The Social Web Is Broken: Instantly Interesting, Lastingly Boring


The social web is broken. Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Path, whatever, app or web… you name it. They’re all the same: instantly interesting, lastingly boring. All we’ve got are social networks that are networked but not social, social media that is media but not social, social marketing that is marketing but not social, and social interactions that are interactive but not social.


Instantly interesting but lastingly boring? There’s a good chance that you know what I mean.

Whenever there’s a “social whatever” startup and effort coming up, you instantly find it interesting (e.g. Pinterest, etc. Or that ridiculous Draw something app) and get your hands on it and can’t get enough of it. Then, gradually, you use it less, or even open it less, to a point you feel like out of steam about it. The loss of its freshness certainly is one reason — when a fresh new thing becomes a daily routine, it’s very likely to become mundane, right? Not exactly.

When a fresh news thing becomes a daily routine, its “engagement” no longer relies on its freshness, but relies on its ability to afford and encourage real-life like interactions (and more specifically, interactive storytelling). Most those fresh new stuff simply don’t have enough of that. There’s never enough steam from the very beginning — no wonder it pales and fades over time somehow (a common pattern could be that, after a pretty long cold or distant separation, you suddenly have that nostalgic freshness back and earn some steam back).

When we elaborate about the social web, we probably don’t have any trouble to think that, all those web sites, apps etc. are just means for us to communicate, after all. They’re meant to connect us — the real people.

Thus there could be a misconception (or not really?) about it — that we think:

You <–> Social Web <–> Me

kind of equals to:

You <–> Me

That the social web is simply connecting us. When you sign in to Facebook (or any other social whatever), you’re dealing with me, your best friend, and all other friends and families.

The Middle-Person

However, there’s no equality there. There’s nothing as transparent and direct as face to face in-place interaction. Yet.

All those interfaces — e.g. What you see and interact with on Facebook’s web pages — form a non-trivial mental entity you have to deal with. The interface has become a middleperson, and you not only have to deal with it, but also tend to impersonate it (subconsciously).

That doesn’t mean you treat it like you treat a real person. You don’t. But think about it: what your friends are saying or showing to you is actually being presented by the middleperson interface, not literally directly by themselves (compared to the in-place face to face case). That middleperson is being impersonated as a delegate of your friends on the web.

What’s more, that middleperson is not only your friends’ delegate, but also the impersonation of the service provider (Facebook the company). You’re constantly being notified not only about your friends going-ons, but also that of yourself, as well as that of other parties (Ads).

Thus, that middleperson actually demands a certain amount of mental load of yours. By interacting with that middleperson, you impersonate it whether you admit it or not.

Whom you’re interacting with is not directly and transparently your friends, but the middleperson mental entity. And since it delegates for real people, you intuitively expect the extent of interactivity you normally get from real life in-place scenario.

However, that middleperson doesn’t have the ability to act like a real person — it’s just stupid machine. It’s not emotional, it’s not really intelligent (surely big data and AI are pushing it forward, but for now it’s just far from good enough), and worst, it doesn’t afford the kind of interactive storytelling (interactions) you constantly get from real life ones.


You <–> Social Web middleperson <–> Me


You <–> Faithful butler <–> Me

But, instead, is:

You <–> inhuman, impersonated entity <–> Me

Interacting with someone like that and you never get bored? You must be a robot.

But still, that can’t fully explain the big why.

Of course all those social web companies and people out there are working really hard to address that issue — one of the reasons why UX/storytelling has become hot topics nowadays.

But still, there’s something else, something really profound and lacking.

I’ve been pondering about this for years, ever since the so called social network came into being. Probably like many others, I was never that much engaged by the social web — in the past I thought, on the web most of us have writer’s block ‘cos most of us are not an instant good writer/storyteller — you create a blog and you write a few and then you write less and less (if not obsolete it). There must be issues bigger than that.

Currently I still haven’t thought of a clear way to describe the whole idea, thus I’ll just write down whatever in my mind right now. Hopefully I can elaborate further, getting feedbacks and comments, and then come up with a better proposition.


Two Scenarios

Imagine a scenario of two children (you and I) playing together, let’s say, playing LEGO:

You bring your LEGO set to my home and we’re playing together.

First you build a car-shape thing and you show it to me. I ask you, why made a car? And you say, “so that I can ride in the car to see my friends.” Then I ask, “are you going to ride in the car to go to China, to see your friends there?” And you say, “I don’t know…but…”

Thus I say, “Hey I have an idea!” And I grab your car and add two wings to it. Then I hand it back to you, saying, “now you can fly to China and it’s faster!”

Seeing the flying car, you’re inspired and you tell me, “yes! how about it can also fly in space!” Then you add rockets to the flying car and show to me.

And this can go on and on… that’s how children play!

The key insights are:

  1. An engaging interaction depends on the exchanges of data, information, knowledge, or even wisdom, in either physical or other form. I’ll just call it information for convenience.
  2. When you provide a piece of information, I can process it, transform it, and use it in fresh new innovative ways. When I again give the result (which is based on what you give me) back to you, you can do the same, and that’s exactly how innovation happens — building on the past while creating something fresh new.

Now imagine another scenario:

You use LEGO to make a car and you show it to me. I grab the car and tell you, “hey it’s really nice! now it’s mine and you can’t touch or change it! Besides, I know you like cars, wanna buy some other cool car LEGO sets from me? I happen to have this really cool Star Wars battle car set (of course I know you like Star Wars!)…”

This second scenario is exactly what the social web is like now!

The social web (or more specifically, the companies behind it) takes so much information from us, while we don’t get much in turn. The information is actually provided by everyone of us, yet those information is NOT presented back to us in fresh new innovative ways — no wonder the interactions can NOT go on and on and on for social web — they’re boring because they’re not truly interactive — there’s not enough stuff (proactively being consumed and transformed) to encourage meaningful interactions.

I pretend to be wanting to play LEGO with you, and then I rob you by taking over your LEGO set. And then I try to sell you more LEGO sets and still I pretend to be wanting to play LEGO with you. Would you buy that?

The Dead Data

Consider all the “history data” we have on Facebook, chat history, activity history, etc. Do we find it useful? Do we even look at it? (At least I don’t ‘cos it doesn’t make much sense — there’s nothing there, nothing to put to fresh new use.)

No we don’t. The data is just there, not processed, not transformed, and of course not presented in fresh new ways. Thus, there’s nothing to build on to keep the interaction going and developing.

Social web has every single bit of data out there, but it lacks a good enough mechanism to process it, transform it, and give it back to us in fresh new innovative ways — for us to create, make or infuse more meanings to it.

Innovation and highly engaging interactions are quite easy to happen directly between two real people — just like two children playing LEGO. But on social web, there’s a middleperson and that person is the social web itself — Facebook, Foursquare, whatever you can think of — all those social web services/products out there. While you can hand over the LEGO car directly to me, you can not on social web — you hand over your information (in its broadest sense) to Facebook, but what I see is hardly what you have. You attended a great concert, while I just see a line of text on Facebook stating that you did.

Interactions in Two-Folds

Thus, there are two aspects to consider:

  1. How we interact with ourselves: when we hand over the information to the web, how the web can process it, transform it, and present it in fresh new meaningful ways back to ourselves.
  2. How we interact with each other through the web: when I hand over the information to the web, how the web can process it, transform it, and present it in fresh new meaningful ways to you.

The social web does both poorly and that’s partly why it’s boring. It’s just not as engaging as we sit face to face playing and talking together.


Interactive Storytelling

Thus, what about those “information”? Just like Paul Adams points out in his book, Grouped, it’s about ourselves.

It’s about stories constantly being told and it’s about people constantly telling stories (just in order to communicate with each other).

Processing, transforming, and presenting the information is all about encouraging, affording, and facilitating Interactive Storytelling (just because it’s the only way people get so much engaged).

Information Back to Us

The future is already happening.

Big data (and its analysis & applications), data visualization, gamification, … they’re all the ways of providing more meaningful information and presenting it back to us.

If only Facebook can really make use of all those data/information they have! Any possible way to encourage and afford interactive storytelling.

Take it as an example, my “history data/information” on Facebook should not just be a bunch of texts, pictures, videos (that’s why I never take a look back at it — it’s useless and out of contexts) — they have to be processed and transformed and presented back to me in a more meaningful way (Timeline is probably a good try, but still lacking contexts — think about the remembering experience, as mentioned in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking: Fast & Slow). There should be intentionally designed things (be it a piece of information, forms of dramatization, ) that is exchangeable and meaningful.

Most of us have writer’s block, because most of us are not instantly a good writer — that’s why we have books about writing and we have teachers teaching about it.

All of us are good enough storytellers (that’s how we human communicate) but the middleperson — the social web — is not. And we find it hard to communicate with ourselves and each other through that middleperson.

What’s Right About Twitter

Twitter is also a middleperson, but Twitter doesn’t feel that much like a middleperson at all (probably because it limits what we can do about it and it limits what it should do to us, so much so that the mental load is not significant enough for us to treat its interfaces as yet another major entity we have to deal and interact with — not much to interact with it really, just either writing or reading a 140 character piece of text) and we feel like talking directly and transparently to each other — that feels good.

But most middlepersons on social web are just getting in our way (either in our talking to ourselves or talking to each other).

Thus the focus should always be on establishing, affording, and encouraging meaningful contexts for interactive storytelling.

The social web should be a good enough middleperson, or it should not be at all.

I know that’s not a proper discussion about how to fix the broken social web, but hopefully I’ll discuss further sometime later. Until then…

{E N D}

Creative Commons License
This work by Noah Fang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Wow. Thank you for putting into words exactly what I’ve been thinking about social media — it’s almost creepy. The entire time as I was reading this, I could almost predict what you were going to say, and through the entire thing I kept thinking “he hasn’t mentioned Twitter — did it get swept up in the unspecified ‘etc’?” And then the punch line. Heh.

    In my mind, twitter works because, despite its critics argument that you can’t actually say anything in 140 characters, it forces *conversation*. Someone who only posts and never replies quickly gets to be boring. Even voracious tweeters (twits?) themselves follow other people, and comment and retweet. Democracy rules, because everyone can have their say, and the obscure aren’t shouted down by the popular. There is room for everyone, and the conversation never ends.

    I’ve seen this same phenomenon in other venues that try to engage a specific group of people — physically distant, but with a desire to communicate. Every artificial “social” environment, down to the most basic web-based threaded conversation, has failed to engage these people. What works for them, and has consistently worked for them, has been an unmoderated mailing list (a reflector). Email is the common tool to bind everyone together. It doesn’t require a commitment, it doesn’t have an ulterior motive of slurping up marketable data from you, it is easily accessible to nearly everyone, and most importantly, it doesn’t penalize those people who have less (frequent) access, because the entire conversation is waiting for you in your inbox, and you can hit the reply button at any time, even months later.

    It works because it shrinks the middleman down to the smallest it can be — an information transport — which is exactly what twitter does. The difference is the tradeoff of depth for breadth. Email provides depth but is limited by the number of participants (before it gets unwieldy), twitter provides breadth of audience, but must in turn limit individual content.

    What has been discovered in this (20 year so far) email experiment is that there must be a single pipe for the information — intentionally fracturing the mailing list (by topic) just doesn’t work. And you’ve put words to why: Dividing the content forces arbitrary limitations. Now you have two rooms each with their own lego, but you can’t really be in both rooms at the same time (because it is too hard to context switch) and you can’t share content between them. The middleman begins to take control, forcing the humans to conform to its rules.

    Instead, “messy” works. Lots of competing threads all at the same time, forking and combining in messy ways, subject lines ceasing to be relevant, replies coming in out of sequence. And it doesn’t matter — the conversation just goes right on, adding wings and then rockets and then… a communal experience happens.

    1. Agree! I’d say people gradually realize that context is as crucial as the subject matter itself. Context has always been the ultimate challenge in design.

  2. This is a very interesting perspective on social media and computer mediated communication in general. I found myself amazed that you never once referenced McLuhan! In fact it was refreshing to hear a perspective that was not fixated on the idea that these platforms are the ‘medium’ that is distorting our message. Instead you rightly pointed out that these new social media platforms are doing more than just transferring and re-encoding information, but they are doing some form of simple information processing. As your Star Wars Lego car example illustrated, the level of information processing is boring (and not necessarily aligned with your own goals or values). It seems that the technology works when it is a virtually transparent medium like air. The telephone, email and perhaps Twitter are simple communication mediums, but something like Facebook aspires to be more – to contribute to the conversation by adding value. Still, I wonder…is it not possible to have a conversation with a friend that is asynchronous in time and is rich in visuals and other non-verbal sharing?

    1. Haha McLuhan did slip into mind ephemerally. Although I dug a little bit into him when I was translating Jon Kolko’s book, I’ve never really solidified enough time to read his works.

      As for the medium being transparent, I’d say it works partly because technology hasn’t evolved good enough to make its own presence. It does has profound impacts (McLuhan!), but still… and I wonder whether it’s just about technology — probably not at all.

      Back to the “whole humanity becoming a singleton human brain” analogy we talked about: now social web is doing a really poor job pretending to be some of the “brain cells” and it simply doesn’t work at all — there’s no interactive thought stream.

      Just like a third person sitting beside you and me (we’re chatting), it needs to contribute to our stream of storytelling in order to “join” the conversation. The same applies to one person start a conversation with another — that’s the case when, for example, Facebook wants to engage me and me alone (with the intention of selling me something etc.).

      Paper, paper mail, telephone, email, … one key impact seems to be about coming closer to a form of conectedness that resembles a brain. They all seem to be transparent, probably because they’re not really that “interactive”, and thus we don’t really bother to impersonate them, and therefore we are actually comfortable with a relatively low expectation. Not so for social web, since this significant medium comes into PLAY.

      Asynchronous conversation rich in visual and non-verbal sharing… not sure how it could be. Twitter seems to be one simplest asynchronous conversation medium.

      I’m wondering, whether being visual and rich in non-verbal could be straits (or cues?) for instant (a.k.a. synchronous) communication — both have impacts on human being on a visceral level and in an aggressive manner, which demands us to react instantly. Everytime I think about being visual or rich in non-verbal, I think of instant response, in-place in-time reaction, and more often than not, visceral level correspondence combined with higher logical level one.

      Hence the question could be: what do we want to get from asynchronous conversation? Is it that we want the asynchronous ones to FEEL like synchronous ones, just because the latter is a form of communication that’s been deeply engrained in our culture or our very own existence as human being? And therefore the question could also be: what could be the nature/impact/implication of asynchronous communication? Could there be a time when the “medium” of asynchronous communication (whatever that may be) has a profound impact on us, to the extent that we no longer expect it to FEEL like the synchronous form?

      If we do want asynchronous to FEEL like synchronous, then I believe it’s possible — just like a video game world can FEEL like real, it’s about tricking the CONTEXT — think about holodeck / hologram, and good enough “presenting/affording” technology.

      Or asynchronous communication might have its own nature after all?

  3. You have it backwards. We don’t desire to have asynchronous conversation appear more synchronous. Synchronous conversation isn’t actually conversation. It is living in the now — it is reactive, not contemplative, it may be the source of a future narrative, but it itself is not a narrative.

    Asynchronous communication allows us to step out of the now. Phone calls (chatty ones, I mean) cause us to step out of the now to share context and story. Paper mail forces us to be contemplative — even a stream of consciousness has context to past events or thoughts. Email and twitter as well.

    It is easy to misinterpret the notion of “synchronous conversation” — there are synchronous events; but conversation, by its very nature, requires turn taking. You talk, you listen, you respond. Even if these transitions occur rapidly, and even if they occur simultaneously to the synchronous event, they are still asynchronous.

    So yes, asynchronous communication has its own nature. It is the process of give and take, of sharing thoughts and ideas.

    Visual communication, on the other hand, despite its asynchronous nature, generally does a poor job of sharing. It provides a wonderful opportunity for contemplation and inference of context, but as humans, we are notoriously bad at interpreting visual stimuli in the manner intended by the creator of the media. Inevitably, for a truly shared experience, context must be delivered out-of-band, as commentary. This asynchronous conversation is really where communication occurs. Ironically, the visual media, then, provides the “synchronous (shared) conversation” — the experience of the now — even if it doesn’t happen for each of the parties at the same time.

    We can watch the same movie. The experience is the same whether we are in the same or different theaters, together or on different days. And the commentary that follows, the asynchronous form, can also occur during the event as an out-of-band stream, or can occur after the event. It does not matter.

    In that regard, synchronous communication only provides shared context, and not communication. Asynchronous communication provides narrative, and occurs immediately or over distant delay. It is the word “communication” then, that is the inhibiting factor in this conversation. 😉

    1. Yup I guess I used the wrong word for what I really mean. And you made a great point about synchronous/asynchronous communication!

      I’m trying to elaborate about how the “social web” could be improved or evolve to afford communication better — compared to either good old asynchronous forms (paper mail etc.) or instant in-time / in-place form (telephone, face-to-face etc.), the social web communication seems to be a “backward” one, neither asynchronously contemplative nor instantly engaging.

      Technology limitations surely play a part. Besides that:

      (1) We need to refocus on how to infuse interactive storytelling into the form, whoever we’re communicating with — the real person on the other end OR the impersonated entity we call web.

      (2) Communication itself is a means to many other ends, it’s not an end itself. Thus the social web is just a basic platform we do other things on — the actual contexts of our real life goals and tasks. Twitter somehow helps exactly because it does nothing more — it doesn’t get in our way. While many other things inevitably pose themselves explicitly as a middleperson and they have to think about how they could relate to those many other ends. As long as they do a poor job on that, surely they wouldn’t find any other business model besides Ads.

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