social media is a terrible business

have you seen the state of for-profit social media lately? because it isn't doing very well.

Elon Musk accidentally buying Twitter was enough to take the already financially dubious platform and throw it into a dumpster fire, especially given how poorly he's ran the place. Facebook (and other platforms owned by the company now known as Meta) can't go a day without another massive privacy scandal; that's assuming there's any people left on there to have their data stolen, with just how many bots are on there. Tumblr keeps being handed between owners like a hot potato, each one dedicated to somehow making the platform even more unusable than the last.

even outside of that mainstream landscape, things don't get much better. cohost just released their latest financial report, and it sure seems like they're going to go broke soon, at least if they want to be able to afford developers. seemingly, their only profitable venture was turning their mascot into a marketable plushie. hey, that gives me an idea…

so, like, what's going on here? why is every single social media company falling apart? and to answer that, you have to ask what social media is in the first place.

perhaps the most important factor that defines social media is who controls things. in traditional media, the producer and consumer are two separate parties. the producer of the media controls the media and it's distribution, and consumers simply consume it. there's a large difference in power and control between the producers — newspapers, television stations, etc. — and the regular people who consume what they produce.

on the other hand, there is no such dichotomy on social media. every account is both a producer and consumer, able to both create and consume. while this may sound democratic, the control has instead been given to a third party, the platform.

at first, the position of the platform may seem enviable. after all, they gain all the benefits of a traditional media producer — being able to promote and censor media as they please — but without the downsides of actually having to pay to make any of it themselves! but as soon as you try to figure out how to monetize being a platform, that's when you run into problems.

perhaps the first instinct is to run advertisements. after all, with all the eyes drawn to the content on your platform, a few ads here and there could easily pay the bills, right? but users will quickly learn to ignore those advertisements, and may even develop tools to hide them completely. advertisers, noticing a lack in conversion, will reduce what they are willing to pay. you may try to hide advertisements in sneakier ways, to force people to look at them more and more, but too many invasive ads will only make people shut them out even harder.

so, instead, you may try to offer some sort of premium subscription. that is all well and good, but… what will it do, exactly? chances are, you've already put out all the features that your platform needs as the core feature set. sure, you could add new ones as the premium features, but if they're just a bunch of useless garbage, nobody will pay. you could simply lock basic features behind a paywall, but doing so will almost inevitably destroy every bit of goodwill your users ever had for your platform.

it turns out that simply talking to your friends online, or finding out about new things, really isn't a product you can sell. after a while, any attempts at monetization just feel like an unjust toll, a meaningless blockade that exists only to extract every last penny out of whoever is unlucky enough to cross it.

now, if you've made it this far, you may think i'm nothing but a pessimist. after all, social media is doomed, is it not? but of course, there is more to communication than just for-profit social media.

it is, shockingly, completely possible for social media to be ran without any expectation of a profit ever being made. with a decentralized system like the Fediverse — as you may know from Mastodon et al — small communities can interact with eachother, thanks to the power of ActivityPub. almost all Fediverse instances are ran by volunteers, who spare a small amount of money to keep their corner of the network running, along with the aid of some donations. sure, everyone needs to have a separate day job to keep things afloat, but maybe that's for the best.

…of course, you could always just make your own website, too.

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