All Social Media Sites Are The Same
These days, you can’t go far without seeing some manner of drama involving a terrible decision made by a major website. Predictably, what happens is a brief fit of outrage, followed by a brief look into the void of the Web for something else, then a shrug of indifference and a return to the status quo of cat videos and harassment. Wet, rinse, repeat.
Most of the time, these decisions come out of nowhere. They can range from a simple font change to a new feature the site’s notifications push for a bit. Each one individually might seem its own self-contained hole of attention, but they all point to one inescapable conclusion: every service site is homogenizing into each other.
That statement without elaboration doesn’t raise much concern. Of course social media sites are gaining from each other — that’s the nature of competition in a narrow market. This is no different to when, say, TV manufacturers were latching onto each other’s ideas about design and functionality in the ’80s. It’s no different to how phone companies today eventually boiled down to the same kind of smartphone with different positions of the front camera.
But is it really that inconsequential though?
Consider first of all that I didn’t mention social media in that conclusion. I said every service site, which in this case I mean to encompass the websites one person might use to establish themselves.
Facebook and Twitter are part of it, yes, but this includes the likes of Patreon, Twitch, YouTube, Tumblr, all of their competition, and all of the third-party tools that claim to help you use them better. Each of them has a different core focus, but over time they tacked on new features to try and scrape out an edge in each other’s user share.
Which means that yes, the title of this article isn’t the whole story.
For a user who already has limited time and attention to spare for different websites, the broader scope of all these websites is overwhelming. It’s a danger to that user’s sanity to diversify their presence, no matter what the experts say about it being the best way forward.
Before I get any further with the big picture, let’s break down the finer details of this pressure.
The Post Wall
Social networks are defined by the post wall. It’s the first thing a user sees after they log in — a vertical stream of posts by people and pages they follow. Even the tamest of service sites like Patreon have this, and it’s proven to be the simplest and most effective layout.
Twitter of course defines itself by a character limit (first 140, now 280), but even that can fit a lot of information. A simple link can be expanded on the feed to include a large thumbnail, embedded video, some metadata about the linked page, or a full-on poll.
Smaller-scoped sites tend to use it as nothing more than a gimmick. DeviantArt is listed on Wikipedia as a social networking site, so we’ll use it as an example. It’s notable in that its vertical “Watch” post wall is not as hard-pushed as two other kinds of layouts — the general “Browse” mosaic on its actual front page that reaches broadly across the whole site, and the user “Notifications” area that (in my opinion) better organizes the same “Watch” content into sections where each item and group can be selectively browsed and pruned.
Tower of Text
The post wall is one example in a larger trend of conversation being funneled through a narrow string of posts. We’ll call it the Tower of Text.
Web design 101 says that to build any basic stream of posts in a feed, chatroom, or forum, you use a vertical list where each item gets its own allocated row of space and nothing more. It’s how basic geometry works, and it’s what works best with our human languages.
Beyond that, the only major decision for the Tower itself is whether to anchor the start from the top or the bottom.
Websites with self-contained posts like Twitter and Facebook anchor from the top. Humans are naturally used to starting from the top and working their way down when reading. Since social networks tend to frame their content like news, it makes sense for the otherwise unconnected posts to be ordered downward by time posted.
Chatrooms, on the other hand, are about having a conversation. Users in chats are essentially catching up with an excessively long letter that’s being written by multiple people. It doesn’t matter if someone wants to see the beginning of the conversation, because it’s irrelevant to the one happening right now! That’s why chatrooms anchor from the bottom.
The trouble with both approaches is that once you start adding new sources of content into the mix, the Tower of Text becomes saturated very quickly. Large chatrooms often scroll by too fast for casual readers and lurkers to keep up with, leaving them overwhelmed and often turned off from participating. It’s been the end of many friendships on places like Skype simply due to the stress of trying to communicate on such a narrow space.
Most major providers of the Tower of Text have tried for years to fix this problem in many ways.
Social media websites with sufficient money and server space have invested into algorithms that sort their posts into personalized Towers that they think users would get the most value from.
This includes notorious sections like “In case you missed it…” on Twitter, recommended (re: advertised) posts, and simple re-ordering of certain posts beneath ones it thinks you’d prefer.
Overall, that has contributed to an expansion of the Filter Bubble that has subtly divided large sections of our population over time.
As a side note, this article is several months in the making, so this section was written before Cambridge Analytica became known to the public. However, the fact that algorithms in social media are a two-way street is nothing new. In fact, it’s the same business model used by credit bureaus, and since Equifax got hacked, you know where this is going.
Comment sections are familiar with the concept of nesting — a sorted hierarchy of comments that form connected threads linking each other. A single comment could begin a whole tangential conversation beneath the “See replies” button.
The two major forms these take are Collapsed and Uncollapsed.
Collapsed threads have their replies hidden under a button that expands and contracts the conversation at will. It saves space, with the downside that unread replies may not be apparent at first glance.
Uncollapsed threads tend to indent replies directly beneath the parent comment much like an email reply. The benefits here depend on whether the system includes factors like bumping up latest replies to the front through its parent.
A few hybrid systems exist that collapse threads only after a certain number of replies is reached. YouTube’s comment system is like this, but the comment section has its own deeper problem that we’ll get into later.
For chatrooms in particular, a simple fix is to just add more Towers, in the form of alternate channels. We’ll call it the Tower Farm. The form and mechanism of this depends on the chat platform, and slight differences make big impact.
Skype allows users the ability to make practically infinite group chats, which means that the option is there to split one group into multiple threads. However, every group requires either manually inviting people into it or providing a link. Before providing links was an option, anyone who was left uninvited could risk seeding jealousy and resent.
Discord is as close as anyone has gotten to an ideal system. It still has the inherent “I was uninvited”/FOMO problem for certain kinds of servers — especially those run by streamers, Patreon paywallers, and reserved groups of friends — but it localizes the Tower Farm in a single server where any number of text and voice channels can be arranged with unique permissions, functions, and features.
As anyone who claims to work as a social media expert will tell you, community management is hard. On the Internet, it is a complicated, stressful, and thankless job that affects creators just as much as it affects their fans. The complication is for the simple reason that a community manager is beholden to the tools available to them.
Social media’s biggest stigma right now is the lack of reasonable filter on the feedback that comes in. Hatred and harassment come in waves like the edge of a beach swapping between tides. Resources on how to combat it online are scarce in comparison to the sea of information on how to market yourself online, which says a lot about the mindset at play.
Websites as Tools
For creators, every resource they can pick up is a potentially useful tool to shape their presence online. Websites are no different, especially in the age where the most prominent ones are services. It means that you have to be smart about how the tool works best before you revolve your career around it.
At the same time, you have to learn to anticipate changes and accept whatever you’re given when you’re given it. One feature might be supplanted by another one, and whether it’s better or not is irrelevant as long as you still pledge to use the service.
A whole side industry has sprouted up for offering tips and ever-sharper attachments for these tools, and many of them give conflicting information based on different kinds of experiences on the same platforms. Some of them compare new options popping up to the big players, and others offer ripoffs of each other’s work.
Ultimately, most community managers are left overwhelmed with a virtual warehouse full of redundant tools, most of which they’ll leave to rot while others take up space in their attention span. And while some of the smaller tools might be novel approaches themselves, they have another hurdle to face.
Buying Up the Barnacles
A good way, the wisdom goes, to shut up your competition is to assimilate them. These days, it’s not uncommon to see unfamiliar names quietly being merged into the portfolios of these big sites, or even the occasional large name that just forgot to mention.
However, the important thing to note is that for the most part, these acquisitions were not large companies. These were startups with enough potential to become large, but ultimately weren’t even close to a threat on their markets.
Many of them were done to merge in software that would allow them to hit the latest trend in features. Livestreaming video is a notable example, with Periscope being bought by Twitter and Patreon gaining Crowdcast.
Some websites just simply don’t have the ability to support the right tools to moderate feedback. It might come from the limitations of the layout, or it could be from the core mission of the website itself.
Twitter is a prime example. Open-ended conversation is the goal at play, and the company risks coloring their reputation more than they already have if they deviate from that. Profiles are either public or private, and beyond that there’s only private messages and blocking individual users between you and the waves.
YouTube’s comment sections are notorious for harassment and mob mentality, but there are actually a few options for dealing with them. The algorithm detects questionable messages and flags them for channel mods to deal with. Others can be manually deleted and their users blocked from commenting. Or you can do what some more insipid channels do and just let the slop fester without a care in the world.
Diagnosed with Apathy
Unfortunately, that attitude is rampant online. People have an implicit trust in social media to not break or go against them while they use it to their fullest.
Recently, there was a poll that, among other things, suggested that there was a growing indifference to the hot-button issues of racial clashing.
Commonly, you’ll find rules on stream channels that broadly forbid “drama of any kind” or harassment based on any number of factors. Those factors can depend on the mood of the streamer or even the whim of an individual moderator.
Combine that with the kind of big names who don’t take kindly to things like… racial equality, feminism, and common sense… that’s where toxicity is bred more often than not.
Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done on these existing sites. All that we seem to be doing nowadays is pointing out their flaws in articles like this or getting worked up about them when one of those flaws gets exploited in a big public way.
Some of us are trying to make alternatives, but the merits of whether an alternative works or not is by breaking the problems they tackle down to their essence, which I hope to analyze and demystify in a future article.
For now, don’t be discouraged by the size we made these monstrous sites into. They will still be around when the dust settles, but in the same way that early pioneers have been left to waste away, we’ll soon be leaving these ones behind as a sobering step toward social media nirvana.