Mad, Beautiful Ideas
Social Media and Community

I've been thinking a lot lately about Social Media.

It's probably worthing noting that in the more than seven years since I last posted to this blog, I have spent six of those years with Google, and specifically spent two of those years working on Google+. I actually like Google+ a lot, and am disappointed, though sadly not surprised, at the recent decision to shut down the consumer-focused Google+ access.

This post isn't really about Google+, though. While it's true that Google+ is not immune to what I'm talking about here, my thinking on Social Media today applies pretty evenly to every Social Media site I've ever used (and that dates back to in the late 90s).

My feelings on this are also deeply influenced by what the Internet was when I was growing up. The Internet of the late 1990s and early 00s was very different in a great many ways. But what I've been thinking about most recently is the way that communities tended to be somewhat diffuse, specific, and focused in a way that modern Social Media doesn't really allow for.

If you were interested in cars, there was a set of car forums you could participate in. Politics? Computers? Furry Porn? The communities were out there. They still are, and they are certainly much easier to find than they used to be, but there is one major difference. Today, those communities exist on Facebook, Google+, or on hashtags or lists on Twitter.

The problem with that is that it means that all of your communities that you participate in are tied to a single identity.

Merging identities for productivity is great (I still dislike that I can't easily merge my work calendar and my personal calendar free/busy data with reasonable privacy defaults). However, merging identity in social contexts is a very, very different problem.

We all present ourselves differently to different groups. The way we behave with close friends is different than co-workers, or church groups, or our parents. For some people, this can actually be dangerous. Even if it's not dangerous for you (it's not for me), when everything you believe is basically a click away from every conversation you particpate in, it means your communities are constantly bleeding into each other, which can be, if nothing else, exhausting.

If this had the side effect of breaking down echo chambers, maybe it would have been worth it. But clearly, it didn't do that.

In fact, I think it might have made it worse. When everything you might disagree with anyone on is always a half-step away, I suspect it causes people to be more defensive, and thus more likely to double-down on disagreements, and more inclined to apply purity tests. I think it drives people further into their echo chambers, because it becomes impossible to step out even for a minute, and there starts to be little incentive to do so.

And giving people space to step out of their echo chambers is the only proven way to get anyone to actually change their mind about anything.

Now, I know that right now, giving people that space has gotten really hard. The US Governemnt has built Child Internment Camps in Texas. Nazis are marching the US Streets and murdering protestors. Our President is openly fascist, and don't think the overt racists don't notice.

While I may question the tactics of harassing Mitch McConnel while he's out to dinner (it makes him look like a victim to some people who might be otherwise convinced), I understand why people are doing it.

And this post has gotten far more political than I intended when I started writing it. But that's almost the point. Social Media, the fact that it is broken, and very likely the ways in which it is broken, are very likely linked to where we're at politically today. Yes, there have always been Nazis in America, and Nazis are really skilled at exercising their power in an outsized manner. However, Social Media has proven an effective tool for disinformation (that target both sides, as they're interested in the chaos). That disinformation has helped sow distrust that plays into that already polarizing nature of these services.

I'm not sure what the way to fix this is. Allowing people to manage multiple identies on these mega-services is difficult, as it can become hard for the user to keep track of the current context they're in (we've all sent chat messages to the wrong people before). With smaller, more focused services, we had better visual signals. Doing this at scale for the large services is likely unworkable. You try telling your visual designers they need to build something in a dozen different color schemes that users can switch between at will (and even just switching color schemes doesn't really solve the problem).

Giving community participants more freedom on how they present themselves to that community is an important step to allowing users to move between communities. People who are regularly moving between communities are exposed to more ideas, more different ways of viewing the world, more different kinds of people in general. That is healthy.

Online Communties in the 90s and 00s had plenty of problems. We pretty much all assumed that people we were interacting with where cisgendered, heterosexual white men between 16 and 25. Rarely questioned that assumption unless someone made an issue of it. Unfortunately, particularly at the time, we seemed to usually be right, which had the side effect of pushing people who didn't match that list of characteristics to pretend they did in order to match the community norms. We, the Default People, defined those norms after all. And trust me, the Default People like to complain when challenged. I've seen countless influential tech people hemmorage followers when they start getting Political on Twitter.

For people who fall outside that default (a term I'm only using sarcastically, and am stopping using because the idea of default is inherently limiting), I do think modern Social Media has made finding "their people" easier. Community discovery is just so much better than it used to be, and these sites make walking the social graph easier to help build these communties more easily. That has unquestionably done a lot of good for a lot of people, even if it sometimes forces those people to fully present themselves, even in contexts where it may not have mattered otherwise. This need to fully present oneself at all times, may well have contributed to the many discussions around representation and opportunity presented to women, people of color, and the transgender participants in our broader communities.

While I believe it's got to be possible to allow people some more freedom to limit how they present themselves into smaller, more focused communties, that we can move between and discover with some ease (easily creating new isolated sub-identities we can use within these more focused communities), it is vitally important that we do so in a way that combats the idea of any group of people being default (unless, I suppose, if the community is targeted based on demographics, I guess).

I actually think this has something to do with the rise of Slack and Discord, particularly among younger users. Discord servers tend to be somewhat focused, and while you can see mutual servers you have in common with other users, you can't just see all the servers they belong to, giving you a lot more flexibility (though since you only have one identity across all servers, you can incidentally link to people across communities who may or may not respect any separation you'd prefer to keep between those communties). I suspect Slack is similar, but honestly, I've never really used it. I've barely used Discord.

There are so many confounding factors present in whether things are better or worse, or how they are better or worse. Where Social Media, and how it's evovled over the last decade, precisely fits into both the positives and negatives are really hard to judge. Maybe some community isolation and mobility wouldn't help anything (and would add discoverability impediments that could actually harm those in need of smaller communities). The privilege of having belonged to the default group (at least for the English-speaking world online) absolutely taints my thinking, so I must acknoweldge that my gut reaction may be entirely flawed.

Still, things can be better, and I am increasingly convinced that it will take a major shift in the way we, both the users and the platform owners of these large social media sites, think about how we want to build our communities moving forward. The status quo certainly doesn't seem to be working for anyone.