21 Feb 2023

How to beat social media's network effects

I'm Jacob O'Bryant, maker of Yakread and other tools for online speech. I write about practical ways to make the internet better.

I've written several times about unbundling social media into its constituent parts. I think that "social media" should mostly be a variety of different publishing apps, reading apps, and small discussion communities, instead of a small number of large, monolithic platforms. My best piece on this is You can help unbundle social media; the most popular one is How to rebuild social media on top of RSS. Those articles cover the what and the how. Now I want to shed a bit more light on the why.

In a single word, the answer to "why" is "competition." More competition could help solve several problems with social media:

However, there's a reason the industry tends to gravitate towards a few, large platforms: network effects. The benefits of having lots of users dominate everything else.

The solution is interoperability. If you have a bunch of different apps that work well together, the network effects can be shared among participants instead of being concentrated in a few large players.

Interop has some downsides, though. The biggest one is that the need to coordinate can slow down innovation. If you've ever worked on a group project, you're no doubt aware that it's often faster to just do the whole thing yourself. After all, the Internet's application layer did mostly consist of a bunch of interoperable services, a few decades ago. The platforms won because they were better. The cost of interop negated the potential benefits of competition.

So how do you address that? You figure out the minimum amount of interop that's required to reach your goals.

That, by the way, is one of the biggest mental shifts I've had over the past several years. I used to think that more interop was always better, or at least, that more interop was always a worthy goal. I spent a fair amount of time wondering about how software could be architected such that interop would be easier for application developers to implement and maintain.

Now, I think of interop more as an evolutionary feature, like being tall. Being tall has advantages, for example, you can reach fruit that's higher up in a tree. But it comes with a cost: you have to consume more calories per day. Sometimes being short is better!

So we need to find the right amount of interop. How much interop is needed to get the level of competition we want? What functionality needs to work across across different apps, and what functionality can be siloed within individual apps?

I have two beliefs here:

This is why my "model of the universe" focuses on publishing apps (like Wordpress and Ghost), reading apps (like Gmail and RSS readers), and discussion apps (like Discord and Slack). Subscriptions are handled by publishing apps and reading apps. If you want your post to travel across the Internet, write it in a publishing app. If you want to hash out some ideas within a particular community, write your post in a discussion app. These two types of communication don't have to mix.

Reading, publishing, and discussion apps are already in use by lots of people. Let's see how far that model can be pushed.

Chat with me on Discord.

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