Social Networking 2.0

By Ben Thompson

It’s a rather motley crew. One is a nurse, another a lawyer, a third an investment adviser. There are three programmers, a soldier, and a data scientist. An entrepreneur, a consultant, and, I just found out today, a nuclear engineer. The ring leaders are a hotel clerk and a person we have known for years, yet no one knows his name, and then there is me.

We talk about all kinds of things: video games and COVID, family frustrations and bad bosses, and whether Aaron Rodgers is better than Patrick Mahomes (if only Rodgers had had Andy Reid). And, of course, the Milwaukee Bucks. That’s the reason we are in the same group, after all, which is another way of noting that all of us — except the Kansas City Chiefs fan — are originally from Wisconsin. And yet many of us had never met each other until a couple of years ago, when we attended a Bucks game together; the physical world was a trailing indicator.

Home on the Internet

While my Twitter bio has changed over the years, the last sentence has, as far as I can remember, stayed the same:

Ben's Twitter profile

The proximate cause for that sentence was the fact I lived in Asia, even as my Twitter-personae was firmly rooted in the United States, whether that be because of my longstanding interest in technology, or enthusiastic support of Wisconsin sports teams. And yet, when I moved back to the United States, my interest and relationship to Taiwan remained, and Twitter specifically and the Internet broadly were a way to stay connected; the bio still fit.

For a time that bio described Twitter as well: for a particular type of person, someone who thrived on information — the more the better! — Twitter was a place to not simply learn but to find people like yourself. That is how the “Fiefdom”, the name the aforementioned motley crew gave ourselves, found each other. We all loved the Bucks — or, perhaps more accurately, loved to complain about the Bucks — but while Twitter helped us find each other, over the past few years the medium has grown too noisy, performative, and combative to be a place to simply hang out; we have a group DM, which, frankly, sucks, but at least it is our own place.

That’s not my only online community: while the writing of Stratechery is a solo affair, building new features like the Daily Update Podcast or simply dealing with ongoing administrative affairs requires a team that is scattered around the world; we hang out in Slack. Another group of tech enthusiast friends is in another Slack, and a third, primarily folks from Silicon Valley, is in WhatsApp. Meanwhile, I have friends and family centered in Wisconsin (we use iMessage), and, of course Taiwan (LINE for family, WhatsApp for friends). The end result is something I am proud of:

Ben's communities

The pride arises from a piece of advice I received when I announced I was moving back to Taiwan seven years ago: a mentor was worried about how I would find the support and friendship everyone needs if I were living halfway around the world; he told me that while it wouldn’t be ideal, perhaps I could piece together friendships in different spaces as a way to make do. In fact, not only have I managed to do exactly that, I firmly believe the outcome is a superior one, and reason for optimism in a tech landscape sorely in need of it.

Social Networking 1.0

Earlier this year in The TikTok War I explained why the first version of products on the Internet were usually a bit of a dud:

It is always tricky to look at the analog world if you are trying to understand the digital one. When it comes to designing products, a pattern you see repeatedly is copying what came before, poorly, and only later creating something native to the medium.

Consider text: given that newspapers monetized by placing advertisements next to news stories, the first websites tried to monetize by — you guessed it — placing advertisements next to news stories. This worked, but not particularly well; publishers talked about print dollars and digital dimes, and later mobile pennies. Sure, the Internet drew attention, but it just didn’t monetize well.

What changed was the feed, something uniquely enabled by digital. Whereas a newspaper had to be defined up-front, such that it could be printed and distributed at scale, a feed is tailored to the individual in real-time — and so are the advertisements. Suddenly it was print that was worth pennies, while the Internet generally and mobile especially were worth more than newspapers ever were.

The most famous feed in technology is the Facebook feed, which through its algorithmic magic made the lives of your friends and family seem far more tantalizing than they probably were in reality. The result was a social network that the FTC, in a lawsuit filed last week, claimed was a monopoly:

Facebook holds monopoly power in the market for personal social networking services (“personal social networking” or “personal social networking services”) in the United States, which it enjoys primarily through its control of the largest and most profitable social network in the world, known internally at Facebook as “Facebook Blue,” and to much of the world simply as “Facebook.”

The FTC focused on “friends and family”:

As Facebook has long recognized, its personal social networking monopoly is protected by high barriers to entry, including strong network effects. In particular, because a personal social network is generally more valuable to a user when more of that user’s friends and family are already members, a new entrant faces significant difficulties in attracting a sufficient user base to compete with Facebook.

I certainly felt this way previously; in 2016 I wrote in How Facebook Squashed Twitter:

Facebook always had an inherent advantage over Twitter in that its network, at least in the beginning, was based on networks that already existed in the offline world, namely, people you already knew. That made the service immediately approachable and useful for basically everyone. Twitter, on the other hand, was more about following people you didn’t know based on your interests. This theoretically applied to everyone as well, but uncovering those interests and building an appropriate list of people to follow had to be done from scratch.

I increasingly wonder, though, how much of my previous Facebook analysis was wrong not because I misunderstood Facebook, but because I overestimated Twitter. I noted last week while writing about the FTC’s lawsuit in the Daily Update:

I would prefer a world where the [Instagram] deal didn’t happen. As I have noted I believe that absent a deal there would be more competition in the advertising space, and more consumer-focused startups.

At the same time, I do have serious rule-of-law reservations about undoing a deal eight years on, particularly given the fact that it appears that the advertising-supported space is doing better than I thought a few years ago: Snapchat in particular is building a great business, LinkedIn is doing much better, and TikTok is obviously on its way. Honestly, I wonder to what extent Twitter’s endemic poor management made the advertising space seem worse than it actually was?

I would go further: Twitter’s incompetence didn’t simply make Facebook’s advertising business look more dominant than it should have; it led all of us — including the FTC — to miss the point that friends and family was Social Networking 1.0: something imported from the analog world that, as time goes on, will be viewed as inferior to the far richer universe that is Social Networking 2.0.

Twitter Incompetence and Identities

Go back to the Fiefdom that I started with, and the terrible experience that are Twitter group direct messages. It’s impossible to keep your place, so if you follow a link or answer another message, you are dropped to the bottom of the thread. Of course there is no searching, and no third-party API so that someone else could do a better job. The thread also frequently fails to update in real-time, meaning you sometimes reply to questions that have already been answered, which is unfortunate because there is no way to respond to individual messages. It’s honestly awful.

And yet, we use it anyway, because that is where our friendship group formed around our shared interest in the Bucks, and it is the interest graph where Twitter has always had the potential to differentiate itself; in 2015, when it was already clear that the company had missed its opportunity to be great, I wrote in Twitter and What Might Have Been:

What makes Twitter the company valuable is not Twitter the app or 140 characters or @names or anything else having to do with the product: rather, it’s the interest graph that is nearly priceless. More specifically, it is Twitter identities and the understanding that can be gleaned from how those identities are used and how they interact that matters.

Identities — plural — referred to the many users of Twitter, but a second thing that is interesting about my Twitter group is that @benthompson is not a member; my alter-ego, @notechben is. I created that account — which, I will tell you right now, is pretty annoying to follow — so that I could tweet freely during basketball games without losing followers from my primary Twitter account. After all, just because you like my takes on tech, it does not necessarily follow that you like my takes on sports.

What I increasingly realize, though, is that separating my identities on Twitter does not mean a lesser experience, but a far superior one; social interaction in any medium is always a balance between self-expression and the accommodation of others, which means that in the analog world it is a constant struggle to strike a balance between being myself and annoying everyone around me at some point or another. The magic of the Internet, though, is that you can be whatever you want to be:

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog
Image from The New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner, 1993

There are clear downsides to this property of the Internet, particularly on public forums like Twitter, where trolls can attack anyone, bots can astroturf any subject, and even nation-states can seek to incite civil unrest. That’s the thing, though: public broadcast mediums are Social Networking 1.0 as well.

From v1 to v2

Remember that the key characteristic of v1 digital products is that they simply copy what already exists offline. For Facebook that meant digitizing connections between friends and family, and for Twitter it meant broadcasting conversations as if you were sitting at a bar. Such literal translations, though, have limits: Facebook soon found it necessary to augment content from friends and family with professionally produced content from publishers, while public Twitter conversation has disappeared in the face of performative putdowns and political proclamations. The problem is that digital makes analog goods worse: a lot of what your friends and family believe is boring or objectionable, and conversations constrained by the geography of a bar simply don’t translate to a worldwide audience.

What truly makes a category is v2: products that are only possible because of the unique properties of digital. That, for example, is why TikTok is such a threat to Facebook’s hold on attention; again from The TikTok War:

While it is easy for users to create text updates, and, with the rise of smartphones, even easier to create pictures, producing video is difficult. Until recently, phone cameras were even worse at video than they were photos, but more importantly, compelling video takes some degree of planning and skill. The chances of your typical Facebook user having a network full of accomplished videographers is slim, and remember, when it comes to showing user-generated content, Facebook is constrained by who your friends are…

ByteDance’s 2016 launch of Douyin — the Chinese version of TikTok — revealed another, even more important benefit to relying purely on the algorithm: by expanding the library of available video from those made by your network to any video made by anyone on the service, Douyin/TikTok leverages the sheer scale of user-generated content to generate far more compelling content than professionals could ever generate, and relies on its algorithms to ensure that users are only seeing the cream of the crop.

TikTok’s “network”, such that it is, is the entire world, which means its content is better than Facebook’s could ever be, which means it is a far better attention sink than Facebook could ever be.

Meanwhile, on the other extreme, public broadcasting by default — whether that broadcasting be to the entire world, as on Twitter, or to all of your friends and family, as on Facebook — actually constrains your ability to communicate, because you run into the conflict I described earlier: your “whole self”, versus others’ only somewhat overlapping interests.

This is where messaging is a much more natural fit, and, as far as the depth of your network is concerned, messaging services are just as much a threat to v1 social networks connectivity as TikTok is to Facebook’s hold on attention: I can simultaneously be a Bucks fan with the Fiefdom, a tech enthusiast with my Slack group, explore ideas with my WhatsApp group, and talk politics with my trusted friends. The fact that I am not my whole self in any of these groups is a feature, not a bug, and one that is uniquely made possible by digital.

Social Media Optimism

Facebook, despite its immense success, has been far more attuned to the inadequacies of its social networking model than Twitter has, and has been pushing aggressively to adapt its products to a v2 world. That includes its shift to emphasizing Groups in 2017, and its focus on messaging, including the spin-out of Messenger, the acquisition of WhatsApp, and its attempts to unify the messaging experience across its platforms.

Even that, though, suggests that the company can’t entirely escape its roots: having one identity is a core principle for Facebook, which is great for advertising if nothing else, but at odds with the desire of many to be different parts of themselves to different people in different contexts. Twitter, meanwhile, is unlikely to ever recover from its missed opportunity to dominate the interest graph.

Instead, the role for both products will be as a bridge between attention-focused products on one side, and private interest-defined trusted groups on the other.

v1 vs v2 Social Networks

Their networks still have value, but primarily as a tool for distribution and reach of content that will increasingly be created in one place, and discussed in another.1

This, needless to say, doesn’t seem like much of a monopoly, certainly not one worth reaching back in time to retroactively change the rules of the game. What is encouraging, though, is that this view also gives hope for the seemingly hopeless climate that has been fostered by v1 social networks. The problem with forcing everyone to be their “whole selves” for the world, whether they want to or not, is that it becomes strikingly difficult to find common ground. After all, there is always something about everyone that is annoying or off-putting.

On the flipside, to the extent that v2 social networking allows people to be themselves in all the different ways they wish to be, the more likely it is they become close to people who see other parts of the world in ways that differ from their own. Critically, though, unlike Facebook or Twitter, that exposure happens in an environment of trust that encourages understanding, not posturing.

This has been the case for me: I am in private groups with plenty of folks that I disagree with about a whole host of things, but because we share a common interest, and are ok being trusted friends on that vector, I have learned a lot about why they believe what they believe about a bunch of issues. I think it helps my analysis, and I think it makes me a better citizen. That certainly isn’t our expectation of social media today, but that is because we are stuck on v1.