Someone once said you gotta serve somebody. But who do social media apps serve? Users? Advertisers? Investors? Founders & Directors? Employees?
The reality is a complex interplay of confluent and conflicting interests, balanced but perpetually unstable, requiring extraordinary amounts of money from advertising and investment capital to resist the sometimes orthogonal and sometimes opposing forces from pulling them apart.
What keeps social media companies growing is ingenuity and money, and what keeps that money coming in is growth. Its a virtuous (or vicious) cycle.
But when growth slows, either because the app has reached saturation or been overtaken by another, often more addictive app, it becomes more difficult to accrue income from advertising or investment capital. If the social media company is not established enough at this point this is a death sentence, and the owners will usually attempt a fire sale to a larger competitor who may still be able to harvest the userbase or incorporate the app into their existing suite. If the company is big enough, with a dominant share of the ad market, there are more options on the table, such as inflating the value of their ads to bring in more revenue, or buying up a smaller but fast growing competitor, either to run the service alongside its own, or to strip the assets and shut it down.
If these and other tricks don’t smooth out the dip in growth until the next wave, and growth is anaemic for too long, the company will fail to achieve the revenue it needs to pay for the ingenuity that boot loads every growth cycle. Without paying exceptionally large salaries the company will lose the human capital that its success is really based upon. A large company can coast for years or even decades with mediocre employees, but without growth and the prospects of earning huge salaries relative to peers in other industries even the largest players in social media will grind to a slow burn and eventually get sold off for scrap. In social media there is no stable long term play. You grow or you die.
There is a long running debate over whether social media should be administered and regulated as a public utility, as is the case in China. This is another game entirely. If this were to happen in the US we would see regulatory capture, as we see in many other industries, where the incumbents cooperate with regulators in order to suppress competition and innovation. In this scenario growth is controlled by restricting supply of products to a narrow set of options.
In this latter scenario the social media company has another entity to serve: Government. The various bodies and institutions of the state, such as law enforcement, national security and public health, with all of the political baggage this implies, then have greater bargaining chips with which to use the social platform to achieve their own interests, whether those be the public interest or any interests being serviced by these institutions. The source of the real complexity here is that those institutions of the state are even more likely to have been captured by corporate interests across many other industries, and thus the platform is then not simply negotiating with an impartial and benign state, but with a range of large incumbents via the apparatus of the state, using (and sometimes abusing) its legal authority to ensure that the architectural decisions made by the social technology company serve the interests of other large corporations, whether they be in FMCG, healthcare or the media.
And that is not to mention the ideological forces constantly flowing through government and the wider society.
The number of interests that social applications are required to service in some manner is so complex and diffuse that it brings to mind an ominous grey cloud of acrimony and conspiracy. Is it any wonder that these companies become duplicitous? Founders and directors routinely contradict their own lawyers, their marketing pitches being in complete contradiction with their business models and architectures.
What is missing from this picture? First of all, you might say a meaningful central theme or purpose, a set of foundational principles that are public, coherent and morally justifiable, to use the Silicon Valley cliché: core values. But more glaring than that is civil society and the needs of the individual. Is it any wonder that the individual cannot be heard by these platforms? When was the last time you were satisfied by anything like “customer service”? No, your role as an individual in this maelstrom is to have your attention strip-mined in the interests of advertisers on behalf of… something so far outside your awareness that it begins to resemble the cosmic. Cthulhu?
Maybe this picture is too pessimistic. If you have read this far I am going to assume that this story resembles reality, at least for you. Maybe we’re wrong. Maybe we’re overthinking it. But that is getting harder to believe.
Lets Start Again
At Tuvens we’ve taken a green field approach to social media. We’re not playing the growth game for growth’s sake. We’re not dancing to the fiddles of venture capitalists and angel investors. We’re thinking about what social media and social networks should be from first principles, to create the impossible startup.
Everything is on the table, and anything is possible. We haven’t even decided upon our formal structure, whether we will form as a standard for-profit company or a not-for-profit foundation or something in between. Maybe we’ll be completely radical and create a DAO, governed by an algocracy.
This is our starting position: Social media serves relationships on behalf of communities. That big dark grey cloud that resembles the coming of Cthulhu is an outcome of the lack of recognition that communities are the entities that social technologies service, and by serving them badly they have become angry. The essential definition of social technology, as opposed to a tool like a hammer or a calculator app, is that it serves the relationships between individuals and organisations on behalf of the communities that they share as their primary function.
And what is the best way to serve a community? By creating a game. A good game serves the relationships between players, building bonds and creating stable communities out of independent individuals and groups. Games channel the purposes of groups and individuals into a set of acceptable constraints (the rules or the environment) that help us to resolve conflicts and come together, without taking away the autonomy of individuals.
Social media apps are social games, the algorithms are the rules, and reach is, in the abstract, the goal. Users and businesses and other organisations play in order to come into confluence or alignment with each other by resolving conflicts and contradictions.
In a separate post we have created a glossary of terms that we hope will clarify how we understand the process of social game design and our role as stewards of Tuvens. We are not claiming our definitions are objective, just that this is what we mean when we use words like ‘governance‘ and ‘game‘ and ‘purpose‘.
Our role as stewards of Tuvens is to foster community through good governance. We do this by creating and maintaining the interface, architecture and algorithms within the logical constraints of the meta rules – Difficulty, verifiability, universality and independence. You can consider these to be our core values. This means that our purpose is facilitate the creation digital social spaces that amplify the people who contribute the most and exemplify the purposes of the space, in other words the values, without introducing our own biases and interests into the game.
Communities are nested inside each other, and often come into conflict. By various techniques, such as incentivising real world meetings between members and amplifying bridge builders – individuals who have reputation in orthogonal spaces (meaning spaces who have very few members in common) within the broader spaces that those communities share, such as geographic spaces or broader “realms” (e.g. dance or music) – we hope to maximise the chances of resolving conflicts through the generation of shared norms and values.
If this works…
Without exaggeration, we see this as a paradigm shift in social media. If successful, we hope to see competition from other social tech startups, and even other kinds of applications, like marketplaces, dating apps and sharing economy startups, moving away from the lip-service given to community-focus and an over-emphasis of behavioural psychology and opaque machine learning algorithms, towards robust social game design.