in commentary, general, social networks

I’ve been thinking about a topic which my wife was talking to a friend about recently – the emotional rollercoaster rides that are social media feeds of today. From Instagram to reddit to YouTube, whenever you’ve spent long enough on a platform, you tend to gather a lot of cruft – topics you were once interested in but are now just stale, pages and creators which have strayed from their initial mission, and sometimes it’s well meaning people who are speaking about current affairs when all you’re trying to do is watch cat videos. Of course, there’s also the algorithm, trying to tweak your feed to keep you engaged more than you want to be.

Our social feeds of today have become emotional landmines. We can cull them, limit the number of people we follow, and even depend on algorithms to mark posts as sensitive. But in the end, we get exposed to things when we don’t want to.

Has the above ever happened to you while scrolling through your media feeds?

There’s value in it for the social networks themselves. You want fashion, current affairs, memes, and travel all in one place? Come on over! You shouldn’t ever have to leave to go to another app or network for some subgroup of your interests, because that would take DAUs and eyeballs away from us! Facing social media withdrawl? Just let us curate what you see through our algorithms, so we can optimize showing ads to you!

But what’s the value to us, the users? Sometimes, when we’re up for it, sure, we love it. We love having all our interests in one place. But more often than not, the onslaught of good news-bad news-memes will wear you out. You’ll end up scrolling longer and longer for the same happy feelings, instead getting more negative news and digging that emotional hole even more. In the words of that friend, “you end up scrolling for an afternoon without being truly satisfied“.

We were also talking about shopping in person in stores, my wife and I. Her point was that even through she can’t wait to go back to shopping physically – there’s an element of satisfaction in touching something while window shopping it – there is one problem that physical stores were already running into pre-corona, which would only have been exacerbated now – a lack of sizes. Suppose she likes a particular top and they have multiple in one size, but not in hers, the only recourse she has is to order it online to have it delivered to her home. Either the store clerk will do it for her, or she can go home and do so herself. In any case, her shopping pleasure was interrupted by their lack of willingness to keep more product in store. One obvious solution would be for stores to just immediately order replenishment as soon as a product is sold. But this doesn’t work on big shopping days and in any case, with so much inventory moving through online orders nowadays, it makes more sense for retailers to offer online orders than to keep everything at hand for the dwindling in-person customers.

But that’s what the promise of shopping malls was supposed to be – something for everyone, always in stock. The fact that their economics is being upended by outside forces shouldn’t force them to abandon their original promise, but to double down on it with newer customers. But of course, there’s diminishing return in that, specially now.

Where do these two tales meet? Social networks today try very hard to become one-stop-shops for media consumption just like Macys and Nordstorm did for clothing. But that model doesn’t work. You can’t deliver on that promise for everyone and keep them happy. No amount of analytics and planning can keep the human mind happy, which may be seeking its happiness in some new way in that moment.

I don’t know what’s in store for in-store shopping, but more and more people realize the need to distance away from their current social network. This makes it possible for new ones to come in. But the new ones make the same mistakes – of letting all kinds of content run rampant with subtle UI tricks to make people think they’ve got control over what they consume and when. Unless a social network comes along that makes it easy to switch off certain content at the drop of a hat, they can keep expecting to fight a losing battle for eyeballs as soon as they reach scale.

P.S. This post was written on my new FreeWrite, gifted to me by my wife on my birthday. It’s an interesting product, with its limited feature set and exceptional design. She calls it a smart typewriter and reminds me that I should treat it as such. I think I’m going to enjoy using it for writing blogposts and maybe even get into the habit of writing longform again.

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