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Stop trying to make a "good" social media site
You want what cannot be had
It’s an unkillable idea. Oh so predictably, some fresh-faced company will try to introduce a new social media website. It’s Twitter, but better! How it should be. Just in the past year, there was Mastodon (Twitter but decentralized!) and then there was Bluesky (Twitter but invitation-based, oh, and also decentralized!), and now there is Substack’s Notes (Twitter, but to follow people you need to subscribe your email). Now it’s been leaked that Meta will build a Twitter clone as well.
I was in Substack’s Notes beta, and I can attest firsthand—when it starts, people are always euphoric at the new site. It’s like everyone discovering some unblemished part of the cave wall. Here is a journalist at Verge over a month ago detailing the exuberance at Bluesky:
Bluesky is really, really fun. . . Very soon in my Bluesky journey, I stumbled upon a post from Jay Graber, the CEO of Bluesky, that helped me get a sense of what I was in for.
“It was getting pretty scene-y here so we just emailed 5K people from our waitlist, say hi when you see them trickle on!” Graber wrote. . .
Bluesky kept feeling good throughout the week. My feed wasn’t littered with angry posts about HBO Max’s change to Max, for example—instead, the people I follow seemed most invested in maintaining Bluesky’s currently positive culture. . . On Friday, people were posting pictures of their bookshelves: “shelfies.” It was enjoyable to scroll.
And here is Verge, the same outfit, just over two weeks later:
Now that the site is growing, guess what? It sucks, and has all the same problems as Twitter, from pornography to death threats. From the article:
This was not ideal for anyone, but it was especially not ideal for pundit and blogger Matt Yglesias, formerly of Vox.com and now a successful Substack writer. . . It’s not clear exactly what riled people up on Bluesky about Yglesias, though some cited his attitude toward trans rights issues. Regardless, on Thursday, his posts were under fire, with over a hundred replies ranging from merely hostile to descriptively violent. “WE ARE GOING TO BEAT YOU WITH HAMMERS,” said one user going by “hannah :)” who identified herself as a teen girl.
How lovely. This process will inevitably continue until the site becomes as terrible as all the big social media sites, transforming into places of witch hunts, derision, barely formulated thoughts, snuff videos, clickbait, and occupied with all your favorite anime avatars threatening to kill you. For a new social media website, going from “omg it’s so great we’re inviting another 5,000 people!” to “we will beat you with hammers” takes about two weeks.
And just to be clear: obviously the definition of “social media” is a spectrum. When I’m using it here, I mean mostly those sites on the end of one side of the spectrum, like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram—especially with its upcoming changes. Despite both being video sharing platforms, TikTok is further along the social media spectrum than YouTube, as it’s built on a constant stream of 30 second clips, whereas YouTube is built on 30 minute Mr. Beast videos. While other websites like Twitch or Substack have a social component, like accounts and subscriptions or followings, they don’t throw you into an all-to-all instantaneous web of interaction and virality. They don’t insert you into a realm governed by an always active group-mind focus of attention that sweeps, lighthouse-like, from subject to subject, and poor soul to poor soul.
To be sure, I like Substack’s Notes a lot more than Twitter right now. But I’m pretty sure that’s just because of its size. An analogy to cryptocurrency is helpful here: Bitcoin is too slow and decentralized to confirm transactions fast, and everyone complains about it, and so people create new alternative currencies with supposedly superior architectures. At first things go great, because no one is using the new blockchain and transactions confirm fast. But then, eventually, the new chain starts getting actually used, and transactions begin to slow to a crawl, and everyone realizes that they can’t outrun the problem that decentralized currencies are inevitably very slow, and that Bitcoin might be close to as good as it gets anyways. This is because there is an irreducible flaw—that decentralization is slow—that no design can fully get around. You’re limited by your materials.
Spinning up new social media websites mimics this, except what you are trying to outrun is human nature. No design of social media can get rid of what I like to call the “semantic nadir,” which is what you’ll inevitably experience if your tweet ever goes viral, wherein eventually someone will take your tweet in literally the worst possible way (there’s some classic examples of this, as generally if you say “I love cheesecake” it won’t be long before someone reaches to “Oh, so you hate regular cake”—that’s the semantic nadir).
Companies try a litany of changes: It’s open-sourced! It’s decentralized! It’s got good governance! We’ll ban whatever you want! We’ll ban nothing! It doesn’t matter. You’re limited by your materials, which is mostly the people who really thrive on social media. The simple truth that, unless someone is already famous for other reasons, no one gets a million Twitter followers by being nice. They get it by being an asshole. A big chunk, maybe even the majority, of people who accumulate a million followers accrue them by being at the front of the crowd throwing rotten vegetables at people in the stockades. One day they take a turn in the stockades, and it either destroys them or they live through it, shamed, and return right back to the front of the crowd, their faces contorted even more demonically. I meet moms and dads who happily have no idea what’s going on on Twitter, because all the actual sane people left long ago, and the sociopaths who feel pleasure watching other’s lives get destroyed, and live for the snarky comeback, and want to snidely gossip about everything under the sun, are the ones left to wield the scythe.
But Erik, you’re on Twitter.
Well. . . yes. That’s how I know. I don’t post much, and I try to avoid the natural tendencies—but in the rare instances where I have made that snarky remark, growth and interaction skyrocket through the roof. With just the barest hint of teeth it’s like chum in the waters. My original reason for using Twitter is that I make my living by writing and thinking and researching, and Twitter is where people go to get content like that. But I honestly and openly don’t like it, and say as much when I’m on there.
Some take my openly negative view of social media as an attack on themselves, and their own use of it. Certainly, I understand why people use it. Occasionally, there’s gold in there! I’m not denying that. And it’s basically a necessity, at this point. Social media is where the action is—it’s not just where people get their news, in many ways social media is the culture now. And just because you are de facto “forced” by incentives (even if it doesn’t feel like you’re being forced) into using a terrible system, this does not make you individually terrible, particularly if you’re not a contributor to its atrocities.
“What about all the positives?” a defender of social media might say. And these do exist, sure, but arguably almost everything about social media that’s good is actually from the power of the internet. “I get so much information!” Power of the internet. “I don’t have to rely on mainstream sources!” Power of the internet. “I get to connect with people far away!” Power of the internet. “I get to be anonymous!” Sorry, power of the internet. “I’ve made so many friends on social media!” I have too, a few at least. But are they as real as real life? If you were in the online stockades for the day, would they say anything? Maybe some would—I certainly would for some people I’ve only met online. But there are other ways to make friends across continents in a world of group chats, zoom calls, and all the many other slower websites that don’t have the same malicious incentives as Twitter does that still give us what’s great about the internet. Most of what’s great about social media has nothing to do with it. Most of what’s specific to it is evil and terrible.
The problem is that we like it. Or at least, enough of us do. I think that’s because we literally evolved in a situation similar to social media. I outlined this theory in “The Gossip Trap” last year in an essay that also won Scott Alexander’s annual book review contest. The idea of a “gossip trap” is my answer to what’s called the “Sapient Paradox,” which itself asks: Why did civilization and culture take so long to get started? Humans from 100,000 years ago wouldn’t stand out on a NYC subway, and they had brains as large as our own—and yet it takes until ~10,000 BC, and far after in most places, to escape prehistory. It implies some kind of trap, for why were we stuck for so long? What were we doing?
I think the key is that humans evolved in small tribes where there were no formal powers—no states, no officials, no laws, no constitutions. There were just popular and unpopular people, and all the wild obnoxious high-school-esque dynamics that entails. When your group is small enough, you can get away with organizing your society solely through raw social power. And while this is actually a hell—or at least we moderns would find it so—for humans it is a strangely comfortable hell. In a sense then, civilization was a reaction to a state of nature ruled not by violent barbarism, but by soft social power. Consider that all our paragons of civilization, from judges to tenured professors to sequestered juries to politicians serving for fixed terms, are all defined by their immunity to gossip.
The notion of a resurrected gossip trap is the anthropological version of Jon Haidt’s work on the negative psychological effect of social media and smartphones. We originally left the gossip trap simply because, once group size is large enough, Dunbar’s number kicks in (the number of social relationships primates can keep track of), you can’t organize society through gossip alone. But Twitter and Facebook, by creating an all-to-all connected web structured and assisted by viral algorithms, has beaten Dunbar’s number and resurrected the ability to run culture and society mostly through gossip. Mark Zuckerberg, originally just trying to create FaceMash, a website for ranking the hotness of Harvard girls, in his second attempt with Facebook accidentally summoned back our first, and most perhaps most consistently oppressive, form of government.
Eventually, all media dictatorships end. Some people of my generation, the millennials, still watch cable news, but no one from my generation would say that they fully trust cable news in the way that older generations do. We just don’t take it that seriously. Maybe the generation after ours will look at social media the same way. It’ll still be there, sure, but less relevant, and a younger generation will view its dynamics and actions, the great show of it all, as skeptically as my generation views cable TV. I hear that Gen Z spends a lot of time on semi-private forums like Discord, preferring that over the huge everything-all-at-once web of connected accounts that is social media. Maybe that’s the beginning of a shift, and so we can eventually, slowly, recapture a bit of what was lost. But first people have to stop building new social media sites, and go build something else.