A Happy Community Would Be A Smaller Community: Why Social Media Sucks

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Yesterday, the hobo-in-chief of Twitter got up on stage to say that their solution to online abuse was not to ban people who make death threats, or to crack down on bot-made accounts, or to even maaaybe consider getting rid of the Nazis, but instead to concentrate on topics instead of people!

This solution obviously sucks, because people show up at Twitter for the people. You choose the folks who entertain you and see what they have to say. The idea that Neil Gaiman or Kanye West might personally reply to you is one of Twitter’s slim draws, as is the concept that your clever microposts might make you into a Twitter superstar.

The problem is, of course, that some people are dicks – and worse, some people are dedicated dicks. The more famous you get on Twitter, particularly if it’s for political reasons, the more likely it is that you’ll be specifically targeted for destruction by a lot of people whose sole goal is to drive you off of Twitter.

In other words, like a lot of social media, Twitter has a weird problem: the more you use it, the more likely it is that you’ll be made miserable by its most dickish users.

But the solution is simple, right? If someone’s acting mean, ban them. There should be clear rules of conduct, enforced consistently, to tell people stuff that making comments like “You’ll get gassed like your grandparents” are way out of line.

Ah, but that’s not the way the stock market works.

See, the stock market rewards only one thing for social media: growth. Constant, cancerous growth. You have to have new users signing up all the time – your stock market goal is to beat Facebook – and if you can’t have new users continually signing up, then you have to beat Facebook’s metrics in terms of daily interactions and user return rates in order to keep getting that money flowing.

Now. If you ban a user, that’s one less person to tout on your quarterly reports.

Heck, let’s take it one further: if you ban a bot, a computerized user created solely for harassment, that is also one less user to show to your stockholders.

So they are disincentivized to ban anyone, let alone large swathes of the ill-behaving users.

But worse: they’re actually, secretly, incentivized to encourage trolls and whackjobs. Because, say what you will, the guy frantically searching for liberal tweets and typing “MAGA SUCK IT LIBS” seven hundred times a day into Twitter is, in fact, a really good user from Twitter’s perspective. He’s creating content, he’s seeing all the ads they’re selling, and if he says something really outrageous then a ton of libs, who do not wish to suck it, will link to him and generate more traffic.

The problem with social media is that trolls are some of their most valuable users. And you can’t just ignore them; in the world of Twitter, they’ll seek you out, and the Internet bleeds into the real world anyway in the sense that these dorks can occasionally call a SWAT team into your house.

Now, Twitter’s not alone here. YouTube has a similar problem, and so does Facebook. And part of the problem is that training humans to moderate debates is both expensive and soul-draining on the trained humans in question, and the social media folks are convinced that they can somehow automate the process of getting people to play nice.

But the actual problem is this:

A nicer community would be a smaller community.

The minute you start enforcing any guidelines that would encourage people to be kind – no matter how you define those guidelines – then you have to start kicking people off. Because the ugly truth is that “dumping everyone into the same room” doesn’t create a functioning community – a community is only forged when people agree on certain core values, and some people just don’t take to those values, so you have to remove them from that community to make it function.

(You see that with Facebook all the time. Their whole idea of “user engagement” is that “you’re connected with everyone you know equally,” and so if you friend freely there’s this continual weirdness of posting in places where your co-workers and your squash teammates – who were part of a different community – are suddenly transplanted into your community of so-called friends, often with disastrous results. There’s nothing wrong with just being workout buddies, but the core values of “We help each other to lift better” is often at odds with the core values of “Let’s talk about why we don’t need socialized health care.”)

So if Twitter said, “Okay, no more death threats! To anyone! Even if you’re just implying the world would be better off with these people dead!” then they’d lose some significant portion of their audience, both liberal and conservative, who really like telling people to fuck off and die. And then their numbers would drop, and the user engagement from the folks hammering “SUCK ON AN EXHAUST PIPE MOTHERFUCKER” into their keyboards over and over would drop, and suddenly their stock would drop.

So Twitter – and every other social media – is continually dancing around this core issue of “How can we fix this problem without fixing the obvious problem?” Because the obvious solution is right out: you can’t ban people. We need people. All the people. Even the complete buttmunchers, and maybe especially them.

What Twitter needs is community standards, and the institutional willpower to enforce them. And to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter what those standards are; in time, after enough bannings, people will get the idea of what to expect and either hang around, or not.

But that would involve jettisoning people. And the American version of capitalism doesn’t reward that. The American version of capitalism wants THE BIGGEST, and sadly THE BIGGEST is at serious odds with THE HAPPIEST.

So it goes.


  1. Anonymous Alex
    Apr 18, 2019

    A small enough community (i.e., measured in dozens, not millions) actually feels like a community where everyone knows each other, not just has something in common. At that size, it can also self-police when the dickheads arrive. But that’s not “monetizable.”


  2. Raven Black
    Apr 19, 2019

    Advertising is my favorite example of a thing where capitalism is a social bad. Google search was a great social good, in its original form before ads were a thing on it. Putting ads on it makes it unquestionably *less* of a social good, but makes for financial success.

    (Maybe not entirely unquestionable, but less than one percent of people go “oh good, I really like the ads” and more than ten percent of people are actively annoyed by ads, and ad publishers’ opinions don’t count because they’re not advertising because they want to, they’re advertising for money; their financial desires are not a social good either.)

    Making it even worse, many many people are employed in the business of making ads more effective – all of those people could be contributing to some social good, but instead their efforts have been diverted to *at best* a socially neutral activity.

  3. Raven Black
    Apr 21, 2019

    And on the other part of this topic, “topic based” was what Google Plus tried to do, hardly anyone was interested, and now it’s dead. To the sadness of the small number of people who liked a topic based thing.

  4. Steven Saus
    Apr 23, 2019

    Y’know, you’ve completely made a case for Mastodon, Pleroma (et al) and other self-hosted and community based styles of social media. 🙂

    • Seconding Mastodon (or rather, the “fediverse”). The thing is generally self-organizing, with “instances” (roughly the equivalent of an email server) providing a core community at a human scale, but allowing access to other instances via “federation”

  5. andysocial
    Jun 7, 2019

    Really missing the community feeling of LJ days. Unfortunately, it seems network effects have made fixing social media by (for example) a Mastodon-like revival of curation is unlikely.

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