The New Era of Social Media Isn’t About Feeds
Products like Clubhouse and Twitter’s “Super Follows” offer a new kind of engagement
Open Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, or Pinterest, then look at your index finger. If you’re like me, you’ll find it already hovering over the screen, poised for scrolling. Our algorithmic feeds have conditioned us to expect little from any given post, flicking our eyes across each one just long enough to decide whether it’s worth a second glance before we dispense with it forever and move on to the next one.
These feed-based platforms are powered by scale and automation. They encourage users to friend, follow, and like liberally, building sprawling networks on the promise that aggressive ranking algorithms will filter out the chaff and surface the most compelling content. By the same token, they encourage users to post freely: Because the algorithm selects which segment of a user’s friends or followers any given post is shown to, users are incentivized to post repeatedly, without worrying about spamming a captive audience.
Algorithmic feeds are highly efficient at amplifying posts that stand out from the feed enough to pause people’s scrolling fingers. Each social app can choose — and tweak — which types of engagement it wants to optimize for, but they’re all optimizing for engagement because that’s what they can measure. The result, regardless of platform, is a feed full of attention-grabbing content.
Feeds full of attention-grabbing content are great at keeping us hooked, keeping us scrolling, and keeping us coming back. They also turn out to be good venues for targeted advertising. Advertisers, after all, are experts at manipulation and old pros at competing for our attention, whether we intended to give it to them or not. The scale and behavioral data are leveraged for their benefit as is the fact that users are trained to look first at the content and second at the source.
But while these feeds may be addictive, they’re also exhausting and numbing. When every post in your feed has been selected from a huge pool of possible posts for its attention-grabbing qualities, you can start to feel shouted at, manipulated, pandered to, and overwhelmed. Over time, it might dawn on you that the feed’s value to your life is less than the sum of its posts. Not to mention, the value to society of bombarding everyone with attention bait from all sides is, let’s say, mixed at best.
I think that’s part of why we’re starting to see a new crop of platforms that operate according to a different logic — a logic of loyalty, intentionality, and deliberate payment (whether of attention or money).
New digital media products are focusing on low-volume, high-attention relationships rather than high-volume, low-attention feeds.
Twitter this week laid out a roadmap for future products and features that it hopes will double its revenue by 2023. Those included Communities, which it described as groups formed around common interests, and Safety Mode, which is meant to filter abusive tweets when a user is getting negative attention. Both are in keeping with the direction I saw Twitter taking as it prepared for life after Donald Trump with the launch of Fleets and Spaces: aiming to make its platform more intimate, conversational, and humane.
But the new feature that got the most attention was Super Follows, which will let users charge for premium tweets or content, perhaps including newsletters. That dovetails with Twitter’s recent acquisition of Revue, a newsletter platform that competes with Substack. While Twitter didn’t mention this, I could also envision Super Follows complementing Twitter Spaces, its new Clubhouse-like audio chat product. If you’re already charging your most loyal followers to read your work, why not charge them to join you in a live conversation via exclusive Spaces for Super Followers?
Users were quick to mock the idea of paying for one another’s tweets, and I have my doubts as to whether Super Follows will amount to more than a niche product. Platformer’s Casey Newton makes the optimistic case for it here. I’m skeptical that there are enough journalists of sufficient Twitter stature to make the dent in newsrooms that he envisions, though I could see Super Follows paying off for, say, celebrities or comedians or maybe cryptocurrency grifters. (Whether Twitter will allow adult performers to use it, a la OnlyFans, is an open question.)
Whether or not it takes off, Super Follows signifies a shift in Twitter’s strategy — and points to a broader shift in digital media. It shows that Twitter sees a future in business models other than targeted advertising and in formats other than the algorithmic feed. Specifically, it shows Twitter looking to facilitate direct, intentional relationships between creators and their most loyal fans.
That shift toward intentionality underlies much of the innovation we’ve seen in digital and social media in the past few years. Podcasts, newsletters, Patreon, OnlyFans, Super Follows — all are built on the premise that users will deliberately choose to forge ongoing connections with their favorite creators rather than simply trusting an algorithm to surface engaging free content from a vast, impersonal reservoir. That almost certainly means each creator reaches a smaller audience; but those they do reach are the ones willing to pay, whether in cash or in the form of sustained, focused attention.
Clubhouse shares with this new crop a focus on intentionality, context, and sustained attention. As with the others, what you’re choosing when you choose a Clubhouse room is not a fragmented bit of attention-grabbing content but a group of people and a topic on which you’re willing to spend a bit of time. It makes sense, then, that Clubhouse co-founder Paul Davison said earlier this month that he’s looking to a Patreon-esque revenue model by which listeners can pay creators via subscriptions, tips, or ticketed events.
Newton observed earlier this week that social networking suddenly feels like a competitive space again after years of relative stagnation in which Facebook dominated. He suggested that may be partly a function of antitrust scrutiny constraining Facebook’s ability to copy or acquire upstarts. That seems plausible; I’ve argued in the past that antitrust scrutiny alone can affect platforms’ behavior as long as the threat of enforcement is credible. But as Newton acknowledges, TikTok is the only one of the new platforms that poses a real threat to Facebook at this point. The story is also complicated by the staying power of Snapchat, which retains appeal especially for younger users turned off by Facebook’s approach.
I’d propose another way of looking at it. In the realm of algorithmic feeds and targeted advertising, Facebook’s scale, data, and network effects remain unmatchable. Its usage continues to soar, with an astounding 3.3 billion people using one of its apps at least once a month. Anyone trying to be the “next Facebook” is as likely to get crushed today as they were four years ago, and we still need antitrust action for that reason. Rather, it’s the rise of a fundamentally different model — one powered by loyalty, exclusivity, premium content, and niche audiences — that has made upstarts viable. And most of them are perhaps better seen as media platforms than social networks.
This is not to say that Facebook won’t eventually crush them, too, if given the chance. It’s just that Facebook has yet to adjust to a climate in which its main advantages are precisely what a growing number of people are trying to get away from. On that front, Twitter may be, for once, a step ahead.
Under-the-radar trends, stories, and random anecdotes worth your time.
- Speaking of Facebook’s business model, Facebook is launching an ad campaign to defend personalized advertising against Apple’s new privacy measures, CNBC’s Megan Graham reported Thursday. Starting in the spring, Apple is planning to ask iOS users directly whether they want each app to track them for advertising purposes; Facebook and other data-hungry mobile apps are afraid that most people will say “no.” Hence the campaign, called “Good Ideas Deserve to Be Found,” which touts targeted ads as a boon for small businesses. (Here’s an example ad, which I found amusing, if perhaps not in the way that Facebook intended.)
- A social camera app called Dispo is being hyped by some as the next Instagram: deceptively simple, nostalgia-drenched, and adored by a growing cadre of mostly young beta-test users. The New York Times’ Taylor Lorenz has a highly readable inside look at the app’s mechanics and appeal; Protocol’s Jane Seidel draws instructive comparisons with Instagram and especially VSCO. Dispo raised $20 million this week at a valuation of $200 million.
Chart of the Week
— Felix Richter, Statista
Headlines of the Week
— Matthew Gault, Motherboard
— Hirsh Chitkara, Protocol