For Social Networks, Worse Is Better

November 26, 2020
Confidence: likely

Some time ago, I deleted Facebook. Maybe it was for New Years? Maybe not — it turns out to not have been a very memorable affair. At the time, I had set up an alternative messaging platform whose philosophy I agreed with, and gave my contact information to the few people I actively stayed in contact with. For the most part, it’s been a smooth transition.

But something I’ve realized since then is that this strategy ignores the long tail of friendship. It doesn’t help me stay in touch with my coworkers from a few jobs back, nor from old classmates, nor my downstairs neighbor when I was 22. I mean, it’s not really a problem; these aren’t people I need to contact frequently. But I have a habit of reaching out to people whenever I think of them; it’s a nice way to reacquaint with cool people from the past.

Facebook is really good at these sorts of interactions. But Facebook isn’t free. It comes with the twenty thousand of some of the world’s smartest engineers trying working full-time to maximize the amount of time you spend on the platform. Its clustering algorithms are good at aggressively polarizing people and turning everyone into an extremist. Messenger and events are really the only good parts of Facebook. And until recently, the fact that you could expect everyone to have an account; although there’s been a marked engagement exodus of people under 50.

What Facebook is really good at is the network effect. But the rest of the platform is such an overwhelmingly bad experience that it spoils the broth. Somehow we’d all find ourselves scrolling through the newsfeed for the tenth time that day, seeing no new content, but desperately hoping for something new we could “like.”

And besides. I don’t really need instant messaging with my old colleague who now lives in India. We probably are never awake at the same time. What I really need from Facebook is a convenient way of contacting him.

Contrast all of this to LinkedIn. Maybe five years ago, LinkedIn was doing absolutely everything in its power to copy the Facebook recipe for success. They completely plagiarized the layout, although they were careful to make the blue of their design slightly more blue. After all, you need to differentiate yourself somehow! They stole the newsfeed, and added likes and reactions. But it never really worked. The content on LinkedIn doesn’t have the fake veneer of “important life events from people you care about.” It’s just virtue signaling about jobs and shit. I’ve tried to mindlessly scroll on LinkedIn, and I just don’t give a fuck.

Here’s the catch. LinkedIn has the same network effects Facebook does. Everybody is on LinkedIn — probably more of the people in my real life than on Facebook — if for no other reason than people forget that they have a LinkedIn account and so they don’t delete it. Unless you’re actively hunting for a job, nobody checks LinkedIn more than once a month.

By virtue of being so terrible, I think LinkedIn might actually be the perfect social network. We’re all on it, but we don’t engage with it. It’s a reliable place to find people I want to reconnect with. But by virtue of it being a “reconnect,” there is no need for immediacy in this. So I’ll send a message to someone on LinkedIn, and on average, they’ll reply in about two weeks. Which I’ll see two weeks after that. There is enough bandwidth here to negotiate a faster means of communication, but reconnecting with a school mate just doesn’t necessitate anything faster than pen pals.

And the (bad) network effect here is self-reinforcing. Because people take so long to reply on LinkedIn, I have no incentive to check it often. Which makes me take a long time to reply, and a) keeps the mean response tie high, and therefore b) keeps LinkedIn a terrible platform. And because it’s a terrible platform in terms of experience, it’s actually an excellent social media network. It sounds paradoxical, but the thing I like about LinkedIn is how non-addictive it is by virtue of being shitty.

Worse is better.