Instagram, Twitter and Youtube are toying with reducing the prominence of popularity signals. What does a Social Media landscape without these look like? In a word: mature. To appreciate why removing these iconic dopamine hits is such a big deal, we must first understand why they exist.
popularity is a game – if you can keep score
Social platforms live and die by user growth and engagement. These metrics help users keep score and they’re an immaculate feedback mechanism. But at scale, the effects of this behaviour compounds in on itself. And past a certain size, the butterfly effect kicks in. The signal becomes more critical, so the lengths we’ll go to acquire it escalate, and suddenly public discourse is locked in an evolutionary arms race. It’s clever gamification, but it might not be worth the side effects.
These are hard to forecast. The commercial success of a Youtube Creator with a massive audience is logical. But accounts racking up huge subscribers of their own by keeping track of the subscriber counts of feuding Youtube Creators is….. not so obvious. Although it’s clearly not too healthy, either. Same goes for the stress, isolation and abuse suffered by some users. Who’d have thought 140 characters could cause so much mental trauma?
where to next?
We believe the next “age” of Social Media will be shaped by maturity. Users will evolve from embracing everything to a more reserved, conscientious approach. The age of innocence and naivete is gone. We know better now. Platforms have a much harder job; they must predict how features they build to promote growth today impact their users at scale tomorrow. They too, cannot claim ignorance. A toxic element will be a death sentence.
The market itself will evolve beyond an advertiser driven economy and users will happily pay fair value. This is critical, because when the user is no longer the product, the need for shiny rewards dissipates. And without those, the compound effects may result in an entirely different ecosystem. The butterfly goes left instead of right. Computer Scientist and author Cal Newport recently wrote a piece for the New Yorker about Indie Social Media and touches on this notion that ownership changes things dramatically. It’s not the full story, but it’s certainly a piece of the puzzle.
“In this vision of the future, there will be many more social-media platforms but far fewer people spending significant time on any of them.”
The real question is whether users are capable of consciously changing their own behaviours. In his 2016 video Newport compares social media to a slot machine. Do we possess the self-control to realize when the gamble is not worth the prize?