Back in April 2022, I wrote about why I thought buying Twitter was a foolish idea. My opinion still holds, and I think recent events somewhat vindicate it. However, those same recent events have provided me with more to say and I think it raises points about just what makes software valuable.
Software has to solve a problem to be valuable. That’s not a contentious claim, but it’s a necessary point of view to adopt to be able to ask the next question: What problem does it solve?
In some cases, this is obvious. Take anything in the Adobe suite of products and it’s likely that you will see a pyramid of solved problems, each one growing smaller and less abstract. It starts from a big, broad base of “make it easier to do creative work of some sort” and builds up from there.
Or, more naively, the built-in calculator that comes with Windows installations is a great example, but nobody is paying for that directly.
In some cases, it’s less obvious. Windows doesn’t really appear to do anything on its own, from the standpoint of an end-user. However, it makes the various components that form your computer work in something approaching harmony, and it serves as a fantastic medium for other applications to do valuable things. The problem that it solved is “general computing is hard to do if I have to write my own operating system” and that’s a pretty big one. In fairness, it solved a whole host of other ones, too, but that would make a great book and an awful blog post so I’m going to err on the side of brevity.
Social Media is a Special Case
Now that I’ve just gotten done arguing about how software has value when it solves a problem, I’m going to turn that on its head and suggest that social media bucks this trend, at least in part.
All of the products I mentioned above (Windows, calculator software, Adobe suite stuff) solve a problem for you, the individual. They will do this even if nobody else in the entire world is also using that software. The word processor I’m using for this post is valuable to me even if two or three million other people aren’t using it.
Social media, on the other hand, relies on a critical mass of people using it, otherwise, you’re either on Google+ before its demise, or doing the equivalent of posting a sticky note in a closet and shutting the door.
There are other classes of software that really only work if groups are using it, but the scale is different. If you are the only person in the whole world with email, then email is useless. If one other person has it? Congratulations, you have a pen pal! It quickly becomes absurdly convenient asynchronous communication that doesn’t rely on user-generated content served up by an algorithm.
So What is the Special Case?
The reason I say social media is a special case is that “I want to update people with whatever thought I’m currently having” isn’t a super valuable problem to solve on its own. There isn’t a great way to monetize that – especially now that we’re long past the era of boxed copies of software one must buy and install. In my previous article, I argued that you need a critical mass of users generating enough content that advertisers take notice.
So in this way, social media software is a unique case because the software is this weird substrate that allows value to grow as long as you have regular users that might wish to buy something, at some point, if only they knew what that something was. There also has to be plenty of non-advertisement content to keep them sticking around and engaged during the time when they don’t want to see ads.
So what you really want is a service that matches millions of pairs of eyeballs up with various kinds of advertisements.
Things You Probably Shouldn’t Do
Listen, I’ll come clean – I’ve never run a social media company. I’ve been a user of several platforms, and also I’ve been someone who abandoned those platforms when they became obnoxious in some way or another. My standpoint, therefore, is really one of an end user that hates being bothered, and also a developer that knows how to make a service that posts data to a webpage for others to look at. I can use that standpoint to make some reasonably informed guesses as to what you might not want to do if you’re suddenly in charge of a social media company.
I think you’d have three main goals:
1. Make sure advertisements match up with eyeballs.
2. Make sure advertisements don’t appear next to atrocious, horrifying content.
3. Make sure eyeballs don’t see atrocious, horrifying content.
The first one is obvious because that’s how you’re going to generate any money. Someone is going to pay you to advertise something and then you need to guarantee someone will see it. There are nuances here, like generating profiles and demographic information to tailor the experience to someone so that an advertiser’s dollar goes just that much further (and makes your platform more appealing in the process!) But, generally, that’s the goal.
The second one? That’s also pretty obvious. Nobody wants to have their brand damaged by appearing next to something truly awful, right?
We can extend that logic to the third one – generally, people don’t want to see atrocious, horrifying things. I say “generally” because this is the internet and there’s no accounting for individual taste. At the very least, you’d do well to make it such that those that want to see something like that would have to seek it out and not have it foisted upon them.
So you really don’t want to do anything that would impede achieving these goals, right? For instance, you might not want to alienate or fire the staff that is responsible for making the service work in the first place, because then you’re not going to have eyeballs looking at advertisements.
You might also not want to get rid of the people that police the platform for atrocious, horrifying content because that runs directly counter to goals #2 and #3.
A Bold Claim
I don’t believe that you can introduce a feature that will entice anyone to sign up for a dying social media platform. Everybody that wanted a Twitter account at this point probably has one. The best that you can hope for if you suddenly end up running one that is well into its lifecycle is that you don’t do anything that will start bleeding users – it’s pretty likely that you have the most users you’re ever going to have.
At this point, I believe we’re about to see the next generation of social media platforms crop up as people move on. It’s anyone’s best guess as to what those platforms will actually be, but those, too, will probably experience this same life cycle. Maybe not with such an abrupt end.
In fact, this may be a great time to launch something that allows people to sign up, curate a list of acquaintances, and post things. You’ll be one competitor among thousands, but people still buy lottery tickets, and ultimately someone has to win, right?