The Power of Small Communities

10 min read

Social media seems to be undergoing a paradigm shift. As interest rates rise and further user growth becomes more allusive, many companies have been trying different tactics in order to increase profits. In the case of Twitter, this may be to breakeven. In the case of Meta, this is driven by being a large public company with demanding shareholders. In the case of Reddit, it seems to be a combination of the two. Regardless of the underlying reasons, one thing is for certain, users and spin off projects that ultimately depend on the underlying social network are beginning to feel the changes acutely.

Apollo, a popular iOS app that serves as an interface for Reddit, decided to shut down this month in light of recently announced API pricing changes. Researchers who have devoted their career to studying social phenomenon through tweets are now balking at the steep prices to access data that used to be free. Meta’s Instagram, in an attempt to compete with the likes of TikTok (a company that many would argue is the current front-runner in the social media space) has been implementing significant changes to the app, which produced backlash from some of the most prominent power-users of the site. When companies across the board begin to make changes that many view as adversarial to the user experience, it can be tough to know where to turn. In the modern era, there seems to be a sort of panic that ensues if we don’t have at least one app to scroll through in our free time.

Thinking small, not big

All of the social media companies mentioned above are huge, and perhaps even that is an understatement. Take Instagram for instance, which has an estimated 1.3 billion active monthly users, and which is projected to grow by another 200 million over the next 4 years. One small change decided in a San Francisco board room has the potential to impact the daily lives of people around the world. What’s worse, is that users don’t get much of a voice in these changes; they either abandon the platform (which can be hard to do if your social circle revolves around it), or drudge on through hoping for a more favourable update to come. Unlike in a democratic government, there is no mechanism to vote for a change in leadership. In fact, in the case of Meta and Twitter, there is no way for even the board to vote for a change in leadership. All the decisions can be made by Mark Zuckerberg, or Elon Musk respectively, as the single shareholders with the majority voting stake.

We tolerate all of that because the platforms have taken hostages: the people we love, the communities we care about, and the customers we rely upon. Breaking up with the platform means breaking up with those people. - Cory Doctorow, EFF

Reddit, while slightly smaller in comparison, is still quite massive but takes a different approach, allowing moderators (or “mods” for short) to moderate individual subreddits. However, as evidenced in the actions taken by subreddits this past week, and Reddit’s response in return, these moderators serve for only so long as Reddit would like their free labour. If they make too much of a fuss, they can easily be replaced at the drop of a hat.

In all of the above, the networks are massive, but the control is placed in the hands of a very small group of people, who are unlikely to be representative of the populations they serve. This begs the question; “why do we need our networks to be so large in the first place?”. Dunbar’s number suggests that we can only maintain about 150 relationships, so what is the sense in being able to connect with everyone from across the world in a single place?

From the perspective of the social media giants, a singular network makes a whole lot of sense. Fixed costs for running a social media site are high, the company must buy server infrastructure, pay for engineers, and meet regulatory and compliance standards. The variable cost, however, is incredibly low, which is part of the reason why these companies target user growth so aggressively. The other half of this puzzle is the network effect, more people tend to gravitate towards networks if they are active and their friends are on it.

This network effect also creates a “switching cost” - that’s the price you pay for leaving a platform behind. Maybe you’ll lose the people who watch your videos, or the private forum for people struggling with the same health condition as you, or contact with your distant relations, half a world away. - Cory Doctorow, EFF

From the perspective of the users however, we lose a lot by centralizing to these large corporations. Through having so many users, with such wide varieties of use cases, these platforms have to function as “catch-alls”. Facebook, for instance, has become so bloated that it’s impossible to tell what its intended functionality actually is. Is it a marketplace? A dating site? A messaging platform? A video sharing service? Who knows. For any one user, it likely doesn’t fit a purpose particularly well. Rather than enjoying the networks that we use, many feel trapped, as if there are no viable alternatives.

The solution to this is smaller, more niche, networks that are independent from each other and can enforce their own ruleset and objectives, yet interoperate with each other. In technical speak, this may be referred to as a federated service. However, these new smaller networks don’t have to emulate the structure of Mastodon to be successful. Take Discord for instance, proprietary and technically centralized, yet functions as a separate collection of chat rooms known (perhaps incorrectly) as “servers”. Some servers have a large number of members, but many are smaller, and with that reduced size comes the ability of members to truly know each other over time and make valuable contributions to the community and its objectives.

Ownership and Shared Responsibility

As opposed to large networks, in which users are beholden to moderation by a legion of staff (who, as the verge reports, have one of the most gruelling and mentally toxic jobs currently known to humankind), smaller communities work largely off of shared norms. As users develop a sense of identity (even if they are anonymous and decoupled from their real life identity, their tag will develop a reputation) there is pressure to contribute positively to the community to which they are now apart. Unlike on Twitter, where a user may get ban only for breaking a very specific set of rules applied to millions, each smaller community can self govern and decide what it will and will not tolerate. Similar to municipalities, this means that each member of that smaller community has a larger influence on the culture that develops.

Many smaller communities are actually run entirely on the infrastructure of the community leadership, and this too can help users feel more in control over where their information is going and who they are entrusting with it. Discourse is an open-source forum which many use to facilitate institutional knowledge. Mastodon has skyrocketed in popularity recently due to the takeover of Twitter, and operates somewhere in between the large behemoths and the smaller niches. Individuals can pick the administrator of the server based on their value set.

Transitioning from Shouting at the Wind to Meaningful Conversation

Perhaps the largest shift comes from how users feel while using the platform, and how often one to one conversations are taking place as opposed to posts with the objective of garnering likes or fame. When we talk directly to each other, the entire objective of the communication shifts. Instead of worrying about how popular a particular thought or post may be, we strive to make our words as helpful as they can be. As Cathy O’Neill points out in her book The Shame Machine, many posts that do end up going viral on the larger, now ubiquitous networks, do so because they are argumentative, confrontational, or otherwise extreme. With smaller networks, this doesn’t happen as often, as there are not millions of people to try to win to your side.

How to Get Started

Terms like “the fediverse” may sound daunting, and in fairness a lot of the functionality that this new way of networking introduces is complex. However, you don’t have to start there in order to enjoy the benefits of smaller communities. Let’s look at what a transition might look like, with varying degrees of commitment and technical complexity.

  1. Instead of navigating through the great expanse, or as Twitter likes to call it “the town square”, refocus on groupings on platforms that you may already use. Spend time in group chats, or dedicated boards, instead of scrolling through the timeline.
  2. Think of a service that you use frequently, or a place that you find yourself often. Do a quick look around on their website (if they have one) or ask if there are any existing digital spaces where people can gather and discuss things that are relevant and timely. For example, your local gym may have an online community to which members can be added individually, and isn’t otherwise findable on the open web.
  3. Create your own. If you feel that your friends, co-workers, or extended family could benefit from having an online network, you can host the community yourself and invite those who wish to join in. In doing this, it is important not to be forceful, as many will be reluctant to leave the existing large networks. This is valid, as being a part of more networks means more accounts to remember and more identities to keep track of. Instead, focus on creating a positive atmosphere that people are excited to join. The fear of missing out (FOMO) definitely has negative attributes, but nudging individuals to be a part of a vibrant, focused, and growing community is a great justification for its invocation.

Be Open to Change

As our collective preferences for social media change, or the practices that the companies employ evolve, smaller communities may naturally start to spring up more and more. There may be some new aspects to them, such as trusting in a group of people rather than a corporation, or collectively financing the maintenance cost of the infrastructure in lieu of advertisements. This change can be positive, and while daunting at first, I feel that this new wave of smaller community organization may become more normalized, much in the same way that existing social media became the norm over the last decade.

As users we are in control of our attention and data, two of the most valuable resources in the modern economy. It’s time to refocus both towards creating networks that benefit the users, and not a monopolistic corporation.