009 – The three social media problem

I want to capture some reflections on my experience of using social media.

Currently, I am living in a period of minimal in-person interactions due to the pandemic, having relocated to Glasgow and started working remotely from there. Thus, I have been feeling eager to make more connections and turned to social media for it.

I have been spending more time on various platforms, expressing myself and reaching out to others. I noticed that how I engage with a platform can make a big difference in how much I connect with others and how I feel afterwards. I also noticed that most platforms don’t make it easier for me to engage in a way that makes me feel more connected and happier. Let me unbundle this.

One way of engaging with social media is to seek entertainment from it. The basic entertainment seeking session involves a lot of scrolling, some lurking and a little bit of liking. This is how I engaged with social media until last year. It is the way in which the vast majority of people engages with social media. It is also the engagement dynamic that most social media platforms seek to create since it maximises screen time and minimises short-term cost for the user (ie reduced behavioural barriers).

The fact that platforms are explicitly designed to incentivise this engagement dynamic may also explain why the vast majority of people mostly scrolls and lurks. However, it seems that this engagement dynamic produces the least amount of value for users in the long term. People tend to use lurking and scrolling as a way to procrastinate away from what is important to them. The predominance of this kind of engagement dynamic is what makes social media a bland and not outstanding experience.

I wonder if in the long-term platforms that promote a passive entertainment-seeking engagement dynamic will struggle to retain and grow their user base and will eventually fade away. It may happen when platforms that promote higher quality interaction experiences take off. However, there may always be space for more passive content consumption given its low behavioural cost. Hopefully, it won’t make it for the vast majority of our social media time in the future.

Most people are not thrilled by how social media looks like now but few people imagine how it could be different. A friend of mine who is very eager to indiscriminately connect with others in real life treats social media just as a way to “get information from and push information back in”. She doesn’t have many expectations or hopes for it to be any different.

The second way of engaging with social media is to use it to seek attention. With the booming of the creator economy, seeking attention has been increasingly growing as a way of using social media. Seeking attention requires putting in quite a lot of energy. You need to create content, think about your audience and optimise your presence. In the past few months, I tried engaging with social media in this way. While it may produce some monetary returns, even if the odds are pretty bleak, it doesn’t produce much happiness and quality of experience, at least for me. What usually happens when I focus on producing content and seeking attention is that I start looking out for notifications, checking the stats and views. I start feeling rewarded by single likes with no meanings attached to them from people I have no connection with. Being social becomes a performance tracked and judged by metrics. I am actually curious how successful content creators feel about the social media interactions they have around their content, whether they actually enjoy them or not.

This new attention-seeking engagement dynamic with social media feels like an ill attempt to fix the unsustainable nature of the entertainment-seeking dynamic. Some platforms noticed that content production was slowly becoming the biggest bottleneck in user growth and retention. They decided to fix the problem by reducing the short-term cost of producing content for the users and incentivising everyone to be a creator. However, they did so by focusing creators on metrics, which brings about a bunch of other problems and doesn’t improve the quality of interaction. It also doesn’t address the root cause problem, which is that the primary social need of humans is that of forming connections. There are short-term costs to pay to form connections and social media platforms haven’t found a sustainable way to incentivise users to take such costs on.

The third way of engaging social media is to use it to seek connections. This is how I started using social media lately. Whenever I use social media to seek connections I feel much better at the end of each session. I feel more fulfilled, excited and energetic. The central behaviour of connection-seeking social media consists of replies, possibly supporting, celebrating and befriending ones.

If you check the replies to the above question by Malcolm they all mention replies. The end game of connection-seeking social media is to satisfy a basic human need that is highly correlated with happiness, quality of life and longevity: make friends.

I am still experimenting with using social media in this way but it seems to be pointing in the right direction.

However, social media is not designed for establishing connections and there are various reasons behind this.

One problem is that social media platforms want to maximise the time that users spend on them. This requires removing behavioural barriers to using the platforms. Scrolling has very low behavioural barriers so it is what platforms first huddled around. Creating content has higher behavioural barriers but some platforms, most notably TikTok, succeeded in reducing this cost and generating much more content than other platforms. Meaningfully and authentically reaching out to others has perhaps the highest short-term costs for the users and high emotional barriers. It seems that most mainstream platforms haven’t found a way to make connection-making easier. It certainly happens in some platforms, like Twitter, but it seems mostly driven by intrinsically motivated users that hack the platform rather than by the design of the service itself.

Another obstacle towards successful connection-driven social media is that quality is much less measurable than quantity. Platforms cannot really measure the amount of quality of life and good feelings that they bring to users. And since they cannot measure it, they cannot track it, plan against it and report their progress and growth on the metrics to their stakeholders and the financial markets. As the saying goes: “what gets measure gets done”, to which I would add “especially in capitalistic society and markets”.

Where to go and what to do from here?

Malcolm Ocean shared a lot of thoughts on how a conversation-optimised Twitter would look like. Coupled with working on solving the above business problems, seems like a promising direction to pursue.

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