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...
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.