Stop Trying to Make Social Networks Succeed

by Ploum on 2023-07-06

Lot is happening in the social network landscape with the demises of Twitter and Reddit, the apparition of Bluesky and Threads, the growing popularity of Mastodon. Many pundits are trying to guess which one will be successful and trying to explain why others will fail. Which completely misses the point.

Particular social networks will never "succeed". Nobody even agree on the definition of "success".

The problem is that we all see our little bubble and generalise what we observe as universal. We have a hard time understanding Mastodon ? Mastodon will never succeed, it will be for a niche. A few of our favourite web stars goes to Bluesky ? Bluesky is the future, everybody will be there.

That’s not how it works. That’s not how it ever worked.

Like every human endeavour, every social network is there for a limited duration and will be useful to a limited niche of people. That niche may grow to the point of being huge, like Facebook and WhatsApp. But, to this day, there are more people in the world without an account on Facebook than people with one. Every single social network is only representative of a minority. And the opposite would be terrifying when you think about it (which is exactly what Meta is trying to build).

Social networks are fluid. They come, they go. For commercial social networks, the success is defined by: "do they earn enough money to make investors happy ?" There’s no metric of success for non-commercial ones. They simply exist as long as at least two users are using them to communicate. Which is why criticisms like "Mastodon could never raise enough money" or "the Fediverse will never succeed" totally miss the point.

If you live in the same occidental bubble as me, you might have never heard of WeChat, QQ or VK. Those are immensely popular social networks. In China and Russia. WeChat alone is more or less the size of Instagram in terms of active users. The war in Ukraine also demonstrated that the most popular social network in that part of the world is Telegram. Which is twice as big as Twitter but, for whatever reason, is barely mentioned in my own circles. The lesson here is simple: you are living in a small niche. We all do. Your experience is not representative of anything but your own. And it’s fine.

There will never be one social network to rule them all. There should never be one social network to rule them all. In fact, tech-savvy people should fight to ensure that no social network ever "succeed".

Human lives in communities. We join them, we sometimes leave them. Social networks should only be an underlying infrastructure to support our communities. Social networks are not our communities. Social network dies. Communities migrate and flock to different destinations. Nothing ever replaced Google+, which was really popular in my own tech circle. Nothing will replace Twitter or Reddit. Some communities will find a new home on Mastodon or on Lemmy. Some will go elsewhere. That’s not a problem as long as you can have multiple accounts in different places. Something I’m sure you do. Communities can be split. Communities can be merged. People can be part of several communities and several platforms.

Silicon Valley venture capitalists are trying to convince us that, one day, a social network will succeed, will become universal. That it should grow. That social networks are our communities. That your community should grow to succeed.

This is a lie, a delusion. Our communities are worth a lot more than the underlying tool used at some point in time. By accepting the confusion, we are destroying our communities. We are selling them, we are transforming them into a simple commercial asset for the makers of the tool we are using, the tool which exploits us.

Stop trying to make social networks succeed, stop dreaming of a universal network. Instead, invest in your own communities. Help them make long-term, custom and sustainable solutions. Try to achieve small and local successes instead of pursuing an imaginary universal one. It will make you happier.

It will make all of us happier.

As a writer and an engineer, I like to explore how technology impacts society. You can subscribe by email or by rss. I value privacy and never share your adress.

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