30 votes

Remember the Person: Effortposting about Tildes and Anti-Social UX patterns in Social Media

I've been meaning to make this post for a while, and it's actually going to wind up being a series of several posts. It's kind of a long meditation on what it means to socialize online and the ways in which the services we use to do that help or hinder us in doing so. Along the way I'm going to be going into some thoughts on how online discourse works, how it should work, and what can be done to drive a more communal, less toxic, and more inclusive of non-traditional (read: non-technical) voices. I'm going to be throwing out a lot of inchoate opinions here, so I'm hoping to pressure test my views and solicit other viewpoints and experiences from the community.

I mentioned in an introduction thread that I'm a policy analyst and my work is focused on how to structure policies and procedures to build a constructive organizational culture. I've been a moderator in some large PHP forums and IRC channels in the old days, and I've developed some really strong and meaningful friendships through the web. So I've always had a soft spot for socializing on the interwebs.

Okay, so that's the introduction out of the way. The main point I want to focus on is the title: Remember the Person. This was the something Ellen Pao, former CEO of Reddit, suggested in a farewell message as she stepped down from the role in the wake of a community outcry regarding her changes to Reddit's moderation practices. The gist of it was that online communication makes it too easy to see the people you're interacting with in abstract terms rather than as human beings with feelings. It's a bit of a clichéd thought if we're being honest, but I think we still tend not to pay enough attention to how true it is and how deeply it alters the way we interact and behave and how it privileges certain kinds of interaction over others. So let's dig in on how we chat today, how it's different from how we chatted before in discussion forums, and what we're actually looking for when we gather online.

Since this is the first in a series, I want to focus on getting some clarity on terms and jargon that we'll be using going forward. I'd like to start by establishing some typologies for social media platforms. A lot of these will probably overlap with each other, and I'll probably be missing a few, but it's just to get a general sense of categories.

To start with we have the "Content Aggregator" sites. Reddit is the most notable, HackerNews is big but niche, and Tildes is one too. This would also include other sites like old Digg, Fark.com, and possibly even include things like IMGUR or 9Gag. The common thread among all of these is user submitted content, curation and editorial decisions made largely by popular vote, and continued engagement being driven by comment threads associated with the submitted content (e.g. links, images, videos, posts). In any case, the key thing you interact with on these sites is atomized pieces of "content."

Next up are the "Running Feed" services. Twitter and Mastodon are the classic examples as is Facebook's newsfeed. Instagram is an example with a different spin on it. These services are functionally just glorified status updates. Indeed, Twitter was originally pitched as "What if we had a site that was ONLY the status updates from AOL Instant Messager/GChat?" The key thing with how you interact with these services is the "social graph." You need to friend, follow, or subscribe to accounts to actually get anything. And in order to contribute anything, you need people following or subscribing to you. Otherwise you're just talking to yourself (although if we're being honest, that's what most people are doing anyway they just don't know it). This means the key thing you interact with on these sites is an account. You follow accounts get to put content on your feed. Follower counts, consequently, become a sort of "currency" on the site.

Then you've got the "Blogs" of old and their descendants. This one is a bit tricky since it's largely just websites so they can be really heterogenous. As far as platforms go, though, Tumblr is one of the few left and I think LiveJournal is still kicking. Lots of online newspapers and magazines also kind of count. And in the past there were a lot more services, like Xanga and MySpace. The key thing you interact with here is the site. The page itself is the content and they develop a distinct editorial voice. Follower counts are still kind of a thing, but the content itself has more persistence so immediacy is less of an issue than in feed based paradigms where anything older than a day might as well not exist. This one gets even trickier because the blogs tend to have comment sections and those comment sections can have a bunch little social media paradigms of their own. It's like a matroishka doll of social platforms.

The penultimate category is the "Bulletin Board" forum. PHP BB was usually the platform of choice. There are still a few of these kicking around, but once upon a time these were the predominant forms of online discourse. Ars Technica and Something Awful still have somewhat active ones, but I'm not sure where else. These also have user posted content, but there is no content curation or editorial action. As a result, these sites tend to need more empowered and active moderators to thrive. And the critical thing you're interacting with in these platforms is the thread. Threads are discussion topics, but it's a different vibe from the way you interact on a content aggregator. On a site like Reddit or Tildes all discussion under a topic is 1 to 1. Posts come under content. On a bulletin board it works like an actual bulletin board. You're responding under a discussion about a topic rather than making individual statements about an individual post or comment. Another way to put it is on an aggregator site each participant is functionally writing individual notes to each other participant. On a bulletin board each participant is writing an open letter to add to the overall discussion as a whole.

And finally, you've got the "Chat Clients." This is the oldest form besides email newsletters. This began with Usenet and then into IRC. The paradigm lives on today in the form of instant messaging/group texts, WhatsApp, Discord, Slack, etc. In this system you're primarily interacting with the room(s) as a whole. There isn't really an organizing framework for the conversation, it's really just a free-flowing conversation between the participants. You might be able to enforce on-topic restrictions, but that's about as structured as it gets.

That about covers the typologies I can think of. Next up I want to delve into the ways in which the UI and design patterns with each of these platforms affects the way users engage with them, what sorts of social dynamics they encourage, and what sorts of interactions they discourage. In the mean time, I'm eager to hear what people think about the way I've divided these up, whether you think I've missed anything, or have any additional thoughts on the ones I put up.

12 comments

  1. [8]
    beowulfey Link
    Only other potential "social" media format I can think of is the Wiki. Not necessarily made for conversations (although I have seen it used that way, informally) but it's definitely collaborative...

    Only other potential "social" media format I can think of is the Wiki. Not necessarily made for conversations (although I have seen it used that way, informally) but it's definitely collaborative and in a sense is kind of a social pooling of knowledge.

    11 votes
    1. hungariantoast Link Parent
      If we're going to include wikis as "social" media then we have to discuss OpenStreetMap. OpenStreetMap is, similar to Wikipedia, a collaborative project where users compile information. Unlike...

      If we're going to include wikis as "social" media then we have to discuss OpenStreetMap.

      OpenStreetMap is, similar to Wikipedia, a collaborative project where users compile information.

      Unlike Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap deals with a single map of the world, not various, tightly connected articles.

      Anyone can edit the map upon creation of an account and edits submitted to the map are called "changesets."

      Changesets themselves can host discussion on those changes, users can leave notes on the map itself that can host discussion, and users also have a "diary" where they can post blog-like posts discussing various things, which like changesets and notes, can also host discussion in the form of comments.

      So I don't think wikis deserve their own category in the realm of "social" media, but perhaps wikis and other collaborative projects like OSM should be considered "collaborative" media.

      There are also other websites that come to mind, such as GitHub and GitLab, that host incredibly in-depth and important discussions for the purpose of developing open source software. Where do they fall into the realm of networking on the Internet?

      9 votes
    2. [5]
      NaraVara Link Parent
      Ooh that's a good one that I hadn't thought of. I don't really think of Wikipedia itself as a place for socializing so much as a kind of collaborative work-product with a built in version-control...

      Ooh that's a good one that I hadn't thought of. I don't really think of Wikipedia itself as a place for socializing so much as a kind of collaborative work-product with a built in version-control system. But I guess they do have a comment system built in to discuss the work product which might count. And some wiki-ish communication paradigms wind up finding their way into things like Slack or the aborted Google Wave project too.

      4 votes
      1. [4]
        mundane_and_naive (edited ) Link Parent
        For the sake of completeness, I think Wikipedia as well as other collaborative platform needs to be included as another category, with or without the comment system. Users do communicate with each...

        For the sake of completeness, I think Wikipedia as well as other collaborative platform needs to be included as another category, with or without the comment system. Users do communicate with each other, not by taking turn creating a new piece of content in response to another user's piece of content, but by taking turn creating a new version of a shared piece of content in response to another user's version of said content. That said, this is a very extreme form of social media, with strong emphasis on the communal aspect and limited inter-user interactivity.

        With this in mind, on the other end of the spectrum, we could also include standard SMS and email as a form of proto-social media, with their network of direct 1-to-1 correspondences and non-existent editorial capability.

        Edit: It just occurs to me that a blog without the comment system is even less social than a wiki without one. This to me suggests that either wiki is more social-media-like than blog, or a comment system is a crucial component for something to be considered a social media.

        4 votes
        1. [3]
          NaraVara (edited ) Link Parent
          I was kind of focused just on social networks as a place to socialize rather than collaboratively working on something though. I think of Wiki as similar to street-art/graffiti (only productive)....

          I was kind of focused just on social networks as a place to socialize rather than collaboratively working on something though. I think of Wiki as similar to street-art/graffiti (only productive). Socializing I think of as a way to develop and maintain friendships and community. I know Wikipedia has a bit of that, but it seems parallel to the actual Wikipedia format and mostly happens in comment threads or offline on other platforms.

          SMS I think of as just a primitive form of WhatsApp or iMessage, so not that different. EMail is kind of its own beast, but since it's functionally just a piece of mail, I'm not sure the extent to which its dynamics for person-to-person communication differ from people writing letters to each other. I guess being able to ReplyAll changes that a little bit. It is probably worth keeping as its own category for completeness. It's just soo poorly "designed" though it's hard to figure out what it's actual "intended" use is.

          It just occurs to me that a blog without the comment system is even less social than a wiki without one. This to me suggests that either wiki is more social-media-like than blog, or a comment system is a crucial component for something to be considered a social media.

          Depends. You can get to know a person through their blog in a way that you can't know someone through their Wiki updates. Kind of depends on whether you think of "social" as a way to develop and maintain social connection between people or as a way for people to communicate with each other. When I was younger and a lot of my friends were going off to Peace Corps to teaching English in developing countries I remember quite a few of them started up blogs to keep people abreast of what they were up to. Not everyone was on Facebook yet and email chains were hard to manage. Many didn't have comment sections, but the blogs were functionally being used as an "open letter" to their friends and family to check in on them.

          2 votes
          1. [2]
            mundane_and_naive Link Parent
            I see. If I understand correctly, you are classifying which platforms are social media based on whether their primary purpose is socialization despite their level of inter-user interactivity,...

            I see. If I understand correctly, you are classifying which platforms are social media based on whether their primary purpose is socialization despite their level of inter-user interactivity, while not everything that involve interpersonal communication can necessarily be considered social media if socializing is not their primary purpose.

            Would it be fair for me to say, then, that an MMO game is not a social media since the users' main objective is to win a game and not to socialize with other users; LinkedIn would also not be a social media since its main purpose is job hunting; while if a group of people for some reasons decide to chat via a shared Google Docs, that Google Docs now function as a social media, despite not being designed as one.

            3 votes
            1. NaraVara (edited ) Link Parent
              Yeah. Socialization and community building were what I was looking at. MMOs are an interesting case. Arguably the main draw is socializing with other members and the game part of it is just a...

              Yeah. Socialization and community building were what I was looking at.

              MMOs are an interesting case. Arguably the main draw is socializing with other members and the game part of it is just a framework within which to do that. In games like WoW people would pick servers and move around based on where their guild or their friend groups were. Fortnite seems like a good example since a lot of kids seem to just log in with their friends to goof off with each other and are only tangentially interested in the game. I think, depending on how it's designed, an MMO could basically be the digital analogue to a pickup basketball game. The game itself may not be anything social, but it provides some value to the public sphere by providing a venue for socializing, kind of like a public park. Online games used to provide more tools for onsite organizing, like Battle.net. I think today, though, a lot of the social elements have been filled in by ancillary services like Discord.

              I think LinkedIn pitches itself as being more about "Professional Networking" rather than just job hunting. In that case the only difference between it and social media is that you're trying to make new business contacts instead of making new friends. It's probably close enough that it can count.

              Also, I have noticed that the "people who looked at you also looked at these people" feature tends to be populated with lots of people who don't seem to have any professional overlap with me, but do seem to have attractive faces. So it seems like some number of folks are probably just using it to meet/creep on people.

              3 votes
    3. SourceContribute Link Parent
      Yes, wikis have to be included. The social aspect is tempered and constrained by the fact that some kind of objective is being accomplished. You can shoot the shit and stand around the water...

      Yes, wikis have to be included. The social aspect is tempered and constrained by the fact that some kind of objective is being accomplished. You can shoot the shit and stand around the water cooler but at the end of the day, there's at least a bit of progress made in a tangible direction.

      Another thing that needs to be included is the distinction between walled and un-walled. Walled wikis, within a corporation, usually aren't updated often and aren't read too often either. Unwalled wikis have the potential to reach a larger editorship and readership.

      Whereas for Facebook or Twitter, status updates and discussions are valuable whether or not the platform is walled or unwalled.

      2 votes
  2. [3]
    vivaria Link
    The first thing that comes to mind is your characterization of Tumblr as blog. With its dashboard features, I used it more as a running feed than I did a blog. I did use the reblogging...

    The first thing that comes to mind is your characterization of Tumblr as blog. With its dashboard features, I used it more as a running feed than I did a blog. I did use the reblogging functionality as a way to bookmark neat content to a public-facing page, but that was sort of an afterthought compared to the feed portion.

    I guess I'd make some sort of distinction between traditional blogging (i.e. long-form content with less-emphasized social elements) and "social blogging" (i.e. running feeds with a cultural focus on the same sort of content themes you would find in traditional blogging.)

    EDIT: I would also make a distinction between chatrooms (IRC, Discord, Slack) and one-on-one contact-list-based chat clients (AIM/MSN of yore, and now Steam/FB Messenger/WhatsApp/Signal/etc.). Sometimes a service will focus on one or the other, and sometimes they'll do both. One-on-one chats are my favorite! I like developing deeper personal bonds with neat folks.

    7 votes
    1. [2]
      NaraVara Link Parent
      Yeah that blog section was the one I had the hardest time making sense of just because it's just a diverse category. I feel like there is a strong categorical similarity between them, but I'm...

      Yeah that blog section was the one I had the hardest time making sense of just because it's just a diverse category. I feel like there is a strong categorical similarity between them, but I'm having a hard time putting a finger on what exactly it is.

      I think you're onto something with the "social blogging" category. I was kind of trying to figure out if there was some way to bring the Google Reader (PBUH) social feed into the typology and that seems like it might be it. I guess it would be some sort of hybrid between the Feed style interaction and the page/profile style. So there is a social graph, but its de-emphasized relative to the posts themselves..

      I'm not sure if I'd call it a separate category, though, so much as a sub-genre or evolution of the blogging category. It's kind of a blog or RSS feed with social media characteristics.

      I would also make a distinction between chatrooms (IRC, Discord, Slack) and one-on-one contact-list-based chat clients (AIM/MSN of yore, and now Steam/FB Messenger/WhatsApp/Signal/etc.). Sometimes a service will focus on one or the other, and sometimes they'll do both. One-on-one chats are my favorite! I like developing deeper personal bonds with neat folks.

      It's interesting you divide it that way. My Slack is actually primarily 1 on 1 and my WhatsApp is primarily group chats with my family. This one is hard to subdivide because if you can do one it's usually trivial to let people do the other and I think people tend to like keeping these functionalities all in one place.

      5 votes
      1. vivaria Link Parent
        Hmm... perhaps divide is too strong a term? I could see definitely see platforms falling into multiple categories rather than just one. You mentioned "hybrid" which is a word I like a lot.

        Hmm... perhaps divide is too strong a term? I could see definitely see platforms falling into multiple categories rather than just one. You mentioned "hybrid" which is a word I like a lot.

        3 votes
  3. Elk_Cloner Link
    I think another category worthy of mentioning is imageboards (like 4chan). They are completely anonymous and very lightly moderated (especially „random“ boards like /b/), so the „remember the...

    I think another category worthy of mentioning is imageboards (like 4chan). They are completely anonymous and very lightly moderated (especially „random“ boards like /b/), so the „remember the person“ principle is mostly forgotten about. There are no likes or upvotes — the amount of replies in a thread is what matters the most.

    2 votes