Let's Fix Social Media: How to Create Less Shallow Online Spaces

A smart picture frame might contain lessons for making a better social media world.
Headshot of author David Ryan Polgar
David Ryan Polgar
Expert Columnist
April 13, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021
Headshot of author David Ryan Polgar
David Ryan Polgar
Expert Columnist
April 13, 2021
Updated: July 13, 2021

The future of social media may be in a picture frame.

Frameo is a Danish company that makes software for Wi-Fi-enabled photo frames. It’s also a good example of a social media platform able to move interaction outside of the phone. Users download the company’s app, which then allows them to send captioned photos and videos directly to the picture frames of other people in their approved social network. This structure is geared toward sharing with a tight-knit group of friends or family. And it seems to be catching on: The app currently has over one million downloads.

It may also be a bellwether for social media companies and related products to break from their creative shackles.

 

Reframing Social Media

Although many people tend to think of social media as a mobile-based technology, any medium that allows the exchange of content, building of networks and space for online interactions is a form of social media. For example, Peloton has set up a social network that connects its bike owners and subscribers and builds community through shared content.

Frameo is a social media platform based on photo sharing. Though it isn’t structured to allow users to rack up public-facing metrics that build clout, I argue that it has stumbled upon a path forward for making an improved social media ecosystem oriented around connecting more deeply with family and friends. I could imagine many other products being developed to better align with the needs of close groups.

Many social media platforms do an incredible job of creating environments that allow for entertainment, networking and building influence. Lately, however, I’ve become concerned with how to create digital spaces that facilitate deepened relationships. Social media platforms are often hybrid environments where you’re simultaneously connected with friends, family and acquaintances alongside a broader audience that you may want to cultivate.

As a result, we’re often trying to maintain existing friendships by means of social media platforms that are ill-equipped for this purpose. These platforms may be perfectly designed for growing audiences, finding like-minded communities based around shared interests and participating in the larger global community, but they typically fall short in creating an intimate environment for family and friends.

The typical structure of a social media platform is not ideal for deepening existing relationships for four reasons:

4 Problems Facing Social Media

  • The public-facing structure of most social media encourages performance.
  • The overwhelming amount of content uploaded to most social media platforms necessitates a company-controlled algorithm that determines what a user sees.
  • The effects of the Dunbar Number, which is a research-backed theory that the average individual can maintain approximately 150 relationships.
  • The traditional social media business model is based on advertising, which is not conducive to building and maintaining friendships.

 

Social Media Overvalues Performance

Think about how you change your speech in a restaurant when the waitstaff comes over to the table. If you were sharing a personal story, you’d likely pause until the waiter had taken the order and was out of earshot. In other words, your audience affects which stories you share and how you share them. A sense of intimacy promotes openness.

Our behavior on social media often morphs into a performance in which we allow the public to shape our interactions. For example, on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David plays a fictionalized version of himself, allowing the knowledge that viewers will watch the show to affect how the character behaves. Many people use social media in a similar fashion, performing a modified take on their real persona.

Chances are there are certain things you do when you’re alone or with close friends and family that you wouldn’t do in public. The knowledge that we’re being watched alters how we act. If a person knows that they have an audience, whether consciously or not, they perform for it. So you are less your authentic self on most major social media platforms than you are an actor playing some idealized version of yourself. That type of performance gets exhausting, and people don’t always want to “be on” or to have to be “on brand.”

A person cannot be authentic when they’re performing for others. The public-facing nature of most platforms and the ways in which they showcase users’ audiences encourage people to chase clout over substance. By contrast, when you’re communicating with close friends and family, you don’t want to have to perform.

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I Don’t Want an Algorithm to Pick My Friends

In today’s social media landscape, where platforms’ overwhelming glut of content means that they must algorithmically filter content into a user’s feed, having an unfiltered flow of images and comments feels remarkably freeing. I get to see exactly what my friends and family send to me. Even better, the Frameo app doesn’t need to gather my data, win my attention or bombard me with ads. In other words, Frameo gets at the heart of what social media has often promised to be — a boundaryless way to interact and share content with the people we most care about.

Returning to the restaurant table analogy, the physical act of sitting around a table and talking gives you a high level of assurance that your companions hear exactly what you mean to say. Your words aren’t filtered by an intermediary. Intermediaries make sense in some contexts, but they’re ultimately an impediment to authentic communication.

 

We Can’t Maintain So Many Relationships

The Dunbar Number suggests that the average person can maintain around 150 relationships. Most social media platforms feature a mix of active relationships that you want to maintain alongside other, weaker connections. This creates a sense of context collapse because you use the same platform to stay in touch with a person you would give a kidney to alongside people you wouldn’t have coffee with. The problem is that we tend to alter our behavior to meet our comfort level with a broader group.

For example, you act differently when surrounded by a group of your close friends than you would talking to a group of strangers. Most social media platforms mix these groups together, however, which creates a delicate balancing act for users in determining what level of intimacy to operate with. And although platforms typically make settings available to group people based on comfort level, most people interact with default settings or remain skeptical that close-knit communication will remain that way.

Frameo creates a physical interaction Dunbar Number. To send content to someone else, you need to share a code to gain access. Giving your code to another person feels more intimate, as you are now literally allowing their digital self to enter your physical home.

 

Real Friendships Aren’t Ad-Based

Every conversation I have about the issues facing social media inevitably leads back to its business model. Almost every major social media network has an ad-based model wherein users do not directly pay for a product or service but are monetized through data collection and engagement methods to maximize tailored ads.

Although commentators have argued for years that ad-based models create perverse incentives for social media platforms, the high value of data coupled with a frictionless way to grow a user base has kept ad-based social media as the standard.

Fraemo subverts this model by licensing its software to physical products that users buy. Other new social media companies may be wise to skirt around the problematic ad-based model by similarly structuring their revenue around product sales, licensing and related subscriptions. This circumvents the common old maxim that “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” With Frameo, I pay for the product and therefore feel less like a product myself. I’d love to see other companies move in the same direction.

Technology is an incredible tool for connecting family and friends, leading to joyous moments and deeper relationships. The rise of social media has also awakened us to its potential for staying in touch with a close-knit group of people. Now, we need to figure out how to make it truly accomplish that goal.

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