Social internet, social media, and the move to smaller networks

I should stop reading (and writing) about Facebook at some point, but there’s been some really interesting thinking around the social internet in general recently. I especially enjoyed Benedict Evans’s The death of the newsfeed, because it puts into words a lot of things I’ve been thinking about. On the social implications of algorithmic feeds:

One basic problem here is that if the feed is focused on ‘what do I want to see?’, then it cannot be focused on ‘what do my friends want (or need) me to see?’ Sometimes this is the same thing – my friend and I both want me to see that they’re throwing a party tonight. But if every feed is a sample, then a user has no way to know who will see their post. Indeed, conceptually one might suggest that they have no way to know if anyone will see this post.

This is one of the major flaws of algorithmic feeds. People share things so that those things can be seen. But if you can’t tell who will see the things you share, that’s frustrating, and more than a little nerve-wracking. Hence the move back to smaller networks:

I think one could suggest that this is some of what’s behind the suggestions of systemically lower engagement on Facebook newsfeeds, and behind the obvious growth of person-to person chat (most obviously WhatsApp, iMessage, FB Messenger and Instagram – three of which Facebook of course owns). The social dynamics of a 1:1 chat work much more strongly against overload, and even if one person does overshare they’re in a separate box, that you can mute if you like. […]

Messaging can be more private, have less social pressure, and be more fun. A Snapchat story isn’t a permanent record and has less pressure to show off your perfection. Stickers and filters are more fun and spontaneous than Facebook’s rigid blue boxes (and the days of throwing sheep at people are gone alone with Facebooks’ platform). And some of these offer light-weight ways to interact without obligation, which was also a feature of Facebook’s model, but deliver that piece of Maslow in different ways.


On that note, I think the distinction Cal Newport draws in On Social Media and Its Discontents is really important:

There’s a distinction between the social internet and social media.

The social internet describes the general ways in which the global communication network and open protocols known as “the internet” enable good things like connecting people, spreading information, and supporting expression and activism.

Social media, by contrast, describes the attempt to privatize these capabilities by large companies within the newly emerged algorithmic attention economy, a particularly virulent strain of the attention sector that leverages personal data and sophisticated algorithms to ruthlessly siphon users’ cognitive capital.


In the final analysis, I agree with Cal:

I support the social internet. I’m incredibly wary of social media.