Better failure for social media

The right of exit, freedom of reach, and technological self-determination.

Cory Doctorow


Content moderation is fundamentally about making social media work better, but there are two other considerations that determine how social media fails: end-to-end (E2E), and freedom of exit. These are much neglected, and that’s a pity, because how a system fails is every bit as important as how it works.

Of course, commercial social media sites don’t want to be good, they want to be profitable. The unique dynamics of social media allow the companies to uncouple quality from profit, and more’s the pity.

Social media grows thanks to network effects — you join Twitter to hang out with the people who are there, and then other people join to hang out with you. The more users Twitter accumulates, the more users it can accumulate. But social media sites stay big thanks to high switching costs: the more you have to give up to leave a social media site, the harder it is to go:

Nature bequeaths some in-built switching costs on social media, primarily the coordination problem of reaching consensus on where you and the people in your community should go next. The more friends you share a social media platform with, the higher these costs are. If you’ve ever tried to get ten friends to agree on where to go for dinner, you know how this works. Now imagine trying to get all your friends to agree on where to go for dinner, for the rest of their lives!

But these costs aren’t insurmountable. Network effects, after all, are a double-edged sword. Some users are above-average draws for others, and if a critical mass of these important nodes in the network map depart for a new service — like, say, Mastodon — that service becomes the presumptive successor to the existing giants.

When that happens — when Mastodon becomes “the place we’ll all go when Twitter finally becomes unbearable” — the downsides of network effects kick in and the double-edged sword begins to carve away at a service’s user-base. It’s one thing to argue about which restaurant we should go to tonight, it’s another to ask whether we should join our friends at the new restaurant…