Why is mass commercial social media ‘mass’ and ‘commercial’? This is a question I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about in recent years as I’ve gone through a cliched journey from enthusiasm to sceptic. This hasn’t involved a fundamental shift in how I see social media as much as recognising that the qualities which excited me about it (its mass character, being free at the point of access, the velocity of content circulation) are all connected in a profoundly ambivalent way. The reasons it has scaled so rapidly, with the exciting characteristics which follow from this, are the reasons for the pathologies which are now so obvious, with algorithmic amplification exercising a truly pernicious cultural influence.
This section from Martin Weller’s 25 Years of Educational Technology offers a useful analytical contrast to make sense of this point. Having a low threshold to engagement, including being free at the point of access, helps a service scale rapidly because it requires little from users to get involved. From pg 99:
We can perhaps think of social software as “horizontal” or “vertical.” Horizontal ones are those that have a relatively low threshold to engagement—Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are all examples of these. This has been key to their success—they can utilize the benefits of the network without requiring intensive contributions from all individuals. Even browsing adds to the value of the network. And then there is vertical social software, such as Second Life, which has a high threshold of participation, and users tend to spend a lot of time engaged with it. The consequence of this is that these tools need to meet a range of needs, hence Second Life could be used for work, socializing, shopping, and so on. But it means they are unlikely to acquire the broad appeal required for the mass networking seen in the horizontal social software tools.
My fear is that the engineered compulsivity of social media, using the world’s largest real time behavioural science experiment to continually increase user engagement, crowds out the possibility for vertical social software simply because lots of people come to spend a lot of time on the horizontal social software.