Note: Ethan Zuckerman is developing this idea over the next year as a visiting research scholar with the Knight Institute and, starting in January, as Director of the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
As we head towards a pivotal US presidential election in early November, social media platforms are coming under scrutiny. Will they be flooded with disinformation seeking to sway public opinion? Will President Trump use Twitter to claim victory prematurely? Will militias, QAnon or any number of other movements grown on social media lead to political violence? In short, is social media harming us as a public, undermining our democracy?
These are worthwhile questions, but they reflect a key blind spot. Because Facebook and Twitter are so prominent and are so widely amplified by mainstream media, we tend to assume that all social media operate in the same way and suffer from the same problems. Our work on Digital Public Infrastructure is based on the idea that it’s possible to build very different social media which might strengthen us as a public, helping us be better friends, neighbors and civic actors. Towards that goal, we’re working to map the social media space, understanding the possibilities of “alternative” social media—and we need your help.
What we’re looking for is social media that works on a different “logic” than Facebook, Twitter or Instagram do. This can have to do with functionality—Reddit, where users vote posts up and down, works differently than Facebook, which algorithmically sorts posts in your newsfeed. But we’re at least as interested in social media that depart from core tenets of the Facebook equation: a platform run by a single company, for the use of anyone for virtually any purpose, supported by advertising, tracking user behavior in a system of surveillance capitalism (as described by Shoshana Zuboff). And while Reddit functions differently from Facebook, it looks very similar on the axes of business model, userbase, and basic architecture. (It’s a fascinating outlier in terms of moderation, however.)
Our goal for this post is to flesh out how we are thinking about these issues and to solicit your help in identifying platforms that depart from the status quo. There is a diverse space of social media outside of the shadow of the major platforms and we believe it’s there where the key to a different future lies. As Ruha Benjamin says, “imagination is a battleground.” Currently, we are living in the imagination of venture capitalists, corporations, and Mark Zuckerberg. To break out of it, we will have to imagine something different. We hope this project will be a valuable contribution to that process.
(An excellent social media map, though not the one we hope to build. Randall Munroe, 2010, https://xkcd.com/802/)
As we look to map the social media space, the first question that arises is: What is social media? We work off of Kietzmann et al.’s definition which lays out seven “building blocks” of social media: identity, conversations, sharing, presence, relationships, reputation, and groups. Most social media focus on three or four of these blocks. They are defined as:
Identity - “The extent to which users reveal themselves.”
Conversations - “The extent to which users communicate with each other.”
Sharing - “The extent to which users exchange, distribute and receive content.”
Presence - “The extent to which users know if others are available.”
Relationships - “The extent to which users relate to each other.”
Reputation - “The extent to which users know the social standing of others and content.”
Groups - “The extent to which users are ordered or form communities.”
Kietzmann et al.’s definition is somewhat overspecific for our purposes. Therefore we propose our own definition: social media is a digital space that combines communicating or sharing media with aspects of social networking sites. The classic definition of social networking sites comes from danah boyd and Nicole Ellison who define them as “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.” We believe our definition captures the essence of Kietzmann et al.’s framework. In particular, it reflects the phenomenon, taking place in the years since boyd and Ellison’s definition, of social networking sites moving away from their definition, incorporating media and communication into social networks, while media and communication tools have incorporated social features.
In mapping social media—and looking for platforms that operate on novel logics—we are considering five facets of a social network:
What do each of these five axes mean? Technology refers to the underlying technical architecture. We focus on the databases that store user information and content because user data is at the heart of the debate around social media. Who has access to user data? How can they use it? The answers to these questions largely depend on how a platform’s database is implemented. We believe there are at least three approaches to databases that are relevant: blockchain, decentralized, and centralized. Revenue model is easier to define. It refers to how the platform pays the bills (subscriptions, crypto, donations, taxpayers, ads). Ideology refers to the platform’s purpose. Is it to connect everyone and maximize shareholder value like Facebook? Is it to provide a platform for right-wing extremists kicked off of Twitter like Gab? Is it to give citizens a platform to debate and propose legislation like vTaiwan? Governance asks how platforms decide what speech and behavior is acceptable, and how those rules are enforced. While platforms like Facebook set rules centrally and enforce them with a staff of paid moderators, Reddit allows the moderators of each subreddit to craft their own guidelines (within bounds) and to enforce them. Other platforms, like 8kun, promise few if any restrictions. Affordances are the functionality a platform offers users. For example, Reddit allows users to upvote content. On Clubhouse, you talk instead of write. Twitter allows you to comment on an existing post, displaying it for context i.e. “quote tweet”.
We believe these axes are one possible way to characterize a social network, though certainly not the only one. A change along any one of them would result in a significantly different platform, with altered dynamics and experiences for users and other stakeholders. For example:
Technology. Twitter and Mastodon are similar in terms of ideology (for everyone) and affordances (micro-blogging with followers and reposting), but Mastodon runs on decentralized technology in the form of federated nodes. Because Mastodon isn’t centrally hosted, each node can make decisions about how their server is run and users can switch servers without losing access to the wider network. This has made Mastodon a much different place from Twitter. In particular, it’s home to a more diverse array of content and communities including servers with strict harassment policies, servers for exiled Tumblr creators, and a server that hosts Gab.
Revenue model. MeWe is similar to Facebook in many ways. Its technology is centralized; its purpose is to be a social network for everyone; its governance consists of rules set and enforced internally; and its affordances include the ability to post text and photos, share and react to posts on a newsfeed, and browse pages. However, MeWe is funded through subscriptions and paid add-ons, not advertising. This enables MeWe to provide its users with features like no ads, no newsfeed algorithms, and limited collection of personal information, making it a significantly different platform from Facebook.
Ideology. Parler has been described as a “barebones Twitter.” It is similar to Twitter along every axis (centralized, ad-based, rules set and enforced internally, micro-blogging with followers and reposting), except for ideology. Parler bills itself as an unbiased alternative to Twitter with an emphasis on free speech. It aims to serve a user base which consists largely of Trump supporters, conservatives, and people banned from Twitter or opposed to its moderation policies, such as Saudi nationalists. This is what distinguishes Parler from Twitter, making it a platform with different content and dynamics that reflect its right-wing user base and purported free-speech values.
Governance. Facebook Groups is a subset of Facebook with different operating rules. The technological affordances of Facebook and Groups are identical, except in Facebook Groups users can set and enforce rules. This governance difference has made Facebook Groups a distinct experience from Facebook, with an emphasis on specific topics, deeper connections, and particular etiquettes.
Affordances. Twitter and Facebook are similar along every axis (centralized, ad-based, for everyone, rules set and enforced internally), except for affordances. Their respective functionality is what differentiates the experience on each platform. For example, Twitter’s follow functionality encourages users to organize around interests and celebrities while Facebook’s friends feature encourages users to organize around their social network.
The axes we laid out above are our attempt at identifying the factors that determine the dynamics and experiences on social media platforms. Again, our goal is to identify platforms that have a unique location (or “logic”) along these five axes, challenging assumptions and the status quo.
Based on your feedback and submissions, we hope to release a map of social media logics and a set of case studies that help expand our imagination of social media beyond the default model.
Please use the comments space or this Google Form to suggest a social media platform we should know about and, optionally, how you believe it differs from the “standard model” of social media. Thanks for your help.
Ethan Zuckerman is associate professor of public policy, information and communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, director of the Initiative on Digital Public Infrastructure, and was the 2020-2021 visiting research scholar at the Knight Institute.
Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci is a research fellow at the Knight Institute.