Unlocked: TMW #172 | Goodbye to the social web

Apr 28, 2024

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Goodbye to the social web 

In 2024, social media isn’t really social at all

On my first day of high school, I was confronted by my first-ever bully. And I blame MSN Messenger.

What happened was that I was doing the typical teenage chatter with a girl I knew from primary school. Somehow, her boyfriend found out and shirtfronted me upon arriving at school.

That was also my first real taste of the power of social media to create and destroy friendships. I remember thinking, as a mere 13-year-old boy sitting in front of his computer tower and CRT monitor, how crazy it was that someone was out for me because of something I did online. And I did nothing wrong! 

What Ever Happened to MSN Messenger? | TechSpot

Despite my tormentors, throughout my teenage years, I found Myspace and MSN Messenger a wonderful hub to make friends or stay in touch with the people I already knew. When I started using Facebook, I didn’t really give it a go until I was in my early 20s.  

On Facebook, I found even more potential for new friendships. One Facebook friend was very important to TMW. I never met this friend in person, but we somehow struck up a great friendship over sharing memes and chatting about tech. One day I asked him to make an introduction that landed me my first proper job in Martech – a job I was very unqualified for but became the catalyst for TMW. 

Facebook was unique in that the newsfeed created serendipity, connecting me with many other people I wouldn’t ever have had the opportunity to connect with. Thanks to the newsfeed algorithm, I got a huge career boost.

The point of all this is that in many ways, the social bit of social media has had a huge impact on my life, from facing my first bully to someone taking a risk on me for my first real career step. It’s hard to deny how much social media has done for connecting us with other people, ideas, and opportunities. 

LinkedIn is where I spend most of my time these days, and it has a similar impact. When I started TMW, I noticed that the opportunity to build relationships with experts across the world was too big to pass up. LinkedIn posts, comments, and messages facilitated a lot of that. I have countless examples of finding great friends, amazing business partners, and customers, all starting out as a simple LinkedIn message. 

The era of serendipitous connection and community with others is coming to an end on social media platforms. In 2024, social media isn’t really social at all. But the landscape continues to shift. 

The US government Senate and President Joe Biden have signed into law a new bill that will force TikTok to divest the company to a US entity or face a permanent ban within 9 months. TikTok is one of the catalyzers of an entertainment-driven and anti-social web. 

The TikTok ban is based on two aspects; national security of US citizen data collected on a Chinese-owned social app, and the risk of misinformation and foreign influence TikTok poses to American society. But there’s another good reason to restrict TikTok – it’s turning the social web into a giant TV. 


Depersonalization is so hot right now 

The current trajectory of most major social apps is disheartening. Cal Newport on the Sam Harris Podcast frames it well saying that we have mistaken apps like Twitter and TikTok and Instagram for social media, when really, they function like an algorithmically-sorted entertainment channel. 

TikTok was the first real example of what I frame as the shift to depersonalizing social media. it has become a template for algorithmically engineered entertainment and the larger shift from social media being about making strong friends and connections to consuming endless content.  

TikTok calls this “Our mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy.” As long as that creativity feeds the hungry algorithm, that is. But it’s paid off: TikTok has been the fastest-growing social app in the past half-decade. Back when it was called Douyin, it reached 1 million users in 200 days, making it the 5th fastest app ever to reach that milestone. More impressive was that TikTok took only four more years to reach 1 billion users.  

TMW Researcher Keanu Taylor explains how this is happening: 

As the TikTok 'divest or be banned' movement gathers momentum, competing social platforms are rolling out features that look an awful lot like TikTok's video feed. Firstly, Meta announced that it will be defaulting all Reels, Facebook Live, and long form videos to the "full-screen portrait-oriented video format," AKA the TikTok format. LinkedIn are dipping their toes in the TikTok water by testing a video-only tab on its platform that would also make use of the same video style. Whether this is just a continuation of social media’s move away from personal connections to entertainment on-demand, or an opportunistic play by TikTok's users hoping that the platform is banned in the US is impossible to say.”

A cursory look at TikTok’s year-on-year growth over the past 5 years tells us why other firms are doing the copy and paste. The app is significantly outcompeting every other social media platform in user growth. Changing the paradigm from socializing to entertainment got them there. And now everyone else wants in on the new gold. 

“Giving people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”, as Meta says in its mission statement, is looking very different in recent years. Most of Meta’s social apps have become an endless feed of content without regard to who you actually know. 

Keeping you scrolling is far more effective through algorithmically-sorted entertainment than real connection with others. It’s become the main path to growth not just for TikTok but for all major Western social networks. 

Even Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, has seen this on the app: Increasingly, people are spending more time in direct messages instead of stories, reels, or the timelines, a silent protest against how much the newsfeeds and timelines have changed to cater to entertainment instead of connection

“The really surprising change, especially if you’re a long-time Instagram user, is just how important messaging (via DMs) has become on Instagram. This in-app messaging feature from Instagram enables anyone to send text, photos, videos or posts. All of this occurs behind the scenes, of course, so you can’t see all of the content that an Instagram creator might be sharing with his or her closest followers, just like you can’t see what someone might be sending via WhatsApp or any other messaging platform.

According to Mosseri, the amount of content being shared in DMs is staggering. He says that DMs are the primary place where content is shared on the platform. DMs come first, followed by Stories, and then by Feed. When people want to talk to each other on the platform, they don’t do it via comments, they do it via DMs.”

The main thing here is that what’s driving growth in social media right now isn’t helping people make friends, or making it easier to contact your grandma. It is, however, keeping people entertained, outraged, and caught in the infinite scroll. But there are new ideas out there wanting to revitalize our anti-social web. 


Repersonalizing the web

I don’t look at failed companies as failed ideas. A lot of the time, the idea is right. Take for example Clubhouse, an audio-only social media platform where people can chat in groups. It has since pivoted to something else and is considered by most a failure, but for a hot minute during the pandemic, people wanted it. Why? 

It was a new experience of connection. Instead of watching videos or reading posts alone, you could be in a live discussion with real, living human beings. You could hear their voices. There was something refreshing about that experience – that the technology-enabled something that was more human than what we experience in the day-to-day. 

That’s why Airchat – a new app by former Tinder Chief Product Officer, Brian Norgard and Silicon Valley celebrity, and co-founder of AngelList, Naval Ravikant – is so exciting. It’s another take on the audio-first model that Clubhouse introduced, but it combines audio clips into an X/Twitter-like timeline where AI transcribes voice into text posts. 

In a way, it’s brilliant. You can hear people’s voices, or read along to a conversation playing around in real-time, or jump right into a live chat. I gave it a good go over the weekend, and it’s definitely more intimate and conducive to real connection. Listening to someone’s post in their own voice shifts the experience from consumption to engagement. 

Wired comments that Y Combinator’s Garry Chan’s innocuous post about his breakfast reflects a more naïve and innocent conception of social media: Chatting with friends for fun. Who would have thought?!

But there’s a deeper experience here. Listening to someone’s voice creates a greater connection with the speaker in many situations, and even boosts those who listen with headphones. It creates what UCLA Researchers call “in-head localization” – the idea that while voices seem to be inside your head, it can “trigger a feeling of greater closeness to the person speaking to you.” 

The closeness and intimacy people experience with audio content is a growth area. Audio continues to grow as a preferred medium for content consumption, reaching 70 million podcast listeners in the United States. 

This is where Clubhouse got it wrong. For most of its short life, the app did not cater to the asynchronous default people expect from social – you needed to be in a live chat room, or the experience wasn’t as great. Airchat changes this by transcribing voice into asynchronous posts that live in different topic channels. But it’s voice first – you have to speak to engage. There is video, but rather than overwhelming the screen, it aids the conversations alongside the transcriptions. 

The app is young, with plenty of glitches and dumb user patterns; Naval himself is responding to user feedback and reworking entire sections. It’s got that raw Silicon Valley energy to it, complete with all the buzzwords. Ryan Broderick explains it best: 

“As for the content on there, it’s exactly what you would expect from an invite-only app that has “tons of buzz” in Silicon Valley. Just the worst, most basic college freshman dorm room-tier icebreakers from wear-a-leather-jacket-in-the-office millennials chasing the high of their first Foursquare check-in….

But the real reason I think Airchat is the ultimate sign of the end of Web 2.0 is that every new app now (that isn’t run by ByteDance) launches by dropping these same weirdos into a new enclosure. It’s the same 250 cool product managers and white nationalist crypto backpack zoomers jumping from one friendship casino to another.”

And to be fair, the early days of Twitter was very much like that – a Silicon Valley micro-community of people trapped inside their own tech bubbles. The reason why Clubhouse grew so quickly during the pandemic wasn’t solely due to its new approach to social media, A16z backed the company and were able to bring Silicon Valley celebrities to draw a crowd. The same pattern is at work with Airchat. 

Airchat is not big yet either, with users in the low tens of thousands. So you just get the culture equivalent of the average person off the San Francisco sidewalk downloading it. But still, the idea is fun and a refreshingly novel idea that reels social back into its halcyon days of actually trying to connect people. 

Let’s compare this with the complete inverse. TikTok is currently looking at the idea of building virtual influencers with Generative AI to compete for brand deals against humans. Since the release of Generative AI into social, the current platforms don’t stand a chance against AI-reinforced influence machines. It’s depersonalization to the absolute extreme – a social media platform that gets bigger and bigger while there are less and less real people on it. 

This is called the “Dead Internet Theory,” which argues that the internet is increasingly being usurped by bots and AI-generated content, and because of this, the internet is “dead” in that real living humans are no longer creating for it. 

The idea of humanizing people and forging real connections seems to be a big opportunity. Tides turn quickly on social, and the race to the bottom of algo-optimized entertainment is wearing thin on people. Clubhouse failed, but in its wake, new ideas are coming to market, and I’m here for it. 


Throw out your phone

Instead of looking at social as a way to drive better relations between people, there’s another solution – just throw it all out together. There are now groups of thousands of people who are buying dumb phones and have deleted social media in protest of Elon Musk, or to just have a fuller experience of real life. 

This movement has grown to hundreds and thousands of users. Triggered by exhaustion, online manipulation, screen addiction, and the mental health and loneliness issues that go along with it, people are trying to exfiltrate themselves from the social media industrial complex.

And the evidence is mounting that, among young people, social is harming their mental health and stunting their experience of life. A 2018 study suggests that 14-year-old girls who spend 5 hours or more per day on social media are three times more likely to be depressed than the same group who use social media very little. For boys of the same age, it’s two times more likely. 

The research surrounding social media and mental health is still hotly contested. But you can see all the main studies for yourself and draw your own conclusions. To me, the evidence is overwhelming both anecdotally and in the data – social media is stunting social development. 

One of the correlations to the rise of depression and mental health issues among younger users is the increasing depersonalization of social media and the fake goals of gaining followers or engagement. Goals that only serve to tie people closer to social apps.  

Besides, do we really aspire to spend 8 hours a day mindlessly entertained with random TikTok videos and outrage bait? This seems like the ultimate waste of time for anyone wanting to do something productive with their life. You don’t need clinical studies to make this conclusion. 

One argument I make to counteract the rise of social media as algo-entertainment is to regulate it. I frame it from the perspective of social media as Fast Food, Tobacco or Gambling

“But the real problem to solve here is not the format of social media itself. It’s the incentives. These companies have a very normal incentive to grow revenue and that calculus usually includes something like this:

Time on site X annual revenue per user X volume of users.

If all three go up, then you’re going to be growing in revenue and profitability. It just turns out that to get there, some of the most toxic and vile ways to engage with your fellow human are the best ways to drive up time on site and the volume of users.

That’s why the regulators need to take parallels from fast food, smoking and gambling, because it leads to real change in culture and the consumer’s mindset. There was a time when smoking was cool; now, it’s really not. Fast food seemed a benign and convenient way to eat out; now, McDonald’s needs to offer salads to comply with food regulators. Gambling has existed for as long as people have been around, but now, people can permanently ban themselves from it.

If we’re real about the impact of social media, then I would expect that regulators will go after culture change as the primary strategy. Imagine in 20 years, when you’ll be telling stories about when social media apps didn’t have age restrictions, or “This harms your health” labels applied to newsfeeds, or days when people used to spend 3 to 4 hours a day on these apps.”

We could regulate social apps to the ground – which is sure to happen anyway – or we could create equilibrium by supporting new ideas that help us build relationships better online. One is a growth story, and the other is a punishment story. I would rather choose the former. 


The pendulum is swinging

The pendulum is swinging away from entertainment and engagement goals to ones of friendship and genuine connection as young people wise up to the hidden incentives and fake goals that rule over social media platforms today. 

Using new mediums like voice could help make the web more social again and direct messaging tools certainly facilitate relationships. But the issue is serendipity, or the lack of it in direct channels.

Finding ways to really connect with people on social media (and making it a profitable worthwhile commercial endeavor for the owners of these platforms) is one way to get past the issues we see with algo-optimized entertainment platforms. 

I ended up turning that bully into a friend in the end as I fit in with a new group in that first year of high school. I think he realized that I wasn’t trying to take his girlfriend away. He had incomplete information, facilitated by a social media platform that wasn’t very good at context. 

Confusion abounds without context and community. And social media’s increasing depersonalization only compounds the alienation, conflict and confusion without real people in the experience. 

 


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