On social media platforms & separation of concerns

Twitter’s demise has brought a variety of imposters aiming to give users a semblance of what we had for years. Twitter’s magic had less to do with the platform itself, but rather, the people who found themselves there. For instance, you could have multifacted conversations in real time with different people around different topics. Twitter was like the sports bar, tech conference hallway conversatons & professional post-work gathering all at once. At its peak, it enabled academics, comedians & regular people to engage and connect in ways that weren’t possible at the same velocity. This isn’t a celebratory post, since social media has wrought far more than it delivered, but like any tool it’s about how you use it, not about the tool itself.

Not to double down too heavily on a metaphor, but the concept of separation of concerns’ is a design principle focused on the distinctive sections of software. For instance, the separation of HTML, CSS and Javascript. When I think about separation of concerns in the context of social media platforms, it’s a bit different but related.

The nicest thing that the web 2.0 offered aspirants who had some other interesting thing to share, was the chance to get out of their own networks and into new spaces. Moving to a new city gives you a chance at reinvention, the same way that a new job can do. The stories about people in the pre-internet age who would leave home one day, turn up in a new city with a new name and family, having left their own one behind is essentially what platforms like Tumblr and Twitter did in the form of user names.

I remember when an internet personality who had a huge following from a forum community and eventually on Twitter passed away. His family had no idea about his other life and they raised thousands of dollars for a kid he’d left behind, and they were overcome by how many lives he’d touched through his internet antics over the years, they just knew him as the person he was and that was it. It’s so gratifying to see how many public scholars leveraged this era to grow massive followings, sell books, and transform their lives from backbenchers in Faculty Senate to global icons. The pathways to the public square is always full of gatekeepers, but being able to amplify your work to larger audiences, through consistency, is one of the most powerful parts of the demise of Web 2.0

This brings me back to separation of concerns and the original premise of this post. Facebook’s twitter clone Threads” (via Instagram) has a feature that blasts Threads posts of your instagram followers into the instagram feed.  This is an understanding growth nudge aimed at creating FOMO for any instagram laggards who refuse to jump on the Threads train, as it’s normie Twitter vibes continue to grow in the most anodine ways.

Besides the growth hacking reasons for feeding your users complimentary app content, it’s not user friendly. Casual posters might appreciate these nudges, as it might get their friends to engage with them on a new platform. But the beauty and joy of older social media was meeting people you’d never get to reach out to.

Celebrities hawking their newest sponcon were never the reason anybody signed up for Myspace, created a blog on Tumblr or spent hours on Twitter. You showed up because there wasn’t anyone in your immediate orbit to share your wacky ideas about random Star Trek episodes with, or to livereact to a TV show that’s in Season 1 and not popular enough for your friends to care about.

Beyond identity layer cakes, old school platforms scored wins by connecting people across interests and scenes accidentally. On Tumblr or Twitter, even your weirdest takes could find true fans and new BFFs. Knowing at least one wonderfully weird someone would embrace your eccentricities made scrolling forever feeds irresistible.

At its heart, old school web’s network domination was people connecting through shared weirdness and words, not code or cash. As platforms trade online/IRL separation and welcoming weirdos for digital dollars and attention, can today’s social giants resist turning vibrant human connection into metrics on a spreadsheet? I think there’s magic to be found elsewhere online — and in real life — and the platform age will continue to erode, having already lost of the magic of what made the original eras great.

November 22, 2023