The term “social media” describes websites (or apps, protocols, etc.) that enable people to publish their own content, follow other people to get a stream of their content, and generally interact with other people (like by leaving comments, or hitting a like button, or whatever). Generally speaking it refers to centralised websites or apps, whereby you have to be a member of a specific service and agree to its Terms of Service and so forth before you can post or interact with other users there. There are decentralised alternatives, like the Fediverse and the IndieWeb, which aim to give those specific services less power over user data.
Features I like, or would like to see more of
- Interoperability: People should not “have” to maintain accounts on multiple social media platforms just to be able to follow everyone they want to follow, or switch platforms entirely just to change their user interface. It’d be way better for end users if platforms all interoperated with one another, so you could post where you liked, follow people no matter where they liked to post, and read all their posts in an interface of your liking. Greater modularity would be nice as well, so your posting and reading interfaces don’t have to come as a package deal.
- Access-restricted posts: There’s no doubt that the difficulty of implementing this increases dramatically the more you pursue interoperability. However, it is a really useful feature. Post-by-post privacy settings is much more useful than just “having a private account”, too. Facebook actually does this pretty well, as did LiveJournal, but LJ fork Dreamwidth has really perfected it.
- Channels for users to post in: For example, blogs generally have categories, and you can subscribe to individual category feeds if you don’t want the full firehose of everything. But when you follow someone on social media, it’s mostly an all-or-nothing deal. (Some platforms and clients let you mute hashtags or keywords, which works if you follow people who use those diligently.) This can get awkward if you follow, let’s say, someone who posts really great stuff about X, but also a lot about uninteresting-to-you topic Y. It can get awkward as a poster too, if you know you have a lot of followers who follow you because you post about X, and you feel like you get crickets every time you post about Y or Z, but you like posting about Y and Z. So then it can get tempting to create entire new accounts dedicated to posting about Y or Z. But then what do you do about your “following” list? Do you try to follow accounts depending on their primary topic from the most relevant one of your accounts? But what about those people who just post about everything on the one account? It would be so much easier if social media plaforms let you have a single user account with the option of creating multiple channels, that you could put different kinds of content into, while just having a single account for timeline/reading purposes.
- Hiding following/follower information: I never realised how wonderful this would be until I came across Micro.blog, which hides most of this (you can see the users someone follows who you don’t also follow, to help with discoverability). It just makes for so much less stress. Following (or not following) someone becomes purely about what you’d like to see on your timeline, rather than also carrying this subtext about whether someone else’s posts (and by extension, that someone as a person) are “worthy”. No more social awkwardness around not following someone back, or following someone then later unfollowing them.
Anti-features, which I’d like to see much less of
- Algorithms: These are rigged to optimise “user engagement”, i.e. content that is more likely to spur people into reacting. A lot of this will be content that pisses people off, creating unhealthy social media environments. Algorithms also work to create closed “bubbles” of like-minded users, and push more sponsored/corporate posts into people’s timelines ahead of actual people’s posts. Note that I don’t really mind Reddit-style algorithms (based on user upvotes, with some normalisation for subreddit popularity), because that doesn’t seem to result in the same problems.
- User data harvesting, usually for the purpose of advertising: This feeds into the “algorithm” point above (i.e. this is how the algorithm determines what to show you), and the data can also be on-sold to other advertisers and unscrupulous actors who use it to irritate you further.
- Sponsored posts (i.e. ads): See above. And also, they’re just really annoying.
- Real-time notifications, except if explicitly opted-into: I think there are some situations where these make sense, hence the option to opt-in. For the most part, though, I think they create this unhealthy situation where people expect their interactions (especially mentions and replies) to be seen virtually immediately, and responded back to quickly. In a context like Twitter or Facebook, which are rife with people dashing off hot-headed replies in the heat of the moment, I think this can create escalating arguments and a lot of negativity. I also think it’s disruptive when you close an app, but then get called back to it with notifications popping up on your phone. I genuinely think most social media works better if you just open sites or apps up when you actually have some time to, and check your notifications then.
Features that have pros and cons
- Likes: If I were given the choice to take them or leave them, I think I would take “likes”. When you appreciated a post but don’t have anything specific to say about it (like your alternative would be to say “Nice photo!” or something), they’re a nice and easy way to show the post author you cared. But they do have downsides – some people find that the desire to get more likes starts distorting the way they post, or else they feel bad if a post they put hard work into gets less likes than their posts usually do. They can also be a cop out, like if someone would have written a meaningful comment if not given the easy way out of hitting the like button. In this way they can promote shallower interactions. And on sites that use algorithms to decide what to show (and not to show!), “likes” obviously feed into those.
- Reacji: I think that’s what they’re called? But basically, like how Facebook these days doesn’t just let you “like” something, but also to “love” it, “haha” it, “angry” it, “sad” it, “care” it and so forth. They crop up elsewhere too, like Github and Discord. A benefit to these is that they can convey slightly more info than a mere “like”, but otherwise they have the same pros and cons as likes themselves.
- Reblogs/boosts/retweets/etc.: The positive of these is that they let you quickly and easily share information (or just fun/funny stuff), or amplify the voices of those that need and deserve amplification. The downsides include the way that inaccurate, untrue information can quickly “go viral”, and that they make it easy to become a “passive” social media user, rarely contributing any thoughts of your own. When you’re allowed to “quote-tweet”, they can become a vehicle for dunking, which is bad for multiple reasons. And if we’re talking about interoperable solutions, then you can run into issues around licensing or the spreading of misinformation (e.g. if the original post was subsequently corrected, how do the reblogs get corrected?).
Examples of social media platforms
Please note that this is not at all an exhaustive list! Just a list of platforms about which I think I have something to say.
- Twitter: microblogging; seems particularly popular with the media and politicians. I really liked it around 2010; these days it has a big problem with harassment, and has moved over time towards being a locked-down, algorithmic platform.
- Mastodon: the most well-known Fediverse project; at the end-user level, the way it works is based heavily on Twitter. Interoperable with other ActivityPub-based projects.
- Facebook: the way I predominantly used it, back when I used it, was to keep up with what was going on with people I knew, to make friends-only posts to share updates on my life, to RSVP to events, and to share interesting articles I thought people might like. It also has groups.
- Instagram: photo-based microblogging. Owned by Facebook. Personally I find this a lot less toxic than Twitter and Facebook, but that might be partly who I follow on there compared to the others.
- Tumblr: has a number of innovative features that sets it apart from other platforms, like side-blogs, in-built post queuing, etc.. It also lets you customise your outward-facing blog theme. However the website has a lot of shortcomings, “Tumblr culture” got pretty toxic, and in recent years Tumblr alienated its userbase by banning nude pics.
- Micro.blog: IndieWeb-compatible social media (and has a checkbox to be ActivityPub/Mastodon-compatible, too). Has a really wonderful community. If you don’t have your own blog to connect, it costs US$5/month for a hosted one, but that hosted one also lets you customise your outward-facing blog theme (like Tumblr).
- LiveJournal: Social media from back before I had heard the term “social media”. Like Facebook, being “friends” with someone on there had to be mutual, it offered restricted-access posting, and it also had “communities” (like Facebook’s “groups”). But it was also oriented around journalling, rather than predominantly short posts and image or link-sharing. It does still exist but it’s been owned by a Russian company for ages, and its slow decline in the Anglosphere was hastened by its introduction of anti-LGBTI rules.
- Dreamwidth: A fork of LiveJournal that got started around 2008–9, with numerous improvements (for example, separating “friends” out into “access” and “subscriptions”, with mutualness no longer required). Popular among fannish people, but didn’t really take off in the mainstream as people left LJ for more “modern” platforms like Tumblr instead.
- Reddit: This is a bit of a unique one as it’s not based around user profiles, personal content streams, or any kind of friends list or “followers” mechanic. It’s probably more like forums – people post in subreddits (which are like LJ communities, user-created and run), comment on other subreddit posts, and can upvote/downvote posts and comments. The platform is kind of notorious for the right-wing politics and generally cruel people lurking in certain subreddits, but I haven’t encountered a lot of that in the subreddits I’ve followed as relevant to my interests.
- YouTube: I don’t really think of this as social media, because it’s much more one-way (i.e. content creator releases videos to be passively consumed by end users). I guess it does have some social media features though, like likes, comments, and the ability to “follow” people (or specific channels of those people). It also shares a number of the problems with social media, like algorithms, toxicity, and poor moderation resulting in harassment and hate speech being freely available, and even promoted to viewers through those algorithms that aim to optimise “watch time” ahead of all other metric
- TikTok: I’ve never used this, but I understand it’s an app based around a never-ending stream of algorithmically-chosen videos. It has been criticised vigorously for its censorship of left-wing, POC, disabled and even “ugly” content creators, as well as its massive disrespect for user privacy.