7 December 2017

Some thoughts on social networks

Last week I spent some time moving all my e-mail archives off of Google’s servers and onto my own. At the same time I went through and cleared out a bunch of old mail, scanned for duplicates, pulled out family photos into an album, and generally tidied.

It was an interesting experience. I found myself seeing names of people I had no recollection of, but who had apparently been a major part of my life a couple of decades ago. At the opposite extreme, there were the people whose names triggered the thought “Can it really be true that I’ve known that person for 20 years?”

The most surprising thing, though, was rediscovering how much we all used to write. It wasn’t just that we e-mailed each other; it was that we wrote whole letters, paragraph after paragraph. We talked about our hopes, our dreams, our lives. We did so one-on-one, rather than for an audience.

This got me thinking about the progression of personal writing on the Internet. For me, e-mail use dropped off after the early social blogging platforms — for me, LiveJournal. After Brad sold LiveJournal and the whole thing went rapidly downhill, people started moving to sites like Friendster and Myspace, but I hated both of them and went back to my own site. Eventually, Facebook offered a clean and usable alternative to Myspace, with web syndication support, so I became an early adopter. For a while, I would post things to both my own site and Facebook.

And then, sadly, Facebook turned evil. They walled off their site from web syndication, and stopped supporting external feeds. They messed up the sorting of the wall page. They added invisible filtering, to try to force people to pay to promote their posts. They built up creepy profiles of all their users, and even creepier profiles of people who didn’t use their site. And they introduced The Algorithm, which meant that your heartfelt personal journal posts would likely never be seen by everyone because it was more beneficial to Facebook to show clickbait and fake news.

Several friends have said to me that they’re only on Facebook because everyone uses it to organize events. My own practice these days is to log in, check for events, maybe read a couple of posts, then leave, because by and large I view the site as a fucking cancer.

It’s not just me and my friends. I get the sense that people in general are ready for a change. Facebook users posted a full third less content in 2016 than 2015, and 2017 is shaping up to be even worse. Interestingly, this was predicted by a 2014 study which modeled social network sites as if they were infectious diseases.

The question is, what next?

There have been many attempts to unseat Facebook, but they’ve mostly failed and ended up having to focus on a specific niche. Google+ has carved out a space as a place where informal tech discussions happen. Ello recently announced that 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?

It’s e-mail.

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