Groups too big, start over

With the current exodus from both Twitter and (to some degree) Reddit, there's a lot of discussion right now about what the replacements should look like. There's a rising wave of sentiment in my circles: Having corporations in control of the public square is terrible, in terms of both individual experience and the health of our societies. There's a lot of energy right now in designing systems that are cooperatively owned and run, based on federated protocols, and/or managed by non-profits — and I think that's fantastic.

But I don't think all the ills of these systems can be placed at the feet of capitalism alone. It is fundamentally difficult to have a large number of people interacting in a digital space. (I'll refer to such a forum, messageboard, or microblog space as a "group", for lack of a better term.)

I think the core problem is that these groups are too big. And I think we can make them smaller without losing the benefits.

What we do and don't want

Why do we use online groups? These are the benefits that come to mind for me:

  • Being able to read fresh ideas, memes, and cat pictures (drawn from a large number of people)
  • The ability to have a large number of people see your question, to increase the chances of getting a useful answer
  • The ability to have a large number of people see your idea or your persuasive argument, to increase the number of people who you might be able to convince
  • A feeling of community
  • A place to vent or to celebrate

But they're also host to various kinds of trouble:

  • Spam
  • Trolling
  • Harassment (either individual or coordinated)
  • Posting of illegal content
  • Derailing, in cases where a group is supposed to have a topic
  • Power struggles, including accusations of misbehavior by moderators or group leaders
  • Fights over group norms, which can itself include degree of tolerance of all of the above

Group size

Some of these desires are in conflict with the challenges, or are just fundamentally impossible to avoid at some level. Spammers and trolls want to get their messages in front of a lot of people, just like normal users do. People with different visions for group norms won't always be able to work out their differences. Having exposure to a broad selection of new ideas is very difficult to separate from being exposed to mindsets or posts that are unpalatable or even horrifying. We can't make it perfect.

But one strand that passes through a number of these aspects of interaction is social trust. We don't accept spamming from our friends. People who troll or harass publicly are expelled from social groups (unless they're sufficiently charismatic, an unfortunate flaw in human nature that goes beyond the scope of this post.) Group norms are easier to work out when you have a basic level of psychological safety with the other members of the group; power struggles are less likely when people trust each other.

And one huge contributor to social trust turns out to be group size. The larger the group, the less likely it is that everyone knows everyone else, or at least knows someone who knows each other person. In smaller groups, people are able to bank on their reputation. People are bound together by their shared history, and breaks are more easily repaired. (This is even compatible with pseudonyms. You don't need to know someone's "real name" to know who they are as a person.) We've seen this in many small, informal online communities.

OK, so small groups are comfortable. But by definition they lack those big-group amenities. Is there a way to get the best of both worlds?

Cross-posting our way to a better world

I think it's possible, and I think one approach is to embrace sharing across groups, a.k.a. cross-posting.

Think of how people use Discord. I know any number of people who have created a Discord instance and invited a bunch of their friends, with the result that on each instance you have a lot of people who already know each other, the instances are relatively small, and these people are on multiple of these instances. It's pretty common for someone to see a link on one Discord and then post it to another Discord. Or they see a question on one, relay it to another, and manually relay the most useful answers back. This actually works pretty well for some things, and I think it can serve as inspiration for more full-fledged designs.

Why build something instead of just continuing to use Discord? Well, Discord is a commercial product that will inevitably become shitty as it is juiced for return on investment; that's already not a great start. But even if we were using Matrix instead, there's still a problem: It's a chat system. There's not a great way to share longer pieces of text or chunks of conversation; people tend to screenshot rather than copying, which is terrible for usability, accessibility, and search. Sharing-back of interesting replies is a manual process. This makes larger Discord instances more attractive to those seeking a broader reach for questions or ideas — not a dynamic I want to encourage.

But it's not hard to imagine a protocol designed to facilitate cross-posting! Imagine something with the approximate user experience of Reddit (posts, with threaded comments) but where subreddits stay small and there's a simple mechanism for relaying posts and replies between subreddits. By embracing our natural tendency to share interesting things with each other, and providing structure around it to help avoid misunderstandings about private vs. public content, such a protocol could allow people to stay in small, comfortable groups without losing the richness of large networks.

(I don't want to overshadow the main point of my post, so I've moved my sketch for such a system to an appendix.)

Staying small

I still haven't described how the groups would be kept small. Honestly... I'm not sure. There is a tendency for human systems to expand in scope, for power to accumulate, for villages to dwindle and cities to grow. Some of this is because of the resourse-richness of large groups. Cities have a wide variety of people and jobs and services. I hope that structural sharing would alleviate this attraction to large groups. But another part is about infrastructure; in cities, someone else is taking care of the utilities, transit, and maintenance. Likewise, most people would prefer to join an existing Mastodon server than to run their own, even if the user experience were otherwise identical. The best idea I have is this: That the barrier to creating a group must be kept as low as possible. The infrastructure must be as simple to run as possible, or even nonexistent; the cost as low as possible, or even free.

This is a formidable challenge. Modern developers think in terms of centralized services, with knowledgeable admins running servers on behalf of thousands of people, paying the bills with ads, donations, or vulture capital. This is true even with the fediverse; though decentralized, large instances persist and grow. We may need to invent new models for communication protocols. (I've certainly been working on that for Cavern, my social journaling protocol; see the goals doc for notes on what I've considered and why.)

But... I think we can do it! I think we can reinvent small- to mid-sized digital spaces for today's world, and without isolating ourselves into filter-bubbles. And if you see people working on small-group social media protocols, please let me know! I'd love to maintain a list here.


  • 2023-06-19 16:30 EDT: Moved design sketch to the appendix and described the organic sharing system people use on Discord and similar.
  • 2023-06-19 16:50 EDT: Clarified some aspects of infrastructure and attribution in the sketch.
  • 2023-07-09 10:40 EDT: Added discussion link.
  • 2023-12-26 14:30 EST: Fixed link to Dreamwidth.

Appendix: A sketch of a reified sharing system

Here's a rough sketch of a social media protocol that makes sharing a first-class feature, where individuals act as trusted conduits between groups:

  • There's a large collection of groups, run on minimal/shared infrastructure, each with just one or two admins/moderators/hosts. Expect that participacts will each be a member of many groups, including ones with overlapping topics.
  • Design the conversation structure to be based on posts and threaded comments. (Like Reddit, and unlike Twitter.)
  • Figure out privacy levels. Maybe everything posted in the group is public even to outsiders, or maybe some or all posts are only visible to group members. This would likely vary by group.
  • Define a sharing mechanism. Posts and comments will need to be marked as shareable or not, so that people don't have to guess at the poster's intentions. Independent of any kind of upvoting mechanism that might exist within a group, there needs to also be a way to share other people's posts across groups. If you see a really intriguing shareable post in "#BanCars Boston" and think people in "YIMBY New England" would find it interesting, you could cross-share the post.
  • Shared posts would have UI similar to boosts on Mastodon, with a clear distinction between author and sharer. A shared post could also be re-shared to yet another group.
  • Here's the critical part: Sharers are notified of replies, and have the ability to share the replies back to the post on the original group.
  • (What if there's a post marked as shareable, but private to the group? Perhaps these would be shared without attribution, with some mechanism for the author to claim attribution later if they wanted it. Not everyone would want to use such a feature, but I think this would be a useful compromise to many.)
  • Deduplication within and across groups, the hazards of quote-tweets (i.e. sharing-with-commentary), content warnings, edits/deletes, claiming of attribution, introductions, invitations, directories, and other details are left as an exercise for the reader.

I think it would meet most people's needs. Ideas, cat pictures, and questions would be able to flow back and forth across the broader network, and replies would be able to flow back again. Moderation would be a shared duty: If group members exercise discretion in what they share, the admins of the group have less work to do.


There's a bit of discussion over on the Social Media Design community on Dreamwidth:

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