The Dead End of The Social Pyramid Scheme

This is a random observational post while I take a break from real work. I’m revisiting a topic that I touched upon before, and ultimately this is really just a lazy rewriting of that piece.


A few days ago I saw a new commercial for Toronto’s SickKids hospital.

The commercial is powerful.

“This is new and fresh and important, so I’ll share it with the people I know on Facebook”, I thought.

It isn’t original content, obviously, but I thought it was something they’d find interesting.

So I shared it. Seconds later I deleted the post.

I don’t post on Facebook (or Google+, or Twitter) outside of the rare photo of the kids limited to family. By deleting I was returning to my norm.

Most of the people among my contacts have trended toward the same behavior, with a small handful of social feeders alone among the whole. Most now use Facebook for discussion groups and as a feed aggregator: If a site (e.g. Anandtech) shares on Facebook, I just rely upon it appearing in my feed rather than visiting their site. It’s also a great feed for game day news as well.

Individual sharing is trending way down on Facebook. Many other sites are showing the same trend. LinkedIn feels like a graveyard of abandoned profiles, and “celebrities” who have assistants post various self-promotional pieces occasionally (I recently deactivated my LinkedIn profile after realizing that I have gotten zero value from it over my career, yet have gotten a lot of negative consequences including just unnecessary exposure of information random people don’t have any need to know).

We have like, share and retweet fatigue. It sits there as a little judgy footer on every post, each reaction carefully meted out and considered. As a social obligation both on our own posts, and on the posts of our friends and family.

So if I post something and it sits un-liked, should I be offended? Should I fish for likes, building a social crew? If my niece posts something interesting, should I like it or is that weird that I’m her uncle liking her post? If a former female coworker posts an interesting recipe, should I like it or is that going to be perceived as an advance?

If I get a pity like from a relative, should I reciprocate?

Some will dismiss this as overthinking, but what I’m describing above is exactly what this service, and every one like it, is designed to demand as your response. It is the gamification of users, used masterfully, and the premise is that if you make the social counts front and center, it obligates users towards building those numbers up. Some shared blog platforms are now plying this tactic to entice users to become essentially door to door pitchmen to draw people to the platform (as they sharecrop on someone else’s land, repeating a foolish mistake we learned not to make well over a decade ago), lest their blog posts get deranked. People aren’t pitching Avon or Amway now, they’re trying to get you to help them make a foundation for their medium blog or pinterest board or Facebook business group or LinkedIn profile or…

Sometimes it works for a while as a sort of social pyramid scheme. Eventually the base starts to stagnant, the “incentives” lose their luster if not rusting and becoming a disincentive for newer or more casual users. If it isn’t carefully managed, the new users will cast the old guard as obsolete and irrelevant.

I made a Soundcloud account purely to access a personal audio recording across multiple devices, so why do I keep getting notifications of spammy followers, all of whom are front and center on my profile that I don’t want? I don’t want followers or hearts or likes or shares.

Let me qualify that statement a bit: I love when readers think that these blog posts are interesting enough to share on various venues, growing the circle of exposure. That happens organically when readers thinks content is worthwhile, and it’s very cool. But that is something that the reader owns, and doesn’t sit as a social signal of relevance on this page: There are no social toolbars or tags on this post trying to act as a social proof that this is worth reading, beyond that most of you have read these missives for a while and I assume find some value in them.

Users should absolutely have these curating inputs (training the system on the things that they like and dislike), and the feed should of course adapt to the things the user actually enjoys seeing: If zero users find anything interesting that I post, zero people should see it. But by making it a public statement it becomes much more than that, losing its purpose and carrying a significant social obligation and stigma that is unwanted.

Virtually every social site follows the same curve as we all dig the social well, and when it runs dry we simply chase the next experience. Facebook has done well by pivoting the use of the service, but other services (Flickr, Twitter, and others) that attempted the same strategy peaked and then hit a period of stark decline: if someone with less than 100 twitter followers are perceived as “angry and disenfranchised”, new users find more benefits simply waiting out this generation, or moving to something new — a sort of ground zero where everyone goes back to the beginning again — than to try to gain some namespace among established users.

Back in the early days of the Internet, MUDs (definition varies) saw the same curve. Each instance would start as fresh greenfield full of opportunity and excitement. As the initial euphoria settled, soon it was a small set of regular users, maxed out in every regard. Now that the pyramid scheme of fresh meat was exhausted — new users knew that there was little fun or benefit to be had, and went to newer, fresher sites, leaving the existing users with their blessed armor and no skulls to smash — malaise set in. Eventually the universe was wiped and begun anew.

There’s no real aha or “what to do” out of this. I don’t know what to make of it. Clearly the tactic is fantastically successful in the ascent part of the curve, and has been leveraged masterfully by a number of sites, but if you don’t pivot at the right time it ends up turning a site into Slashdot or Kuro5hin — a decayed remnants of a yesteryear internet.