Mastodon Mastodon

Small social networks are everywhere (still)

The common tale told about the rise of the big social media platforms is that they consolidated virtually all online social activity. And there’s a lot of truth to that. It was easier for many smaller communities to simply organize on a specific platform rather than build and maintain their own system, whether that be a chat room, forum, or another such social application.

It worked for awhile, but became increasingly tenuous as everyone and everything moved onto those same platforms, bloating an ever-expanding firehose that simply drowned out any one stream, simply given the explosion in overall volume. And once the platforms turned to algorithms and began their descent into inevitable enshittification—well, we could all see where this was headed.

And while those dominant social platforms overshadowed other social communities, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist. Or thrive, even. Yes, you need a critical mass of participants to establish and maintain an online community, but that number is rather small. A few dozen, a few hundred, a few thousand—all of these are entirely sufficient numbers, depending on the community.

I was reminded of that this morning while reading a post by Maria Langer, who is currently captaining her private boat through the waters around New York City (scroll down to “The Photo Shoot” for the relevant section). She mentions wanting to get a photo of her boat in front of the Statue of Liberty as she passes by. Which, you know, is hard to do by oneself.

So she pulls up an app called Nebo, which I’ve never heard of, but is apparently a niche boating app that also has its own community of users. She finds another Nebo user in the area that will be passing by soon and asks for some help. Like tourists at the Grand Canyon, they agree to take each other’s photos. How great is that?

Of course, there are countless such micro-communities out there, you just don’t know about them unless you’re involved in them. I never would have guessed that there was a boating app that could be used to arrange a watery photo shoot—because, why would I?

The world is inherently social. We’ve never needed one-social-app-to-rule-them-all, in spite of what the billionaires might want. We don’t even need interoperability and federation, for that matter. We just need to recognize that we can build vibrant and useful communities anywhere. They don’t have to be big, and they don’t have to include every single person we already know.

There was a time that we collectively believed that it was important to connect the world in a vast mega-network. That Facebook and Twitter and the rest of the big boys were doing important and exciting work on our behalf, changing the world by giving us a way to connect directly, across whatever distances lie between us. It was The Future™.

But we had already done that—that was the free and open web. You know, the World Wide Web. It wasn’t a newfangled private walled garden, as the big social media platforms—whose goal is not (and can never be) to connect us together, but to figure out how to profit off our drive to connect with each other—like to pretend they were inventing. We were already connected through our own websites, emails, and other protocols.

But however we connected globally, we always turned back to smaller communities. The niche ones, with their own unique culture, and vocabulary, and norms, and personalities. Small enough that you encountered enough of the same people often enough to establish some sort of relationship. Even when we used those mega platforms, it was often simply to congregate and participate in small sub-communities, an infinitesimal sliver of the larger whole. The rest of the vast userbase was effectively useless and invisible to us.

Why? Because small, theme-based communities are just better communities1. They’ve always been better.

  1. I usually use the word topic-based for this point, but really it’s broader than that, as identity-based communities obviously demonstrate. Not sure if “theme” is right way to word it, but I’m open to better suggestions. ↩︎

1 thought on “Small social networks are everywhere (still)”

  1. It’s remarkable how smaller theme-based communities work. My wife’s ultrarunning coach, who is also her friend, is friends with practically every well-known person in the ultra community, giving her one degree of separation from her sporting idols. It’s such a niche sport, that all but the very most elite of the elite all have day jobs and are just regular people. They all know one another. I think it’s great.


Leave a Reply