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If you're still "just on social" you're at existential risk daily
Let email, RSS, indie blogs and a return to ownership of where you share your best ideas (free from algos de-ranking interesting stuff) flourish once again
I am once again passionate about the idea of individuals able to go direct to audiences without a filter and share raw, earnest thinking with the world at scale. For a long time we were in a full on bear market here, wherein stream-based social platforms more interested in having users chase dopamine hits and slot-machine style attention payouts for sharing ever more-controversial and risqué takes were peaking. Many were rewarded with large audiences purely for being the most polarized and the least civil while sharing ideas, discussing news of the day and debating topics large and small, whether industry-specific or national/international. Most of the best people who started these platforms were well intentioned and at least present. Now it seems like few are left who actually care about content quality and what behavior is rewarded.
But the good news is the renaissance of personal publishing is back, and I believe we have crossed the peak of what feels like being held hostage by overly algorithmic platforms like Instagram, overly pedantic moderators on places like Reddit, places that throttle our organic links like Twitter and Facebook, and the tyranny of conformity sites like LinkedIn have conditioned their users to follow (a corporate-approved panopticon of fear: leading users to publish self-serving ideas, neutered to the point they have the personality of a piece of plywood). Too risky to tie your ‘professional brand’ to anything actually contrarian or iconoclast (triumph of content your most rule-obsessed, coloring in the lines high school guidance counselor would approve of).
We may have been able to look past a bunch of the above for awhile, but now it appears glaringly bad, and a large part due to ongoing mismanagement by teams who are some combination of:
Not actually social media users themselves and miss the point of real, authentic online communities
Built an environment their users live in fear of being banned/suspended or simply de-prioritized algorithmically (real or perceived is really no different even if in most cases ‘shadow banning’ isn’t even real)
Obsession with milking KPIs to hit quarterly engagement goals at all costs, user experience and real value be damned
Company culture that is stifled, stuck or fear-based because of larger macro issues, company lawsuits and directionless leadership
A lifting and prioritizing of “average content for average people” which can be an inevitability of optimization processes seeking to please all who contribute, essentially the opposite of an approach of surfacing complex ideas as that is not really what products with scaled user bases wish. And really, how social works best is to create situations where the exceptional shine. I personally want to see the most thought-provoking ideas and learn from those far smarter than myself, so placating the “id” is long-term detrimental (diminishing returns, we can get chumbucket content anywhere, I don’t think site operators appreciate this as much as end users).
Hatred of the hyperlink and throttling all the stories we share, which does irreparable harm to the web (hyperlinks are internet lindy and healthy for all)
The big players in social (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, even YouTube to some extent) have to function in a way that is being optimized for averages. Reddit with subreddits and smaller communities actually does a decent job skirting this as micro communities and subreddits self-select users with deep specific interests who have higher standards (they have separate issues of power-hungry mods of course). Only power users want to filter feeds or build lists.
Anyway all this said, it’s prelude to the title of today’s post. The combination of the above and product teams who ignore spam, are optimizing to hit quarterly engagement OKRs and (while this isn’t 100% true) seem to be asleep at the wheel in terms of thinking through carefully what behavior is incentivized and why, we are left with exploits easy enough to put into playbooks that have been copy-pasted by users who see social not as a place to connect and build lasting community, but as one to extract (perceived) value personally and a place to “strip mine” attention. Usually for the most banal end goals (buy this mug or e-book). I actually believe the (lack of) efforts of product teams are who enable these playbooks to be run, at the cost of genuine participants of these communities.
As someone who has spent a good chunk of their life creating, managing and nurturing digital communities since the 90s (I’ve been running self-hosted forums long before modern macro social existed) I am acutely aware of the importance of community health and what types of behavior can make one thrive or slowly decay. The group dynamics and the health of it define everything (see my post on rules that govern groups online for a summary of thoughts here). Even a small number of folk who participate with an extraction mindset can do irreparable damage to the (for sure) larger set of users who are authentic and contributing members of a digital community. A human body having even one limb infected can be in theory a mortally dangerous situation. Groups online are no different.
There’s an episode of Star Trek, TNG where captain Picard gets assimilated by the Borg collective, but the team is able to rescue him from the Borg cube. They then attempt to extract him (the Borg have used cybernetic implants to tether the captain to their shared consciousness). But once they get sufficiently into the procedure, something interesting happens. The Borg are headed to Earth to enslave humanity, but once Picard is sufficiently extracted from their hivemind, the Borg ship halts its approach to Earth. Dr. Crusher realizes the Borg's Achilles' heel: their inter-dependency. She explains to Commander Riker that since Picard is part of their collective consciousness now, disconnecting him from that would be like asking a human to sever an arm or a foot. We just couldn’t do it. Social media sites are no different and it’s not taken seriously enough by them the damage removing even one productive member of the community is. We in many ways feel like “we’ve lost an arm.” I know my personal experience on Twitter when my friend Rudy Havenstein was removed meaningfully impacted the financial Twitter community’s experience on the product for the time he was gone. When we did finally get Rudy back, it felt like getting Twitter back. Of course, Rudy is most active on Substack now anyway.
Users are the important part of the product, and even one person missing changes the experience significantly. We aren’t the Borg, but we are a community dependent on each other nonetheless. The nodes matter. Twitter (X now, I guess) must deeply rethink how they handle their processes here with a user-centric approach as priority, not led by broken DMCA implementation and misuse/abuse by legacy media, or kowtowing to angry mobs. It’s important to get this right. It should almost never be the case someone who is not harassing anyone or threatening violence is locked out. Stand up for your users and they will stand up for you.
Anyway, sorry for the rant, but to wrap today’s thoughts up: it’s too high a risk to any individual personally for being banned arbitrarily by the company or locked out by the government (even in a place like Canada!) along with filtering and the threat of your audience being taken away at any point to trust OPPs (other people’s platforms) here. You should be building an audience in a place agnostic of the whims of any one company or entity and using the macro platforms as channels of distribution. And one that lets you export your list (note: the next big social platform, if there ever is another, probably has to let you do this if it wants to get any traction). That is, if you are serious about sharing thoughts online over the long term and not being at the whim of algos, lawyers, big media or committees.
Here’s a good rule to follow to start: if you don't have at least 1/10th of your social followers on every platform converted to email somewhere, you either have low quality followers who don't care and aren't worth anything, or are not doing enough to move your audience to a channel you own distribution of. If you have higher than this great work. Again, I’m not saying your social communities are valueless (I embedded Tweets in this story, after all). They’re not, and despite the above there is upside to participating on the macro platforms. But the risk now seems far too high to not be building defensible distribution and a personal moat elsewhere again, too. The web is going distributed again, at least for idea sharing. Perhaps it always was. And not just for polarizing figures who might be “canceled” — I mean for everyone who cares about shaping the world. It’s never too late to start building your independence.