In the traditional media industry, some outlets differentiate themselves through quality, but social media hasn’t gotten there yet — there is no “New York Times of social media.” The modern landscape for newspapers and books resulted from centuries of evolution, but “new media” hasn’t yet developed such strong brands and categories.
However, although there aren’t any dominant players, there are social network companies seeking to stake out “high-quality” territory. The most common approaches are to specialize in either high-quality information, or to specialize in deep, emotional relationships. Of course, people do use existing comms and social software to manage quality information and close relationships — the beloved chat app Slack is widely used by couples and families, for example. But Slack is generally aimed at the enterprise market and doesn’t specialize in intimate relationships. Similarly, Facebook doesn’t specialize in purveying journalism, even though almost every news company posts articles on Facebook.
Although many companies have come and gone in this space, the problems they’re trying to solve have recently become urgent. They’re urgent both for the public, which is increasingly aware of social media’s pitfalls — from privacy issues, to trolling, to viral political propaganda — and for social platforms themselves. Indeed, Mark Zuckerberg himself just posted a long letter on his Facebook profile vowing to support community leaders who use Facebook as a platform, strengthen the news industry, and so on (though this letter also had its critics).
Could specialized social media handle these functions better than the dominant players? What might a high-quality social media platform look like? How about a “warmer” or “more vulnerable” platform? How about a “luxury” or “intellectual” platform? How about “trade publication social media” — or a platform that serves non-professional yet well-defined niches? And of course: What’s the business model for any of the above?
It’s proven hard to solve these problems partly because of metrics: It’s hard to identify and measure the factors that lead to high-quality information or connection. In fact, it’s difficult to identify and measure quality in media of any kind.
Technologists often discuss the problem of “vanity metrics.” Vanity metrics are methods of measuring ROI that make product-builders feel good (or make them look good to funders), but don’t ultimately lead to awesome products. In journalism, for example, the pageview is a much-maligned metric. Many publishers count an article’s success by the number of times a page is loaded (partly because many ads are sold based on pageviews) — yet many people argue that pageviews are a vanity metric. Indeed, journalists discontented with the pageview model write articles with titles like “Pageview journalism is killing us,” and refer to the Pageview Industrial Complex.
This conversation recently flared up around Medium, a publishing platform with many social platform features, after it laid off 50 people in January. Medium’s founder, Ev Williams, wrote publicly that the layoffs were inspired by Medium’s decision to move away from an ad-supported business model, because “people who write and share ideas should be rewarded on their ability to enlighten and inform, not simply their ability to attract a few seconds of attention.” In other words, Williams concluded that ad-supported models were encouraging both product designers and creators on the Medium network to focus on pageviews, and that was bad.
In support of Williams’ announcement, one of Medium’s investors, M.G. Siegler at G.V., wrote:
2 billion words written on Medium in the last year. 7.5 million posts during that time. 60 million monthly readers now. Pageviews galore. So step 2 is simply to slap some banner ads on the site, while step 3 is to profit, right? The reality — perhaps hard to see in the midst of such numbers — is that it behooves no one to simply continue down a path if you know the end result isn’t ultimately going to be successful. And so, the prudent yet extremely difficult move is to swallow your prideful metrics and course correct.
… Numbers — even insanely impressive numbers — can deceive. They can deceive when the goal is not actually to build the site with the most pageviews on the internet…. It’s not enough to simply be big. That’s part of the equation, to be sure. But just as vital is continuing to innovate on core product and experience while also building a sustainable model to make sure that all sides (publishers and readers) are deriving value — actual value — from the content, for the long-term.
Many other social media platforms are monetized through ads and their views, which makes them vulnerable to the same problems Siegler describes above: Prideful metrics and pressure to scale. And so, just like Medium, there’s widespread pushback against those metrics among companies that envision building social networks to deliver deep value over the long term. In fact, some companies resist this pressure by refusing to take venture money at all, since venture funders can sometimes put pressure on companies to scale fast.
So what are the metrics for high-quality social media?
In the digital content publishing world, I often direct people to the free ebook “The New World of Content Measurement,” published in 2014 by the combined content marketing agency + platform Contently. (I wasn’t involved in the production of that ebook, but it’s still good!) The ebook identifies both vanity metrics, and metrics that content companies can try if the goal is to deliver long-term ROI. These longer-term metrics are: 1) “Engaged Time” (a reader’s attention, measured by things like scrolling and highlighting); 2) “Readers and Returning Readers” (number of readers coming back to the content, and their engaged time across sessions); and 3) “Average Finish” (the percentage of visitors who finish reading the story).
Can these content metrics be applied to social media? Some work across both content and social (for example, Returning Users and Engaged Time). Yet these metrics, while arguably better than pageviews, can still lead product-builders astray. For instance, a digital media product might have a high Engaged Time because it’s addictive, rather than because people get deep and long-term value from it.
So: What metrics could measure thoughtfulness, warmth, harmony, or the value of ideas that emerge from a conversation? Perhaps limiting the amount of information that users disseminate through a platform can reduce noise and encourage users to see the act of sharing as valuable. Accordingly, one strategy is to limit users to posting one link per day. Of two companies that have tried this, one of them, This., has folded; the other, Catchpool, is still operating. (Both launched in 2014.)
Another way of thinking about noise reduction is to force users to apply to the network, or to focus on specialized material — “trade publication social networks,” if you will. Quibb, for example, both requires users to apply and bills itself as “a professional network to share industry news and analysis” within the tech industry. (Full disclosure: Quibb is a former client of mine.)
Alternatively: If users invest a lot of time helping a community, if they volunteer to maintain or moderate it, or if they pay a subscription fee to support it, then it’s clearly valuable to them, and those metrics are hard to hit but not hard to measure. There are some old-school digital communities that survive on models like this, such as MetaFilter, a community website founded in 1999. MetaFilter used to support itself on Google AdSense, but changes in Google’s algorithm forced it to look for another model in 2014, and now subscriptions are a critical part of MetaFilter’s business model.
Then there’s software like Mightybell, which launched in 2011 to support many niche, focused social networks. Founded by Gina Bianchini, who previously partnered with Marc Andreessen to found Ning (early software for niche communities), Mightybell enables community creators to monetize their communities as they see fit. It offers customizable tools for that — for example, a community creator might wish to use subscriptions, or she might wish to use sponsorships, and Mightybell’s software can support either or both of those options.
In this way, Mightybell seeks to align its business model with the business incentives of users who create and maintain small, devoted communities. As Bianchini said to me by phone, “As a platform for identity and interest networks, it’s our job to make community creators a lot of money. That’s pretty different from targeted ads as a business model. We aren’t a centralized social media feed that tries to be all things to all people.”
From this philosophy emerges a service model for community creators. This is also expressed in Mightybell’s customizable features, which each community creator can turn on and off — and that means that the ideal metrics might differ from community to community within Mightybell. For example, Mightybell creators can enable their community members chat in different ways; a creator can choose photos, text messages, videos, or any combination of the three. “The future of shared interest and identity is allowing community creators to customize the platform to enable new connections,” Bianchini told me.
Ultimately, the social platform software that wins territory like “the best information” or “the deepest relationships” may not scale to a billion users — and that might be okay. It may stay small, or scale one small community at a time.