Social media has become antisocial — here’s how to save it

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

Why is it so hard to make friends online? It’s perhaps a strange question to ask: most of us aren’t used to interacting closely with strangers on the internet. But we spend hours of our time each day browsing the web, often in sites specifically labelled as “social media”. How much social are we getting out of it? I believe the factors that make social media addictive and toxic are also keeping us disconnected from other people and making it harder to genuinely get to know new people online. It’s a story of prioritising content and scale over people, weaponised by ground-breaking algorithms and psychological tricks to keep us hooked on the feed. Let us begin.

It wasn’t always like this. The early web was dominated by small, independent websites and blogs, linked together using hyperlinks. That’s where the phrase “surfing the web” originates from — exploring the internet by moving through hyperlinks. You can think of the early internet as a group of low-density villages, each with their own diverse content and users, linked to each other though hyperlinks. It all started to change soon. Search engines like Google mapped the cyberspace using crawlers, while aggregation of users into specific sites caused them to grow ever faster. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit grew from villages into megalopolises unheard of in the offline world. They used their dominance in user attention and data to build walls high and mighty around their empire, both to keep disruptors out and to keep their users in, hooked to their content. The rise of the aggregators corresponded with a decline in independent forums and blogs. If you’re an aspiring writer or game developer, why pay for your own infrastructure and user acquisition when you can set up shop in Redditopia or Twittopolis for free (there’s a reason this post is hosted on Medium). We no longer surf. We browse.

In mainstream social media, everything is built around growth. Growth in active users, session lengths, likes and subscriptions, nothing will ever be enough. The networks themselves need to show ever more ads and gather ever more data to stay ahead of their competitors, and users must keep their audience active and engaged to keep ahead of the algorithms. Drive more users to the platform and your posts will be promoted by the gracious algorithmic gods. Stay still and face eternal damnation at the bottom of the feed. You. Must. Keep. Running.

I believe this demand for growth is driving toxicity and loneliness in our society. The moderate and modest are pushed out by the loudest voices in the quest for attention and engagement. The algorithms make us outraged at politicians, jealous of our classmates, loathe our own bodies, to create pain and sell the cure, and to auction our eyeballs to the highest bidder in the process. Social media is designed to pit our everyday lives against the best moments of others. Our human brains just aren’t fit to handle such an environment.

Social media is designed to pit our everyday lives against the best moments of others.

Based on research by evolutionary psychologists, the number of relationships humans can maintain is limited. The most cited number for this is Dunbar’s number, which puts the limit at 150 individual relationships. This number is further expanded by Dunbar’s layers, which divide the number into different strengths of relationships — limiting intimate friends to 5 (including family) and best friends to 15, for example. Dunbar’s layers are considered fundamental to not just human psychology, but to the psychology of other primates as well. It is no surprise that before civilization humans spent most of their time in small tribes of a few hundred people at most.

Dunbar’s layers of relationships. The layers are nested, meaning that outer circles include all inner relationships. This diagram depicts five intimate friends, 15 best friends, 35 close friends, 150 relationships, 500 acquaintances and 1500 faces recognised. Image by JelenaMrkovic on Wikimedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Today’s social media subverts Dunbar’s numbers in two significant ways. Firstly, public social media like Reddit and Twitter expose you to far too many people to feel natural. Reddit in particular is interesting because the dynamic in small, niche subreddits is so different from large ones. Large subreddits serve as dynamic noticeboards of finding the content people consider as most important. While their comment sections can have important and interesting insights, they are not friendly spaces and often spark flame wars, particularly against those daring to speak against the “hive mind”. As an opposite, small subreddits tend to get relatively little content, but their comments tend to be much more conversational — it is not unusual for regular users to get to know each other personally in these spaces. Small subreddits can sometimes feel like a throwback to the days of the early internet. The number of active users in small subreddits roughly corresponds to Dunbar’s numbers of friends and acquaintances, making them surprisingly pleasant places compared to the rest of Reddit.

Secondly, most social networks split their users between the roles of “creators” and “followers” whose interaction is rather one-dimensional: a small group of creators posting their content for the crowds to consume. The followers get a steady stream of mediocre content to keep them engaged (and distracted from whatever is truly important in their lives), while the creators are inevitably moulding their whole personality into a “personal brand” designed to look good through the filter of social media. This means the followers are filling their Dunbar slots with social media influencers they can listen to but never have a real conversation with. These “friendships” are like junk food — empty calories with no nutritional value.

Aside from messaging apps and group chats with friends, there are surprisingly few chances for us to engage with other people in one-to-one situations. And in group chats lies our greatest hope for the future of social media. Away from the all-seeing eye of algorithms and public attention, they offer a calming oasis for friends to chat about whatever they want. By limiting the reach of discussions to small groups, the chats are human-sized and at their best help us develop friendships with other members of the chats. It is with small, regular, ephemeral conversations how we make friends in the offline world, and so it should be in the cyberspace as well.

In group chats lies our greatest hope for the future of social media.

The forums and chat rooms of old internet villages served this need well, but their time has inevitably come to end. I propose something better. Over the past few months, I’ve been working on a proof of concept for a social networking app called Reason. Reason is an app for finding new group chats to discuss whatever topics you’re interested in. It aims to connect people with casual conversations and grow new communities and friendships through them. Reason’s algorithm is unlike anywhere else: it aims to keep conversations small rather than trying to grow them. If you’re interested in learning more, you can check Reason out on reason.so.

Reason is my attempt to help us fix the problems on loneliness and lack of belonging that are increasingly common in society. Social media bears a large part of the blame, but well-designed social networks can also be part of the solution. We need to replace the algorithms that optimise for infinite reach and scalability with human-centric algorithms that allow communities to stay small, and switch the focus from content to people. But as a society, we may also need to make difficult decisions around the cost of social media — perhaps users will have to learn to pay for social media with dollars or bitcoins instead of their data and attention. Perhaps the solution is to couple social experiences with paid games or events — your trendy local coffeehouse doesn’t really sell coffee but a shared experience with other people. Same goes for pubs, theatres, and arguably even universities! I don’t have all the answers but I’m optimistic that the state of online socialising will be better five years from now. The pandemic has shown us that we deserve better.

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Ville Kuosmanen

Ville Kuosmanen

I care about digital products that improve our lives. Software Engineer at a crypto startup.