it’s not dead, and is now aiming at creative people. Minds has a niche which seems to be Infowars and Bitcoin nuts. Imzy focused on basically being nice, but shut down because it couldn’t find a business model compatible with that.
It’s that business model issue that’s the real problem. Everyone seems to want to copy Facebook, without recognizing that it’s Facebook’s business model that has made it such a disaster for society. All the things that are awful about Facebook are features, not bugs. Let’s run through a bunch of them.
Problem 0: Advertising
Facebook’s fundamental problem, its “original sin”, was that it decided to fund itself through advertising. To sell advertising, it needed to keep users interacting with the site as much as possible. However, it doesn’t matter whether the users’ interaction is positive or negative. Which brings me to…
Problem 1: Clicks = interaction = money
To Facebook, a flame war is fantastic. It keeps you clicking, gets you posting, and boosts the stats they use to sell ads. Sure, you come out the far side feeling like shit, but that doesn’t matter to Facebook. As long as you return the next day, even if it’s just to see if anyone’s having a party, you’ll likely be dragged back in or tempted into another shouting match.
Fake news is fantastic too. Every time you see something purporting to be news that you feel compelled to debunk, they just scored more clicks. That’s much more valuable to them than real news which you don’t feel the need to comment on. It’s not surprising that Facebook still has lots of fake news driven by ad networks.
Problem 2: Only captive clicks count
The ability to read Facebook from your choice of client had to go away because of the need to track and monetize your browsing. That’s why web feeds had to go. It’s why you have to be forced to log in to read anything on the site. And it’s why people feel trapped into using it.
Problem 3: More users = more money
It’s not enough to get you fighting with your friends in the blue arena. Like a disease, Facebook wants to spread as widely as possible. This requires that it push your content at as many people as possible, to try and trigger interaction. Hence Facebook started showing discussions to random friends of anyone who was participating in those discussions.
You were talking to a friend about something private? Hard luck. Unless you and your friend have both locked down your privacy settings, that discussion might get waved in the face of anyone you know, inviting them to comment. And…
Problem 4: Usability costs money
Sure, there’s a setting you can use to decide if a post is seen by the public, by friends, by specific friends, or just by you. To get to the useful settings where you can choose which group of friends, you need to click on More, and then click on See All, and then scroll down to the hidden list of groups. And do you know where you go to edit who’s in which groups? You can’t get to it from the drop-down, or from the Groups menu entry, or the privacy settings. No, it’s the Friend Lists entry which is only shown if you click Show More under shortcuts. So you’ll be shocked to know that 95% of users have never used Friend Lists. While Facebook has privacy settings, they seem to be engineered to limit their apparent usefulness and hence discourage their use.
Some people reading this will think that I’m seeing a conspiracy where simple incompetence is a better explanation. However, Facebook have a big design team, and it’s not really hard to come up with a usable interface for friend groups — Google nailed it when launching Google+, only to hide the feature later, presumably for the same reasons as Facebook.
Look at Facebook’s article on the design of the news feed. Their stated mission is to deal with the news feed being “cluttered and hard to navigate”. Really? That’s what they think the problem is? The problem I see is that it’s full of shit, missing posts from my friends, and in the wrong order.
There’s an additional problem now that so many people find Facebook toxic and a chore rather than a pleasure: making the site more usable will reduce the amount of time people feel they need to spend on it.
Problem 5: Loss of trust
Those creepy profiles and other abusive behavior mean that hardly anyone I know trusts Facebook any more. So while sharing in general is down, the big drop is personal posts. Most people just don’t want to post anything personal on Facebook any more. And that’s why we all started using the site in the first place, right? The company is so worried about the trend that it has started directly asking questions about you, to substitute for the personal posts it used to rely on.
Problem 6: Promoting mass public sharing is perfect for propaganda
The one growth area for Facebook has been propaganda. Anyone can run a pretty much anonymous public propaganda page, and have Facebook promote articles and discussions via the friend-of-a-friend “you didn’t ask to see this but here it is anyway” posts in your feed. You can even pay to get propaganda spread more widely, and Facebook was happy to accept payment in rubles.
So again, all of these problems with Facebook were inevitable given the business model. The scandal over racist targeting of ads is a business model problem too — advertising plus The Algorithm plus no humans in the loop = racist ad targeting.
Hence, any social network which tries to follow the same business model as Facebook will inevitably end up just as bad, or worse. Just look at Twitter.
Some of the smarter people have realized this. For example, Ev Williams is trying to get something else to work as a means of funding Medium. I wish him good luck, but at the same time I’m getting really annoyed by those big modal dialogs.
I’ve also been kicking around ideas for what the next social network might look like. I think I’ve discovered a great new social network. It has the following amazing feature list:
No advertising. It’s available absolutely free of ads for any kind.
Fine-grained access control. You can easily set up lists of your friends and choose exactly who gets to see your posts.
No friend-of-a-friend discussion leakage. Your discussions won’t be automatically shown to people you don’t know just to try and get them to react.
No imposed feed filter. You have complete control over how your news feed is sorted and filtered. Have no filters, prioritize anything from Steve, remove all posts about cats, the sky is the limit!
Searchable. Unlike Facebook, you can find things you or someone else said earlier through a robust search interface.
Not useful for spreading fake news. Nothing posted can ever be world-readable, and you can’t pay to show your messages to more people, so it’s not amenable to spreading propaganda.
No brigading. Trolls are now getting people’s social network accounts shut down by complaining to Facebook about posts insulting white men. Well, they can’t get you kicked off of this system.
It’s an open standard. There’s no lock-in: if you decide you don’t like the way your provider is behaving, you can move your service elsewhere and still keep in touch with all your friends. You can easily back up your data, and it will still be readable in 20 years.
Multiple providers. Pick the company you want to deal with based on their policies, service level offered, or how much you like their software. You’ll still have the same access to your friends.
Works great on mobile and desktop. Works online and offline. Uses very little mobile bandwidth, and there are native apps for every major platform too!
And here’s the absolute best part: everyone already knows how to use it, and already has an account. You won’t have to beg them to sign up to yet another web site.
What is this incredible social network that seems like it beats Facebook in every way?
Seriously, though, think about it. You can set up your own mailing lists, or just use your mail program’s address book. It might be a bit fiddly, but you only have to do it once.
Yes, social networking web sites offered us a lot of convenience, and in the beginning they were great. Over the years, though, they have taken the convenience away, taken the content away, become abusive, and perhaps even become a danger to democracy.
Like the boiling frog, we’ve failed to notice the steady erosion of what social networks site offer. After looking at my old e-mail archives, I now think social networking sites provide less content and less positive functionality than we had when we just had e-mail. Maybe it’s time for a #BackToEmail social network movement?
© mathew 2017