The Problem is the People

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 4 min read

If you got two strangers (a Democrat and a Republican, a Cubs fan and a Sox fan, a Christian and and atheist, whatever) to sit down and have lunch together, odds are they would have a relatively pleasant time. They would maybe approach some topics that they disagreed on, but if they sensed resistance they’d pull back and try to find common ground. At the end they may not be friends, but they’ll likely wish each other well (and mean it!) when they say goodbye.

Now think about getting those strangers together and explicitly make them talk about the thing which they disagree. The conversation would be more tense, and rarely would a mind be changed in the moment, but more often than not I bet you they would be respectful and walk away without flipping a single table.

But as we get into bigger and bigger groups, this behavior starts to shift.

Now let’s put 100 Democrats and 100 Republicans in a gymnasium and have them yell their points across the gym. That gymnasium is nowhere near where any of them live, no one will see where anyone else lives after this, and everyone is wearing masks to protect their identities. How do you expect this discourse to go down? Probably not the civil discourse we had at the 1-on-1 convo.

Now Scale it Up…Scale it Up a Lot

Social media sites have to facilitate these interactions not among a group of 200 people, but twenty times, one thousand times, or even one million times greater scales. It’s no surprise that people tend to say that they enjoy their smaller social networks more than their big ones. Most people would tell you that Facebook and Twitter can be depressing places sometimes and that people can be incredibly cruel there. Meanwhile, they likely think their iMessage threads, Discord groups, and newsletters have less toxic behavior are are more fun to engage with overall.

I have never run a social network, and god I hope I never have to. The challenge of hosting a platform that anyone in the world can post whatever comes to mind makes my physically ill. How do you manage something like that? How do you moderate it?

This is another one of those posts where I show my age, but I’ve been around a bit, and I distinctly remember when Twitter, Instagram, and yes even Facebook were seen largely as delightful places people could connect and talk about their favorite things. When I got on Facebook in 2004, one of the key things you did was list out your favorite bands, movies, shows, and everything else you could. Hell, I meet my wife because I was literally the only person at our school who also listed The Lucksmiths as one of my favorite bands.

Then these platforms grew, and everyone was on them.

Today there is no shortage of people burned out by these same platforms and are constantly searching for more enjoyable alternatives. Things like and Mastodon come up a lot and people report back (often on Twitter or Facebook), that those are more pleasant, calmer places. I get that, and if you enjoy them, you should use them, but I really think size is the number one reason these places seem more enjoyable. If gained 200 million new users tomorrow, I would wager that the overall tone would shift considerably.

What’s the solution? I truly don’t know. Maybe Snapchat and TikTok know something special, as in general they seem to make people happier, but I’m just too disconnected from those networks to say that with total confidence. Maybe the key is to always have tons of viable separate social networks so no individual one is too big. But people like to know where “the place to be” is, and one will always float to the top. Maybe it’s about creating a standard for posting and having tons of smaller services use that standard, but again, one of those is going to be a little better than the rest and we’ll have one main player again.

The Best, Pie-in-the-Sky Solution I Can Manage

I like to end all of my complaints with some sort of solution, but this one is harder than most. If I had to say something, I’d say that some web standard for posting to social media and that people could post from and browse that network from an array of different apps and services. Each app could do their own moderation to their own standards and people could use the app that fit their values. Maybe Donald Trump gets kicked off some of them for inciting a violent mod, while others leave him on. Don’t like that the app you’re using booted him? Use another one and keep following the same people and posting the same stuff as before.

This is a pipe dream though, as this isn’t going to work at scale. For one, this sort of service implies a unified database that all of these posts are collected. We’re saving text, photos, video, and more, so this is going to be an absolutely massive database that’s going to cost a literal fortune to maintain. Users could host their own files, but that means paying for web storage, something people won’t do. It also means reliability is tied to potentially billions of people’s individual web servers across the globe. Maybe one of the ad makers would host your stuff for you and they would show ads to pay for that. Well then that company is the one that lets you do this for free and everyone goes there anyway, removing the benefit of the distributed network.

I’d also worry about this standard would be too slow to evolve and innovation would be stifled. What if we had 20 apps that acted like Twitter, but then TikTok wanted to be a thing? You can’t run TikTok on Twitter’s rails, so TikTok would have to do their own thing anyway.

Like I said, I’m glad I don’t have to solve these problems myself. I think that some sort of web standard is part of the best solution, I’m just not sure what the rest of it looks like. Each solution immediately leads to problems, but hopefully more of those problems can be solved by smarter people than me.

If you have any ideas of your own, I’d love to hear them, and you can of course find me on what remains my favorite general social media platform: Twitter.