Social media and "parasocial media" June 30, 2023 on Drew DeVault's blog

A few months ago, as Elon Musk took over Twitter and instituted polices that alienated many people, some of these people fled towards federated, free software platforms like Mastodon. Many people found a new home here, but there is a certain class of refugee who has not found it to their liking.

I got to chatting with one such “refugee” on Mastodon today. NotJustBikes is a creator I enjoy watching on YouTube Invidious, who makes excellent content on urbanism and the design of cities. He’s based in my home town of Amsterdam and his videos do a great job of explaining many of the things I love about this place for general audiences. He’s working on building an audience, expanding his reach, and bringing his message to as many people as possible in the interest of bringing better infrastructure to everyone.

But he’s not satisfied with his move from Twitter to Mastodon, nor are some of his friends among the community of “urbanist” content creators. He yearns for an “algorithm” to efficiently distribute content to his followers, and Mastodon is not providing this for him.

On traditional “social media” platforms, in particular YouTube, the interactions are often not especially social. The platforms facilitate a kind of intellectual consumption moreso than conversation: conversations flow in one direction, from creator to audience, where the creator produces and the audience consumes. I think a better term for these platforms is “parasocial media”: they are optimized for creating parasocial relationships moreso than social relationships.

The fediverse is largely optimized for people having conversations with each other, and not for producing and consuming “content”. Within this framework, a “content creator” is a person only in the same sense that a corporation is, and their conversations are unidirectional, where the other end is also not a person, but an audience. That’s not the model that the fediverse is designed around.

It’s entirely reasonable to want to build an audience and publish content in a parasocial manner, but that’s not what the fediverse is for. And I think that’s a good thing! There are a lot of advantages in having spaces which focus on being genuinely “social”, rather than facilitating more parasocial interactions and helping creators build an audience. This limits the fediverse’s reach, but I think that’s just fine.

Within this model, the fediverse’s model, it’s possible to publish things, and consume things. But you cannot effectively optimize for building the largest possible audience. You will generally be more successful if you focus on the content itself, and not its reach, and on the people you connect with at a smaller scale. Whether or not this is right for you depends on your goals.

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