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Bringing Trust Back to Social Networks

With the all the recent news about the fragility of Facebook, I’ve found myself wondering about what might be next for social networks. I believe the answer to the future lies in the past. So first, a quick trip down memory lane.

I remember enthusiastically joining MySpace in high school. The domain was soon blocked from school computers. The first thing we did when we got home was post bulletins (remember those? the long-form status updates?) and read everyone else’s. We knew each other and trusted that each Myspace profile was a real human being. MySpace was a strong network in the early days because it was built on this intimacy and trust.

Then the rot happened. Display names became confusing and xXchangedXtooXoftenXx. People quit as a statement. Years wore on and soon the IRL-friend-to-random ratio became too diluted to be useful.

Then I remember enthusiastically joining Facebook in college. Starting college was a big deal because it meant you got a college email address: the magic ticket to get into Facebook. If you recall, dear reader, only college students were granted membership in the halcyon days. A similar pattern repeated as on MySpace. I met someone in class, and shortly friended them on Facebook thereafter.

Though Facebook forces you to use a real-ish name, I found myself confused when people got married and their last names changed. Some of my “friends” turned out to be literal robots. Other friends seemed to be possessed by marketing algorithms and shared products and dubious political news. Without periodic culling of friends and intentional communication, I fell out of touch and became alienated with increasingly large swathes of my network. Trust ceased to exist.

Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat are unique in my mind because they came of age during the “post-trust” phase of social media. By the time we all had accounts there, it was perfectly natural to follow randoms. As a result, drinking from those firehoses brings to mind The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.” That’s not to say there isn’t good content and discussion to be found; it’s just that I don’t trust a single thing I see.

Was that image ‘shopped? Does the blue checkmark really mean anything? Does it matter?

This brings us to today. The next generation of social media platforms are already here, they’re just so uniquely different that we haven’t realized it yet.

I’m tentatively calling these “trusted social networks”. I am a member of approximately three, only two of which are very successful. These networks are platform agnostic, and they share three traits which work together to generate trust:

  1. Exclusive: invite only

  2. Small: around 50 people or less

  3. IRL: real life meet-up component

The first successful network is a professional network that I have recently become a part of. It is a small, invite only, group of professionals in the software consulting space. Real life meet-ups are a key component and requisite for remaining a member. These meet-ups are quite focused and quickly generate a high amount of trust. I’ve only been to one, but I know I will stay in contact with these people for the rest of my professional career. This group is quite sophisticated and has gone as far as publishing a code of conduct. We use Slack to keep in contact between events.

The second successful network is a hobbyist network that I have been a part of for about 2 years. Like the professional network, this group is small, invite only, and you can really only get in if you meet IRL. There are no formal agreements or codes of conduct. It is quite anarchistic, actually. There is a rough caste system based on seniority in the group as well as arbitrarily gauged devotion to the hobby. We used to communicate in a single chaotic Facebook messenger thread and a private Facebook group. Recently we’ve migrated to a private Discord server. I highly recommend Slack or Discord if you are striving to emulate these successful social networks.

The unsuccessful network is a musician network that I have been a part of for about 3 years. I posit this network is unsuccessful because trust is really low. The idea is for musicians to post their songs in a Trello board and get feedback from other musicians. The group is both small and exclusive, but the trust and engagement just isn’t there. I believe this is because none of us really know each other. Personally, I only know the founder of the group. I imagine the same is true for everyone else in the group.

In the pubescent days of the internet, social networks were effective because trust was present. Then, spambot-by-spambot, random-friend-request-by-random-friend-request, we were worn down. Skeptical of every message and follower. We didn’t realize how good we had it. It is possible to rebuild. All it takes is intentionality and eye contact.

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