I’ve been pretty much social network free for a couple of years now, after shrugging off Twitter in 2020 (?). I do have a Mastodon account but meh, it’s boring as hell so I don’t go in there much. So really my only vice is now Hackernews, and a gentle foray into Reddit on an occasional basis.
I don’t miss it – mainly. I do miss the banter of Twitter, but I don’t miss the obsession, the need to check all the damn time. But I also sometimes miss the feeling of a group of interested and interesting people communing around a common topic or theme.
Reddit strikes me as being interesting for exactly this reason. Rather than trumpeting the importance of the individual which is what Twitter and Instagram do (“jeez, that guy has so many followers, what the hell has he said now!?”), Reddit focuses on the topic, whether it’s Ableton or Printmaking or misc-stupid-shit or whatever. The role of the individual is sort of pushed into the background, and although you can follow individuals, it’s not really what you tend to do.
The same old shit
This, coupled with the horror of Musk’s Twitter got me thinking about what social media would look like if people approached it differently. Right now, it just seems to be the same old shit – Mastodon is Twitter. Pixelfed is Instagram. Facebook are rumoured to be creating a new Twitter – the fact it’ll be federated is deeply interesting from one angle, but deeply boring from a user experience point of view. Google+ actually had many good ideas but Google are shit at social… TikTok is its own special brand of crack-cocaine – but not really an interesting or even really terribly social network, arguably. Lobste.rs is just a forum / message board, as is Gurlic and thousands of others. Discord is basically WhatsApp… and so it goes on. The communities vary in quality, and there’s really good stuff to be had, but the actual concept is most of the time a bit…meh.
Hackernews wins in interesting ways – it looks like shit, and the functionality is extremely limited, but the conversation is deeply varied, and although there are days when someone like me who is nerdy but not that nerdy is just lost at the sheer, weird depth of it all – you still never fail to find something interesting. But – it’s still not a community in the way that social claims it could be.
Just because you have an opinion…
Annnnyway. It’s fair to say that the issues with trying to create a social network usually hang around the lack of conversation quality – and that this in turn is often caused by people believing that just because they can express an opinion means that they should. And even though it’s widely recognised that even though X person with a gazillion followers has precisely zero knowledge about climate change or AI or vaccines, their opinion still somehow carries weight, a weight that is purely and totally about the mass of their profile but says precisely zero about their actual areas of knowledge or expertise. Joe Rogan for example – I know next to nothing about him and find his podcast deeply irritating, but it seems from his Wikipedia profile that he might have expertise in stand-up, martial arts, maybe acting – but he has precisely zero reason to be a figurehead in…I dunno, neuroscience, meditation or fine art. And yet because of his influence and profile, if he were to tweet or podcast something about one of these topics, his opinion would carry some weight.
Expertise as a metric
How about this as an idea – what if you could choose your circle of friends and then give them categories of expertise which were then publicly surfaced. So say my friend Dave was bloody brilliant at playing the violin, had a long previous career making web apps and made pottery as a hobby – what if I could mark him up as being experienced in these areas, someone I trusted to ask about these topics?
So now Dave carries a profile where external connections endorse him as having varying levels of expertise in these categories. When another friend of mine sees Dave among my connections, she can get a reasonable grasp of what he actually knows about. Furthermore – the system itself could also give people the option to tag their posts with opinion or knowledge rankings as they post them. So if I wanted to rant about the latest fuckwankery that the Tory party has been up to around immigration, I (or the system) could flag it as “opinion” (I have a lot of opinion about those tossers but zero expertise in politics, asylum or immigration…). If on the other hand I was posting about playing the piano, or print-making, or WordPress (all topics where I’ve got a bunch of actual experience) then I (or, again, the system) could flag it as “expertise”.
Over time, network effects would presumably make these connections very much stronger. As people came on board and endorsed person X for thing Y then a clever algorithm would presumably be able to spot trends and help reinforce searches and other connections where factual information was being sought, or – if you wanted to use it that way – find conversations where the core point was opinion, argument, dissent.
It’s generally recognised that noisy social networks (well, noise in general) – already an enormous problem – is only going to get worse as AI truly comes online in these spaces. So, finding ways in which we can amplify expertise and diminish opinion – or at the very least, find effective ways of filtering these – is going to become really critical.