🎨 Formats over platforms
Is ‘TikTok’ the name of a platform or just a content format that people really like?
Hello cyber-pals. Last week, we successfully took leave of reality when Elon Musk challenged Mark Zuckerburg to a physical fight, and Mark accepted. I keep imagining that Elon will turn up with a, I don’t know, sledge hammer made of emeralds? And fail to even lift it. While Mark will use personal data that he has been collecting for the past fifteen years to create hyper-realistic holographic representations of Elon’s deepest fears, with laser precision.
Anyway, that’s enough imagining the two worst men alive killing each other. Let’s imagine us some Good Content™️ instead. In my last post, I mentioned that TikTok is less of a platform, and more of a format. A very good friend of mine then emailed me saying that she was interested in this idea and that I should unpack it more. Okay, ALICE… I will; I have; and here you go:
TikTok is a great example of a format through which to enjoy content — it can be replicated and therefore can technically transcend the walls of the platform itself.
What, really, is the function of a platform? Is it just a playground with a vague set of rules?
Framing what platforms have to offer as a series of easily replicable formats can help us let go of the idea that ‘platforms’ are a necessary part of online community building
Watching the subreddit protests froth up and flatten out over the last couple of weeks has me reminding myself not to underestimate both of the following: the power of online communities, and the stupidity of those who govern centralised platforms. Reddit, and other platforms, are clearly not fit for purpose in many ways. And maybe they never were. And also, what IS their purpose anyway??
Let’s look at how Reddit is structured: there are separate communities, but they all live under one roof. I hate to admit this but I actually agree with Casey Newton when he says that in terms of content moderation, Reddit’s method is probably the best:
“The site sets a ‘floor’ of rules that every forum must meet — no terrorism, no child exploitation — but lets any individual subreddit raise the ‘ceiling’ with rules of its own. If a religious forum wants to ban cursing, it’s welcome to. If an NSFW forum wants to ban images of people with their clothes on, that’s fair game, too.”
This arrangement is really great up to a point: community managers had the freedom to define their ‘ceilings’, and even build apps using Reddit’s API — apps that were so good and so popular, that Reddit users would pay for them. But, as Reddit have demonstrated very aggressively, they own the ‘floor’, and they will shift it around to suit their priorities, no matter what they knock over in the process.
If this wasn’t obvious before, it definitely is now: fencing communities off into centralised platforms does not help those communities thrive (and it, eventually, doesn’t help the platforms either, which is why they are decaying before our eyes). If Reddit has shown us anything, it’s that communities can govern themselves pretty well. So what are platforms even good for? They are often bloated with features that no one asked for, and they struggle to moderate content at scale.
When you get right down to it, ‘platforms’ are really just pieces of infrastructure, with annoying extra bits. The nature of web2 monetisiation means that the providers of this infrastructure need to impose themselves onto in order to make it worth it: they set rules, introduce gimmicks, and run ads. They add unnecessary frills to keep users engaged and therefore make more money. It’s like building a bridge to connect two towns, and then peppering the bridge with loads of shops so that it takes longer to cross it, or providing guaranteed shelter from the rain for a small fee. None of those things actually help connect the two towns better, because the bridge itself was already performing that function perfectly well. So, beyond simply providing the infrastructure on which we can talk to each other online, social media platforms are not doing anything to actively cultivate communities — the communities themselves do that.
For me, infrastructure should just be infrastructure, and probably should not be warped into a profit-making platform. It should just fade into the background and neutrally facilitate whatever activities the users wish to undertake — and those things could easily be bad. In the real world, a private meeting room in a WeWork could be used to plan a birthday party, or plan a violent white supremacist demo; a park can be used to play football, or to throw eggs at people having picnics. Just like Reddit, the real world has its own ‘floor’ of what is acceptable. But the real world ‘floor’ is made up of laws, social norms, and moral frameworks. Those are the mechanisms that, in theory, deter people from doing bad things. Which is why you can trust that you will not be pelted with eggs at the park.
So, let’s say that yes, platforms are just pieces of infrastructure with a layer of pretend internet rules — rules that replicate law (e.g. don’t share child porn) and emulate pre-existing moral frameworks (e.g. don’t bully each other) — that are basically impossible to enforce at the scales that these platforms operate on. In addition to this, they are loaded with web monetisation technologies, which do nothing to actually help people connect with each other.
Looking at platforms in this way means we can reject the idea that we need them in order to have novel and enjoyable experiences on the internet. Technically, all you really need is some server space and a decent front-end for people to use. The hard part here is striking the balance between a bare-bones system that users can customise and shape as their own with relative ease, and literally building from scratch — a thing that hardly anyone wants to actually do.
Over the last few years, Jack Dorsey has been reminding the public that his original vision for Twitter was for it to be a protocol, and not a platform. This vision did somewhat take shape in the early days: there was a time when you could send tweets via SMS, and just like Reddit, the Twitter API meant that users could build third-party apps to view and send tweets. In fact, the word ‘tweet’, and other features such as being able to mute users and hashtags, are all products of third-party apps. Of course, greed got the better of Jack and all the third-party apps were absorbed and destroyed. This again signals that those best suited to govern online spaces are those that actually occupy them, and platforms only hinder this process.
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So sure, ‘protocols over platforms’ makes sense, but what about ‘formats over platforms’?
Looking at this problem and just yelling ‘Mastodon!’ or something really isn’t going to help. I honestly think that we need to start looking at the formats that people enjoy using, and build around those. There’s a reason why every single platform, including Spotify, has tried to replicate TikTok’s short form video format: people fucking love it. TikTok did not ‘invent’ short form video, they were just the first ones to successfully monetise it. The people who actually make short form video are the ones responsible for how popular it has become.
As soon as you start framing something like TikTok as a colloquial term for a popular format, you quickly realise that the ‘platform’ side of things irrelevant. But, I’m becoming increasingly less convinced by ‘protocols over platforms’ because I don’t think it goes far enough. ActivityPub, which is what Mastodon is built on, either is not flexible enough to truly support a range of formats, or those who have chosen to run instances only really care about text-based content. If you couple that with how hard it is to set up an account, it makes total sense that even with Twitter’s sharp decline, Mastodon hasn’t really taken off. Furthermore, I’m not sure if ActivityPub can really claim to be an open and decentralised protocol if they flat out block Meta’s attempt to join the Fediverse with their new Twitter rival, Threads. I understand why they want to keep Meta out, but it’s also pretty hypocritical.
Truly interoperable social media services need to take formats into account: the communities and deep fandoms that explode and thrive online are not supported by complex interfaces or targeted ads; rather, they are held together by the things they enjoy creating and sharing, and by their community rules and values. Formats are just preferences, and cannot be ‘owned’ by platforms, or used as rival gimmicks. Formats should therefore be allowed to co-mingle on the same feeds — not more screenshotting tweets for instagram or awkwardly cross-posting TikTok videos onto Twitter.
Content should just exist, and we should just be able to consume it, according to our preferences. I have thoughts on how this might work but I’ll save those for another post. For now, please enjoy the 2-6 different platforms you use on a daily basis, I know I am!