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“Social Networks” don’t scale socially

Monolithic, centralised social networking sites do not scale socially.

In the physical world we use physical boundaries to define areas where a set of behaviours are allowed or prohibited.

For example, national laws define what is allowed (what is legal) and what not inside the borders of a country. Of course laws are not the same for all countries. What may be legal in one may be illegal in an other: alcohol consumption, nudity, abortions, homosexuality, religion, freedom of speech, smoking, prostitution, eating meat or specific kinds of meat, carrying a gun are just some examples of activities that are treated diversely by laws in various countries.

It’s not just national laws, it’s also social contracts and rules. In the same country, there are places playing music with lyrics that would deeply offend some of the people that walk on the street in front of their door. There are beaches where nudity is allowed next to beaches where it is not. There are places you can enter wearing your shorts and places where you have to wear a tux. There are places where people pray to a god that created the world in seven days and places where such a belief would be reason to be fired.

I have long made the argument that sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, what we call “social networks”, are not networks: They are places. Places where we hang out with our friends, our relatives, our colleagues, places where we debate our political beliefs, where we flirt, where we blow out some steam, where we meet with others who share an interest or a passion or a cause, where we promote our work or business, where we brag for our achievements or even share our dark thoughts.

As things are today we practically only have a handful of these online places: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn and a couple more.

The result is that each one of these places has to decide on the rules that govern them in such a way that will be compatible with a few hundred millions (or even billions) of users that have different beliefs, live by different laws, in different countries — and for all of their social needs.

This was relatively easy for them when their audience was their early adopters (US college students, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, or tech geeks around the world) because most of these people already shared a common set of values.

But how can you have a place where someone can promote everything that is legal in the Netherlands and at the same time comply with the laws of Saudi Arabia? Or a place where a butcher sharing details about his professional skills will not offend vegans? Or where a nudist will be able to upload photos from his vacations without provoking a conservative Christian?

It is just not possible.

These services have demonstrated their technical ability to scale, but their ability to scale socially is much more limited: Monolithic, centralised social networking sites do not scale socially.

This is the reason Facebook and Twitter find themselves constantly with their back on the wall, trying to decide what is allowed and what not as everyone is pushing them to “do the right thing” while having a different interpretation of what “the right thing” is.

The solution is what we already have in the physical world: Instead of a handful of online places (the so called “social networks”) we need an abundance of them, each one governed by its own social contracts, rules and laws.

Some of the existing services are harder to replace, because they give back to their users some of the value generated by their scale. Take for example YouTube: Because of its scale it can provide users with free video hosting and distribution, something that’s extremely difficult (if possible) to offer at a smaller scale.

But Facebook and Twitter may be easier: What they offer is network effects and these could also be provided by open protocols. In other words, what Facebook and Twitter offer is that “everyone is there”, while what YouTube offers is “because everyone is there, we can get something that costs a lot for free”.

We already see this move to other “places” happening to some degree with private Slacks and Discord channels by teams who feel the need of having their own space where they can set their own rules. But these platforms can not replace Facebook or Twitter because they offer closed, isolated spaces without network effects.

What we could replace Facebook or Twitter with would be a model of independent “social networks” that use a common protocol to communicate between them. Something like Mastodon (You may also check the Wikipedia page), a federated network where information can flow between nodes (each one resembling something like Twitter) in the same way that email can flow between email servers.

We could have thousands of Mastodon sites, each one with their own rules and laws. Some of them can be open to everyone. Some of them may require a paid subscription like a private club. Some of them may stand by absolute freedom of speech while others may be more restrictive. Some of them may enforce KYC rules, while others may protect anonymity at any cost.

Much like (and probably better than) in the physical world, such a model will create space for everyone.

Is there any chance of something like this actually happening?

I believe there are a lot of opportunities for people who will invest time, skills and money in this area to create better software, more polished user experiences and alternative business models on top of something like Mastodon.

If you are working on a project along these lines, please let me know by leaving a comment here or on HN. I’d like to try it or even write about it.