This is a summary of an excellent but long blog post, Status as a Service (StaaS) — Remains of the Day (eugenewei.com). I wanted everyone to have access to the perspectives and ideas laid out in the post, but the barrier to entry is currently a 20,000 word essay. The main thing knowingly missing from these summaries is that the original is humorously well-written, which will not come through.
Also included is a very brief look at LessWrong in light of the ideas, which I could not prevent myself from writing.
List of takeaways:
- Human beings chase status (social capital) and are good at recognizing efficient ways to gain it.
- Social networks provide social capital opportunities, utility, and entertainment. Analyzing just utility/entertainment/network effects isn't enough.
- Social network success is highly analogous to cryptocurrency. New capital (new status hierarchy), proof-of-work (sharable Tweet), built-in and increasing scarcity (harder to get the most followers once Twitter is saturated).
- Young folks are the biggest target: they have more time and less existing efficient ability to gain social capital.
- Proof-of-work is an asymptote of growth; only so many people will compose a video for TikTok. Social capital devaluation can also kill a network; classic example is parents-joining chased kids off Facebook.
- Merely exposing status might be enough to provide social capital opportunities, a persistent profile + artifacts is not necessarily required.
- Social capital can be exchanged for goods and services. Sometimes.
- Unless you are status-poor, you probably don't understand the actions of those trying to gain social capital cheaply.
Efficient Status Opportunities
Humans are status-seeking monkeys and continually seek out efficient paths to maximizing their social capital, but social networks are rarely analyzed on the dimensions of status or social capital. Let's analyze social networks in general, and many specific instances like Facebook or TikTok in particular, through a lens which emphasizes their status-seeking dynamics.
First and most importantly: social networks provide lucrative status-gaining opportunities. Some of the first good Twitter users have millions of followers today, far out of proportion to their likelihood of gaining millions of followers if they joined for the first time right now.
There's gold in them thar hills.
Network effects, first-mover advantage. So why don't all social networks succeed? Is it just random chance which "go viral"? Probably not just random chance. Let's examine the three dimensions of value which social networks offer: entertainment, utility, and social capital.
You might start watching Twitch because it's entertaining. You might stream yourself because it's quite easy to get started and any other method would be a huge chore. And you might gain a lot of social capital as your subscriber count rises. On Twitch, this social capital is easily (relatively) convertible to monetary capital.
How does the bootstrap happen? Usually a combination of entertainment/utility, plus hope - hope that this becomes bigger than it started. Humans notice they can trade a resource they have in abundance for (in expectation) a more valuable resource at a great exchange rate. Most commonly we're talking about free time in exchange for social capital, and because of standard diminishing marginal utility, that means usually it's young humans for whom the exchange rate is overwhelmingly best. How else will they get status? What brand of car they have parked in their garage, what neighborhood they can afford to live in, how many levels below CEO they are in their org? Older humans already have efficient status games, the young need new ones.
This is also why many new social networks are highly visual, as young humans currently are much more biased towards visual mediums than older humans.
How is a new social network analogous to an ICO?
- Each new social network issues a new form of social capital, a token.
- You must show proof of work to earn the token.
- Over time it becomes harder and harder to mine new tokens on each social network, creating built-in scarcity.
- Many people, especially older folks, scoff at both social networks and cryptocurrencies for reasons which taste very similar.
Proof-of-work is doing a lot of, well, work, here. If it were easy to mine tokens no one would be impressed that you mined them. Status is about competition, and is relative. If everyone can achieve it, it's not status, it's a participation trophy.
TikTok requires spending time to make a legitimately fascinating short video. Twitter requires spending time training to create short, pithy, insightful-sounding, etc text-bites. Instagram requires good photography, underlying its filters. Producing work for a social network often results in an artifact independently worth sharing; using the social network to share it is where the network-effect status is generated.
Many large tech companies may never create a truly successful social network, because they are focused on the utility dimension with a nod to entertainment, trying to grow the underlying network without providing actual capital, tokens, that folks desire. Or making the tokens too hard to obtain. Perhaps this is because of the engineering focus (bias?) of Google, Microsoft, and Apple. This capital can take many forms, but it must be a focus if you want your social network to go viral rather than be subject to the cutthroat competition of a simple utility provider.
Snapchat issued perhaps the most fascinating tokens. Its utility offering was an avant-garde ephemerality, but how do you accumulate status when all artifacts of your usage disappear? No profile, no history, no accumulation? In this summary I will avoid most of the descriptions of how various social networks succeeded, but here is Snapchat. Originally it kept track of the three contacts you Snap'd most often, your Best Friends, and surfaced related emojis next to those and other contacts, directly exposing the most important components of the status graph. Come for the messaging utility, stay lest you fall out of favor.
Later they moved away from the Best Friends list, which was too locally bounded to really explode, towards streaks, which were unbounded status, and literally proof-of-work as proof-of-friendship, quantified and tracked.
As folks gradually stopped caring about streaks, Snapchat had to introduce new features, new avenues of status gain, to remain relevant; after a major dip in 2018, they seem to be succeeding. So far.
Let's conclude with a quick overview of the many ways social networks have failed (or struggled). I found understanding the failures perhaps most instructive in understanding the social capital opportunity perspective of social networks.
Prisma: a photo filter app which tried to pivot to become a social network. Prisma used machine learning to turn photos into fine art paintings. It worked really, really, well, basically every time, so there was no proof-of-work, and no one gained any status. Fail.
Mastodon: a Twitter clone which aims to get away from the tyranny of the algorithmic feed. According to this perspective, this means it can never really overtake the original which offers a much faster token-gaining feedback loop. Not fail, per se, since that was the intent.
Facebook: lost the young due to inclusion of the old. Had to pivot many times to introduce new status ladders like Stories. Hasn't failed, but without the massive pushes to innovate, would have.
MySpace: poor discoverability equals very slow feedback loops compared to modern alternatives. Fail.
Tencent's short video: trying to compete with TikTok, Tencent launched a clone with an inspired added feature allowing viewers to record a side-by-side video reaction in response to any video. TikTok immediately copied it; Tencent gained no traction here. Fail.
Path: photo-sharing and messaging social network. Path explicitly limited your social graph to the Dunbar number. They tried to become the anti-Facebook and succeeded at becoming a network without enough users. People want to accumulate social capital as efficiently as possible, so capping it doesn't work. Fail.
Google Hangouts: all the way out on the utility side of things, not really even trying to be a social network, though it's used for messaging and there is a contacts graph implicitly. Not fail, per se, but it's clear why it's not a runaway social network success.
Hipstamatic: photo filter app. Charged for filters. No profile page. No social network. No feed. All utility, didn't try to capture any of the social capital others were accruing by using its filters and then posting on other, actual social networks. Fail.
Whisper: anonymous social network. Its strength is also its weakness: social capital accrued here is almost impossible to convert to other capital. And considering much of the content posted, no one would want to. Fail.
The Kardashian: vanity celebrity app. All status flows from the celebrity, no real way for users to gain their own social capital. Fail.
Every year's clothing fashion: the clothing industry knows it's in a huge status ladder and they always have tipping points and start to fail. Its solution, since clothes qua clothes aren't going away, is to tear down the existing status ladder every year and issue a new, just-as-arbitrary status ladder in its place. What's "in" this year is out next year, by design. So overall success, but because every individual year's fashion was bound to soon fail. See also the entire section on the tipping points of social networks in Eugene's original.
Just kidding, we haven't concluded yet. Hidden here is my quick take on LessWrong (2.0) as viewed through the lens of a social network.
Epistemic status: makin' this up on the fly.
Posts. Frontpage. Linkposts. Blog mirroring. Karma. Comments. Nominations, reviews, voting, physical books. "Celebrities". Questions. Tags. Profiles.
What social status is available here? Interaction with high-profile individuals, gaining karma, others seeing your name on high-karma posts and comments, literally getting published kinda now that we're making physical books. No longer is the karma leaderboard visible, no longer do "the old celebrities" like Eliezer or Robin or Yvain visibly comment on high profile posts much though new money like Zvi certainly might. Some of the avoidance of encouraging "fake status striving" is definitely intentional, some feedback loops (batched karma updates!) clearly lengthened. We don't want to skew folks' preferences and habits for no gain but attention. We don't actually want to attract every single person under the sun.
We'd love to be a site purely for utility.
A site destined to fail?
Well, okay, no. We'll include enough utility to attract and keep some folks, and enough promise of social capital to bring in new folks in just enough numbers to maintain a thriving community but not tooooo thriving. Is that... really our goal here? On purpose? Accidentally, via the control system of "keep adding social-capital-accumulation features when stagnating until the community is thriving again then removing them in boom times to become less dark"?
After reading Status as a Service I have a dream that LessWrong contains several different communities, at least one of which encourages extremely thoughtful new pieces on the science and art of becoming less wrong while avoiding the addictive status aspects, and at least one of which encourages everyone in the world to come read these pieces and contribute thoughtful comments and have just a small fraction, exactly those we most want, convert to the first community. And my intuition says that if this is to ever happen, those two communities must be designed and optimized for separately.