, I write a million paragraphs sharing my experiences on a blog, but that involves some vulnerability and honesty. Tweets do not. TikTok feels like video Twitter, where teenage sisters get famous for coordinated dancing. That feels like a fad to me, and now that there are no first-mover advantages to fame for doing nothing, I can't imagine it lasts, if the feds don't ban it first because of its Chinese ownership.

Instagram came around, and it started as a phone-photographer's place to post quasi art. I think it has fared the best of the social platforms, but it can get too suggestion heavy as well. It's saving grace is that it still has an option to only view, chronologically, the things you follow.

I'm not including any of the ephemeral stuff like Snapchat, or even the "stories" in Facebook or Instagram. If what you post is completely disposable, it doesn't seem valuable to me. It seems to me like a means for teens to communicate without a paper trail.

So where does that leave things? There are a set of core ideas that I think have been largely forgotten in the name of engagement:

  • Sharing with, and watching friends live their lives. I've moved 6,000 miles and have friends all over the place, globally even. I just want to see what they're up to, and let them know what I'm up to. I want to know about their triumphs and struggles, and how their kids are growing up.
  • I want photo albums, to some extent for others, but mostly for me. Facebook can still kind of do this, but the experience is pretty crappy.
  • I want a historical record, which is photo albums and locations visited and deeper thoughts, blog-sized even, that I can go back and look at.
  • I want chronological feeds from my network. This isn't just in response to algorithms, it's because I want to see the network in a finite way, where there's an end and I close the app and move on.
  • A lack of public options. This is kind of a judgment call, but a private network versus a public publishing platform fundamentally influences the nature of the content. The latter means there's a performative element introduced to an audience, and by extension leads to the amplification of bullshit. This will always be a thing, but I wouldn't want it to be a thing where I want to socialize online.

The funny thing is that I kind of built this, crudely, back in the day with CampusFish, and I even had a dozen people paying for it at one point. It was public, but really only the people using it interacted. It was private in the open, if you will. This was before Facebook was a glimmer in Zuck's eye, and before MySpace. It had a good run, even if it wasn't really a business.

Would anyone pay for something like this today? That's the real problem. Everyone hates being the product, but expects it to be free. That might be changing to some degree, since streaming music and video is a legitimate business now. But the flip side is mobile gaming, which is "free" until you pile on micro-transactions or ads. But I am certain that you can't create something ideal without charging for it. The Internet is not free.


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