After Facebook: the explosion of parallel social worlds

While the big social platforms are in no danger of dying, there's growing evidence that people are starting to create more private, smaller online spaces for themselves. And there's good evolutionary reasons why that's happening.

It used to be an accepted wisdom of the internet that people moved in cycles between closed spaces and open ones. People who started their online experience in the closed and “safe” world of AOL’s walled garden, eventually found their way onto the internet.

Sites had their lives, and Friendsters, MySpace and their ilk came and went, with newer sites replacing them.

And then something happened. The structure of the internet started to calcify, as a handful of sites started to gain a deathgrip on online communications. For retail, eBay and Amazon owned the western world, while Twitter, Facebook (in all its forms) and LinkedIn came to dominate our social spaces. The cycle stopped turning.

There was, and is, an underlying reason for this. The network effect is powerful, and real. Social networks, in particular, are better the more people there are on there. A world post-Facebook or post-Twitter became harder and harder to imagine.

The limits of the network effect

But now, it’s becoming more possible. We’ve reached the point where major newspapers are running guides on how to get off Facebook for good. 

What happened?

At some point, the major social platforms started failing at the deep value proposition of walled gardens: in exchange for a restricted experience, we offer you convenience and safety.

The experiences remain restricted, but the convenience and safety factors have vanished. For all the power and sophistication of algorithms, users are increasingly aware of what they’re missing and pushing back. And, more significantly, we’ve all become aware of both the misinformation and propaganda that flows like water through Facebook, and the harassment that is endemic to Twitter.

Is that much-delayed turn of the cycle coming?

A social big bang of many worlds

We have some evidence that it is – but maybe not in the way we thought. Last summer the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism did some research into people’s news consumption habits — and they saw the first clear evidence of people retreating from the big platforms, into more closed, private spaces they could control.

In particular, the research showed clearly that people were sharing less and less personal material into sites like Facebook, choosing instead to move to more closed chat environments, where they could control who was seeing what they shared. Yes, for many that kept them in the wider Facebook family with WhatsApp, but it also included tools like iMessage, Slack and Discord.

For all the digital world’s obsession with scale and endless growth, there is one factor that stands in opposition to the network effect: the Dunbar number. This idea, developed by evolutionary anthropologist Antony Dunbar, suggests that we can maintain a social circle of around 150 people at the most.

In a fascinating interview 9 years ago, he dug into the reasons behind this:

The way in which our social world is constructed is part and parcel of our biological inheritance. Together with apes and monkeys, we’re members of the primate family – and within the primates there is a general relationship between the size of the brain and the size of the social group. We fit in a pattern. There are social circles beyond it and layers within – but there is a natural grouping of 150.

This is interesting, because it suggests that what Facebook et al actually did was break that number. They weren’t the closed spaces we thought they were, just a more efficient form of open space, but ones that were privatly owned. And that is what people are starting to reject, seeking instead more personal spaces. Ones, in fact, within their brain’s ability to form deep connections with.

Swimming in the social shallows

There’s plenty of reporting being done on the negative effects of social media use – perhaps one element of that is the fact that it encourages a large number of shallow relationships, rather than a small number of more intense relationships, which Dunbar’s work suggests we would find more fulfilling.

People are already starting to recreate those environments for themselves, but is there an opportunity here to build new products which facilitate and enhance those relationship, rather than try to homogenise them to a single, flat graph of relationships?

Back in 2010 Dunbar was already talking about that:

Our problem now is the sheer density of folk – our networks aren’t compact. You have clumps of friends scattered around the world who don’t know one another: now you don’t have an interwoven network. It leads to a less well integrated society. How to re-create that old sense of community in these new circumstances? That’s an engineering problem. How do we work around it?

Zuckerberg was quoted as saying “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity” in the book The Facebook Effect. He is, in this, somewhat wrong. We all have different aspects of ourselves we don’t necessarily want to share with everyone we know. Facebook makes no allowance for that sort of compartmentalised identity, so no wonder that people are constructing their now, smaller, safer spaces for themselves online.

We’ve tested the limits of the network effect, and found them wanting. The challenge of the next decade will be building tools that allow people to build their own communities, their own worlds, online, and exist within them without exposing everything to the world.

Photo by Åaker on Unsplash