Jeremiah Rogers

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I Don't Think Anyone Wanted This

Note: writing this today I’d focus on other photo networks like 500px and Instagram, not Facebook. Content on social networks, just like any other medium, starts to look the same over time. The New York Times, The New Yorker, BuzzFeed: they’re all distinct mediums which get a feel. My blog itself is not immune to this.

I’ve been working on some writing for a while about social networks and software design. It’s longer stuff, and every time I put it together I decide to hold off on posting just a bit longer to get the argument clear without offending too many people.

However there is a trend I’d like to point out, mostly in response to this piece by Dave Winer which I saw linked from Brent Simmons:

“It’s all become way too frenetic. Too much noise. Everything is an ad. No one reads anything. It’s just a segue, a cue. Cut to commercial. I’m here! Listen! Hear me!” - Dave Winer

I think we’re seeing some aspects of market failure in social software, specifically as mentioned by Dave Winer above with Facebook.

Here are a couple observations. I focus on Facebook, but it applies to any feedback based social network. I am seeing the same kinds of problems with Medium, Instagram, and to a lesser extent Twitter. Each just has different dynamics.

  1. Short and atomic content on Facebook does the best, especially things that are positive or highly controversial.
  2. People are really good at solving for problems. We’ve all realized that short and atomic content does best and that’s what we tend to post.
  3. Facebook is not designed as a great reading environment, the UI is far too distracting. This encourages content to get shorter and easier to consume before we rush off to do something else.
  4. The longer and more meaningful content doesn’t do as well on Facebook as the short stuff. We feel this, and so we only post something longer if it really means a lot to us to send the message out.
  5. If you don’t log into Facebook for a while the experience can be overwhelming. News Feed will try to show you the most interesting content, but the most interesting content is often the most vacuous content. It’s the empty bragging or complaining.

From the perspective of someone who logs in only a few times per day Facebook is totally overwhelming. I want to be on there, I want to be part of the conversation, but I rarely come away feeling great about myself.

I don’t think anyone wanted to design a system that contains a bunch of atomic lightweight content. I think everyone wants to fix it, but I see the same problems with Medium, Instagram, Twitter and every other social network.

  • The best content on Medium makes a bold, likely unrealistic claim and shows emotional vulnerability.
  • The links we’re most likely to click contain a number of items and a hard to believe fact.
  • Blog articles tend to be written for SEO, not existing readers.
  • Instagram photos of coffee, sunsets, and female bodies do well. Nothing hanging in the Met Museum would get 1,000 likes on Instagram.

Each social network has an optimal format which gets the most engagement. Over time people will solve for that format and all content will begin to look the same.

Are we stuck with this forever? I doubt it. Social networks evolve. Every minor change in the interface will move the optimal content.

I think the best solution might be some randomization in content distribution. Make it hard for people to figure out how to game the system and you’ll gain greater content diversity.

A random picture of Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. I just did this to make the link preview look better.