Do Social Networks Need Companies?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Scuttlebutt lately (see my Why Scuttlebutt post), and Srol just wrote a great post about how Mastodon makes the internet feel like home again.

There’s a lot of good reasons for people to use tools like them for socializing online, and I don’t want these services to just wither as their users wander off. I want there to be options that aren’t controlled by large companies, but at the same time services that require servers (like Mastodon) need someone to pay for those servers. And while Scuttlebutt doesn’t need servers, the “pub” servers do play an important role. I find myself wondering what is required for a social network to succeed? Are businesses a critical part of the equation?

I think yes, and no. I think sites like Patreon and Bountysource (Salt) have shown that people are willing to support the people and projects that are important to them. So, I think that from a purely financial standpoint that no we don’t need the corporate money to keep these spaces afloat. Also, hosting costs for distributed systems like this are dirt cheap, and getting cheaper. There are a million people using Mastodon on servers paid for entirely by people who just feel like it.

At the same time corporate presence helps with the legitimacy of young networks. When major businesses establish a presence on a network it reinforces the idea that this is a “real” place, and that it’ll probably be around for a while.

From the business perspective, social networks aren’t great for selling things, but they’re great for supporting your customers and finding like-minded people. Think, for example about what REI has done with their Opt Outside campaign.

Small companies, like indie software developers, survive because of their social interactions. They can’t afford the big marketing. So they make human contact, and support their customers, and help them to succeed in their business, or play, or whatever. And the customers appreciate it. Many of us become fantastically loyal to a product or company specifically because of the social interactions we have with the people behind them.

I look forward to getting on to Scuttlebutt and seeing what new things people have had to say, just like Srol looks forward to getting on Mastodon. Having to then switch to Twitter to ask a question of some developer whose software I use… it’s not hard, but it is a barrier, and it also means i’m going to have to deal with whatever’s going on “over there”.

I love Twitter, but if I’m not speaking with the Esperanto people there I’m pretty much guaranteed to get stressed out with some new political BS, and Facebook has always annoyed me.

But, it takes a lot of effort to for a company to have an effective social presence on a network, all that effort isn’t cheap. There’s got to be a reason why it’s worth the effort to have a presence there. They’ll come, if the people are there, of course, but the question on my mind, is will it help the people to come, or stay, if the businesses are there?

Do the creators of need to think about how companies could derive value from their platform? Not for any financial benefit of the creators, but as a tool to help the platform thrive.

I don’t think McDonalds, for example, being on Twitter devalues the Twitter experience in any way. I don’t follow them. They don’t affect me. I do think that the fact the companies I do care about are on Twitter enhances the experience for me. Is there a downside to the users to making the network more useful to those companies?

To be clear, I am explicitly not talking about allowing them to put ads in front of users, or charge for anything, or directly recognize revenue in any way. I’m talking about helping them to know that their presence on the network provides benefit to their company. Maybe it’s just knowing they got the word out about something important. Maybe it’s supporting their users.

I think maybe we should be thinking about the companies, if we want to see these new networks survive to maturity.