Dear Alt-Twitter Designers: It's about the network!
Last week, tech commentators were flush with stories about the speed of new users on Threads. Unprecedented downloads! A sign that Meta is stronger than ever! Networks born in one service can transfer to another! This week? There’s a lot of speculation that Threads is crashing. Folks keep asking me what my take is on Threads (and Mastodon and Bluesky and …) and I keep responding with the same story: we’ll see. And every time I do, I’m reminded of talking to historians who, when you ask them about the last hundred years, they say “we’ll see.”
As I watch these various alt-Twitters emerge, I can’t help but think about some crucial lessons I learned almost twenty years ago when a bazillion social media sites popped up that I struggled to help others see. The tl;dr? It all comes down to nurturing the network dynamics, not the technical features.
In the early days of social media, founders invited their friends. Who invited their friends. And on it went. The networks grew slowly, organically, and with a level of density that is under-appreciated. When someone joined, there was a high probability that that person knew a bunch of people on the site. After all, these things rolled out across pre-exiting social graphs. The density mattered.
Some existing network graphs were better suited to this dynamics. There’s a reason that almost all early social media consisted of geeks, freaks, and queers. Using technology to strengthen bonds was already a part of these communities. And this is why, a few years later, focusing on students was powerful. Some networks are better positioned to leverage technical mediation.
But the graph of connections was not the only relevant graph. The other critical graph was the graph of norms. Founders were, unsurprisingly, hyper enthusiastic about the thing they created. They posted a lot of content — and they encouraged the people they invited to do the same. So there was an enthusiasm from the getgo. And as new people came on, they got creative, they pushed at the norms, they expanded their networks. Divergent norms sat alongside one another. Geek Friendster was different than queer Friendster. The kernel of all of this was vibrancy. These dense norm-infused networks felt vibrant to those who were a part of them.
As social media became A.Thing^TM, people joined because they felt they had to join. FOMO. The graph filled out faster. But this complicated vibrancy. Fast adoption wasn’t inherently a good thing because the norm setting around what to post, how to interact didn’t play out at the same speed. People joined and they were the equivalent of a blank egg. They didn’t know why they were there. Getting them engaged required a different kind of nurturing of networks. Not all new services were up for that — they built tools, not communities. Most social media in this world came and went. There’s a graveyard of dead social media sites out there, lingering on Archive.org for future historians to view 100 years from now.
Twitter came of age in the fast-network growth phase. What made Twitter so interesting was the directed graph dynamics of it all, which altered how vibrancy unfolded. Ironically, the fake accounts helped a lot. Folks knew their follower graph was fake, but there was enough interaction, enough signal that people were being listened to, that real people felt it was vibrant enough. The illusion of vibrance prompted people to be more vibrant, keeping the thing alive at scale across many networks. But it was also the first site where I saw a ton of subgraphs never hatch, never find their footing.
And then there was Google+, may it RIP. This was birthed out of the arrogance of a major company who believed that they could leverage their scale to dominate social media. The launch of this was an example of blitzscaling where the sudden fast scaling (thanks to the behemoth power of Google) triggered a blitz. But not the kind where a military feels emboldened, the kind where those on the ground feel destroyed by aerial bombardment. No matter how not-evil they were, Google simply couldn’t bomb its audience into sociality.
Cuz that’s the thing about social media. For people to devote their time and energy to helping enable vibrancy, they have to gain something from it. Something that makes them feel enriched and whole, something that gives them pleasure (even if at someone else’s pain). Social media doesn’t come to life through military tactics. It comes to life because people devote their energies into making it vibrant for those that are around them. And this ripples through networks.
One thing that complicates people’s willingness to devote their energy to vibrancy is context collapse, a term that Alice Marwick and I coined long ago. When a social media site grows slow and steady, it starts out for each user as a coherent context. Things get dicy over time as people struggle to figure out how to navigate divergent networks. But people find strategies, renegotiate the context, carve off specific worlds and narrow the context for themselves for libidinal joy. However, when you blitzscale a new social media site into being, the audience arrives with context collapse already in play. They don’t know if this is a site to joke around with friends, to be professional, to bitch about politics, or what. And without having already set out to build vibrancy and negotiate norms, the vast majority of people who arrive to a blitzscaled context collapsed site sit around waiting for someone to norm-set for them.
I can’t help but think of this in terms of Twitter’s early design language cuz those designers really understood this at a certain level. Consider the unhatched egg. This is a bird that isn’t a bird yet, not even a fledgling. It might become a bird. Or it might become a egg that someone eats for lunch. Worse, it might rot in place. Alt-Twitter sites are creating blank eggs everywhere. But they aren’t being nurtured to hatch. They’re just sitting there, waiting. And most of them are going to rot. Cuz you can’t take an egg that’s been sitting around for a long time and suddenly add a heat lamp and hope that a baby chick will form. Twitter was left with a lot of dead eggs. (And to push this a bit too far… adversarial actors realized that and decided to gobble up a bunch of them and turn them into Zombie chicks. Which was a major problem.)
Early norm-setting, vibrancy, and slow but dense network formation help breathe life into a social media site. And the early period is critical because it’s when habituation forms. People need to make visiting a site to be a part of their daily practice early on if it’s going to sustain. Many sites have been tried out and then faded into smithereens because people never habituated to them. Prompting people to name-squat on a site so that you get a media blast of The.Most.Downloads.Ever sounds like a tech-driven marketing strategy rather than one that understands the essence of social media.
I should note that blitzscaling is not the only approach we’re seeing right now. The other (and I would argue wiser) approach to managing dense network formation is through invitation-based mechanisms. Heighten the desire, the FOMO, make participating feel special. Actively nurture the network. When done well, this can get people to go deeper in their participation, to form community. This is a way to manage growth through networks in ways that were easy when these things weren’t cool but became harder when they became cool. However, nurturing early adoption thoughtfully matters immensely in this approach. Unlike 20 years ago, the people poised to be early adopters today are those who are most toxic, those who get pleasure from making others miserable. This means that the rollout has to be carefully nurtured so that the Zombie chicks don’t eat up the other eggs before they can even hatch.
Managing the growth of a social media site now looks soooooo different than it did 20 years ago. The growth curve and context collapse issues are real. But there’s also the feature roll-out issue. It was completely reasonable to function in a perpetual beta “features will come soon!” mode then. But that doesn’t work as well in this context. And that means that trying to co-construct features with your audience today is much much more complicated.
Of course, the “death” of social media sites also look different today than they did in the past. Today, many social media devolve into platforms dominated by big personalities, celebrities, and can’t-look-away listacle junk content. Twenty years ago, social media was more local, more dense in networks. Entertainment media was all lopsided. Today, these two worlds are much more blurred. There was a time when Justin Bieber’s outsized audience on Twitter was shocking and weird and fascinating. Today, most major social media platforms have influencers who dominate and overwhelm the norms of the average people trying to connect. So many platforms devolve to being sites for a narrow subset of the population to build audience. But that’s a topic for a different rant.
Social media will survive. Something will come out of this moment. But a LOT of money is going to be wasted relearning the lessons from the last 20 years. When Alice and I were playing around with the concept of “context collapse,” I never realized just how relevant it would continue to be. And when I was riffing about network formation back in the days of Orkut, I never thought that we would need to relearn this over and over again. Rather than being bitter as I shake my head like an old person, I’m going to enjoy my popcorn.