How the Need for Growth Failed Our Social Network Experience

Just about 10 years ago, I tried hard to keep my Twitter follows to a manageable amount--to people I actually cared about following and either already knew or wanted to get to know in person.

5000+ follows later and I've failed miserably.  

It wasn't my fault, though--because the app itself, like all social networks, succeed around growth.  Every single feature is optimized around growing the userbase and increasing everyone's follower count, which means everyone's following count.  Networks are always telling you who from your contacts has joined and recommends you follow new accounts, even though you still only have two eyeballs in your head and 24 hours in the day.  The end result is that each person's connection to you in an ever increasingly connected network becomes more and more tenuous. 

A few years ago, I went to breakfast with Andy Weissman and he lamented Twitter's "Garyvee feature"--the turning off of the visibility of @ replies to people who weren't following the person you were messaging.  Basically, Gary Vaynerchuk would use the @ feature to message a ton of people at a time as he was scaling his following to try and scale 1:1 conversation as much as possible.  It wasn't particularly scalable as following him became a worse experience.  It was a firehose of listening to him not talk to you and just give shoutouts and the like.  However, when Twitter turned this off, while your stream became easier to consume (and easier for businesses or celebrities to interact with people en masse), it came at the expense of authentic discovery.  You never stumbled into half of an interesting conversation with someone you might want to follow based on the topic.  

There was a time when I thought Meetup Everywhere was going to be the next big thing--a social network that was dedicated to connecting people in real life was going to create a lightweight framework for people to localize the social network experience.  If groups got too big, it would be easy to enable splintering.  I don't know why it didn't take, but I've always lamented the failure of the web to create "neighborhoods" at scale that brought communities together (as opposed to just broadcasting to them like Patch).  

For a brief moment, tech was able to make my world feel smaller and more accessible, but now it doesn't feel that way anymore--and I have a theory that I'm part of a very narrow generation that even cares or notices.

There's an age group where you are old enough not to have Facebook in college, but young enough to be an avid user of tech--and to have used the internet to meet new people, probably through AOL or other forms of chat.  When we used dating apps, they weren't based around double opt-ins.  You regularly heard from strangers.  Ok, so it wasn't a *great* experience, but occasionally you'd find diamonds in the rough--and you had to take some risk around reaching out and getting rejected. 

Roughly speaking, this group probably peaks around 35-43.

Not only did we straddle a unique time in tech, but we also came at the tail end of real life neighborhoods as well.  When I was growing up, I would eat lunch and then run outside to play with my friends.  There wouldn't be any coordination between parents to make this happen.  I would just go ring doorbells to see who could come outside if they weren't already out.  It was just assumed that *someone* we knew--a parent or next door neighbor--would be on our street somewhere to keep an eye out.  

This experience made our local world feel very safe and accessible--where we regularly interacted with new people and made decisions for ourselves on who was safe and fun to play with.  We had positive experiences of meeting new kids and becoming friends all on our own, outside the confines of institutions like schools, camps, or parent organized play groups.  

Now, walking these same streets leaves you with a sense that someone stole all the children.  I'm not sure whether it's screen time or parental fear of abduction, but the kids seem to have disappeared from the street.  

It is this same age group that sought this out online--this same group that used Twitter to meet people and Foursquare to find where their friends were hanging out--in order to recreate the neighborhoods experience.  They built Barcamps and unconferences--semi-permeable spaces that got enough scale, but not too much scale, to facilitate people discovery and high quality conversation. 

I don't think we'll see a new form of social media ever attempt to make this happen again--because I don't think the builders of the next generation of apps ever really had this experience to know that it is missing.  Those that experienced it are now at a different point in their life where they're building families or at least coupled off and not really in network expansion mode.

These days, people gather to play a sport, to protest, to play games online, or to watch something--mostly with people they know are already like minded--and maybe that's fine, albeit a little one-dimensional, but sometimes it's nice just to gather in manageable numbers with people you aren't sure agree with you on everything, just for the sake of gathering. 

Can someone build that in a way that isn't contrived or creepy?