The Phrase “Social Network” Is Trapping Us

As we’re integrating more human-to-human interaction into Waverly I’m getting a bit anxious. Will we end up building yet another social network? If not, what are we building?

In a recent discussion with Matthieu Dugal on The Waverly Podcast (en français), he pointed out that, even though more and more people get informed through their social networks, most people use them to nurture their social ties. Social networks are a bit like virtual bars where some of the customers are having a casual drink while others are lecturing them in all seriousness.

Why do we end up with these combined online platforms? A look at how they grow helps answer that question. They typically start as purely social spaces, but evolve over time as they attract a more diverse crowd of content publishers.

Combining an informational and a social space into the same platform makes it hard to know how to react to different pieces of content. The Guardian and The New York Times might increase their readership by publishing on Instagram, but their presence on the platform also contributes to the confusion. It requires mental effort to figure out that we should react differently to a piece of journalism than to the anxiety-loaded message of an anti-vax friend. The former should be processed for the information it contains, whereas the latter is best met with words of compassion.

Followup question: Why do most modern online platforms start as purely social spaces? Maybe because the phrase social network occupies too much space in our collective imagination. Thanks to our limited vocabulary, we believe the only thing we can do collectively, online, is to reinforce our social ties.

Despite the popularity of the phrase social networks, it’s easy to find online spaces where people interact without trying to socialize. Wikipedia, for example, has an army of volunteers who update its pages. Some will become friends, but everyone understands that their primarily goal is to build a “written compendium that contains information on all branches of knowledge”. Other examples abound: Stack Overflow, GitHub, Quora…

What should we call these? Collaborative platforms? If so, can we all agree to push on that phrase really hard so that it gains a foothold in our collective mind? I’d really like to see a different kind of online spaces flourish, and I believe it wont happen unless we have some words to describe what we want to build.

In the meantime, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll build Waverly as a collaborative platform. I’ll make sure it feels like a space where communities gather around a joint mission — building healthier algorithms for all of us — rather that around their need to nurture social ties.