Social Networks, Social Media, and Design Affordances

Ian Bogost has a good piece in The Atlantic that recalls the trajectory of social networking services and their transformation into social media services. He distinguishes between the two thusly:

The terms social network and social media are used interchangeably now, but they shouldn’t be. A social network is an idle, inactive system—a Rolodex of contacts, a notebook of sales targets, a yearbook of possible soul mates. But social media is active—hyperactive, really—spewing material across those networks instead of leaving them alone until needed.

I’m someone who obtains a vast amount of very valuable information from my social networks. People are always softly pushing information that is relevant to my specific interests, such as by RSS or through private email groups, with just enough extra stuff that I can learn about novel topics or issues. In all of these cases however I make the choice to interact with the content and in a pretty focused way. This approach is perhaps a bit more active than how Bogost frames social networks but is much closer to the earliest days of Web 2.0, prior to the advent of microblogging and image sharing becoming major things in my neck the Internet. Much of this information comes from people I have either strong or intermediate connections with.

Professionally, I have historically found Twitter to be a useful social media platform. I and other experts have used it to surface media and/or opinions that were meant to be helpful in better understandings parts of the world I engage with. This, of course, has changed for the worse in the past 2 months. Broadly, I and other experts have benefitted from the design affordances of the ‘megascale’ of Twitter.

Most social media, however, holds little or no value to me.1 And perhaps most dangerously even Twitter has the effect of sharpening language (gotta keep within those character or thread limits!) while also making it much harder, if not impossible, to find useful contributions at a later date in time. As experts have moved to Twitter and away from long-term content storage repositories (e.g., blogs, opinion articles, etc) their expertise has the effect of appearing briefly and then being lost to themselves as well as future audiences. Broadly, then, one question is what is the role of social media for professionals and experts who have a public communication role to their careers?

There is also some real value in social media platforms that move content quite quickly. I know for a fact that Twitter, as an example, is regularly useful for foreign policy observers who are trying to determine what is happening around the world. These observers are taking advantage of weak ties to obtain otherwise difficult to find information. Twitter is, also, helpful for crowdsourcing in the case of disasters. At the same time these networks can be, and have been, and are being used for harmful purposes. This includes targeted harassment, government abuse, and more. We often hear about these latter ills and, in response, some wish that very different or slower social media platforms existed on the presumption that they would reduce the harm while still enabling the good platforms. This is perhaps best captured by Bogost’s earlier article, “People Aren’t Meant to Talk This Much,” where he writes:

Imagine if access and reach were limited too: mechanically rather than juridically, by default? What if, for example, you could post to Facebook only once a day, or week, or month? Or only to a certain number of people? Or what if, after an hour or a day, the post expired, Snapchat style? Or, after a certain number of views, or when it reached a certain geographic distance from its origins, it self-destructed? That wouldn’t stop bad actors from being bad, but it would reduce their ability to exude that badness into the public sphere.

However, in assessing the properties of networks/media systems designers should consider the respective technologies’ affordances and what they, and their users, really want or need. I don’t subscribe to the position that Twitter is Evil™ or that a ‘new Twitter’ needs to do away with all the affordances of the current platform.

Real good has come from the ability of different parties to exploit or benefit from virality. But that virality is not something that all persons should have to deal with if they don’t want to, and users of viral-enabled platforms should be protected by rigorous trust and safety policies and teams. (Twitter is clearly moving away from their already-insufficient efforts to protect their users and, so, any replacement virality-platform should start with trust and safety as a top priority ahead of almost anything else.)

The ‘solution’ to the ills of social media shouldn’t be to wistfully look back to the earliest era of Web 2.0, or the last breaths of Web 1.0, and say that we should be restricted to tool and service equivalents of those times. Social technologies should not be permanently halted in the time and template of Livejournal, Orkut, Google+, or Blogger.

First, because we enjoy a lot of modern affordances in our technology and likely won’t want to abandon them!

Second, because such call-backs are often to times when the social networks were far less diverse than the social media platforms today. We should be wary of seeking the civility of the past on the basis that much of that same perceived civility was premised on the exclusive and privileged nature of the social networks.

Third, it’s important for any and all who look for different social networks or social media platforms to recognize that the affordances they are seeking may not be the affordances that everyone is seeking. To use Twitter as just one example we regularly hear about how the platform is used by its Western users but comparatively little about how it’s used by Japanese users, who have prolifically adopted the platform. We should not over generalise our own experiences (or issues with) platforms and should instead adopt a more inclusive approach to understanding the benefits and drawbacks of a given platform’s affordances and capabilities.

I think that when imagining the ‘next’ iteration of social networks and social media it’s helpful to recognize that different kinds of networks will serve different functions. Not everything needs to operate at megascale. Also, though, we should learn lessons from the current social media platforms and design affordances that provide individuals and groups with the ability to express control over how their networks and media can be used. Tim Bray offers some of those suggestions in his proposals for updating Mastodon. Key, to my eye, are that content-licensing should be a default thing that is considered with code (and, unstated, law) being used to reinforce how individuals and communities permit their information to be accessed, used, collected, or disclosed.

We’re in the middle of yet another reflection period about what role(s) should social networks and social media play in Western society, as well as more generally around the world. Regulatory efforts are moving along and laws are being passed to rein in perceived issues linked with the companies operating the various networks. But there’s also real appetite to assess what should, and shouldn’t, be possible writ large on the contemporary and future social networks and social media platforms. We should lean into this in inclusive ways to develop the best possible policy. Doing anything else means we’ll just keep having the same debate ad infinitum.


  1. There’s lots of broader value: it can be useful economically for some individuals, enable speech outlets that are otherwise denied to individuals who are historically discriminated against, and serve as a medium for creative expression. ↩︎

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