A Schema for Social Media Networks

I’ve been thinking about how social media platforms function recently, and I’ve come up with some notes toward a schematizing idea. So: there are a few aspects of social media networks that are baked in: user to user access, content moderation schemes, business model, goal scale, and content focus. No platform can exist without having some considerations for each of these (although Twitter certainly has tried to not consider some of them). Here’s a capsule-sized breakdown of what those considerations could look like:

User to user access:

  • almost totally open (Twitter, email)
  • partial (LinkedIn)
  • open/private split (Instagram)
  • private (messenger apps like Signal can be very cautious about this)

Content Moderation:

  • total (“every post must be moderator approved before posting”)
  • strict (fully delineated rules, active and public moderators, no appeals, attempts to control the communication environment)
  • heavy (loosely delineated rules, active and backstage moderators OR strict AI moderation, appeals process, attempts to control the communication environment)
  • moderate (loosely delineated rules, active and backstage moderators, appeals process, limited attempts to control the communication environment)
  • loose (loosely delineated rules, backstage moderators responding to flagged content, limited attempts to control the communication environment, limited appeals process)
  • none (no rules but legal requirements–removes CSAM only, no respondent moderators, no appeals process, no attempts to control communication environment)

Business model:

  • ads
  • subscriptions
  • products (e.g. LinkedIn job ads)
  • microtransactions
  • grant-funded (this is possible for small projects!)
  • mixed

Goal Scale:

  • tiny (every Mastodon server is its own social media platform),
  • small (under 20M users),
  • medium (20-200M),
  • large (200-500M)
  • extra-large (500M+)

Content focus:

  • text
  • image
  • horizontal video
  • vertical video
  • AR/VR

You can explain almost all the platforms this way, and create new platforms that haven’t existed yet. For instance:

Twitter is: almost totally open, loose content moderation, ads, large, text.

LinkedIn is: partial, moderate amount of moderation (at least from the outside perspective), products/subscriptions/ads, extra-large, text.

For 10 years everyone wanted: open, loose, ads, extra-large, text. And that is just not a good model!

I like partial, heavy, subscription, small, text/image as a model. If I had to start a social media platform, it would look like that. Why?

Partial user to user relationships allow flexibility: users can make meaningful interactions but not all possible interactions. This allows people to control their experience of who they interact with and yet still have the ability to expand their number of relationships.

Heavy moderation allows the experience of the platform to be reliable and pleasant (if you like the characteristics that are reliable).

Subscription allows for stability of income and a direct relationship between the people using the platform and the money that supports the platform. I do not like ads as a long term sustainable model, because it severs the relationship between the company and its users. The company no longer has to make users happy; it has to make advertisers happy. This is a fundamental shift.

Smaller makes everything more flexible. Scale makes things hard to do and hard to change once you do them. It also makes the platform easier to moderate and to some degree lessens the amount of content you need to moderate (dependent on your topic and the number of trolls the topic gathers).

And finally I like text/images as a model partially because that’s what I entered the social media world in, and secondly because it’s much easier to moderate than video.

I’m not sure where this schema goes next, but I am going to keep working with this idea with my students and in my brain.