On people as status-seeking monkeys
Because it would explain so many things…
This post(*) is a very short excerpt of the much longer, interesting essay titled “Status-Seeking Monkeys” (2019), with some points I want to share and keep handy for their general interest.
The essay builds on the two principles that people are status-seeking monkeys, and that they seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital. The quotes below, edited for brevity, are its main points, with a few comment (in bold) by me.
Status Seeking Monkeys
Most social media networks generate much more social capital than actual financial capital, especially in their early stages. Understanding social capital is important to understand why social networks succeed, fail or disappear.
In the past few years, much progress has been made analyzing Software as a Service (SaaS) businesses. Not as much has been made on social networks as Status as a Service (StaaS) businesses. Fashion, video games, religion, and society itself are some of the original Status as a Service businesses.
Traditional Network Effects Model of Social Networks
Successful social networks must first appeal to people when they have few users. Besides, they must have strong network effects so that as more and more users come aboard, the network value grows. This matches Metcalfe’s Law on telecom networks:
The value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n^2)
but to really understand how Staas businesses live or die it is necessary to complement network effects, or the utility of a network, with [at least] social capital theory.
Facebook allows people to reach other people otherwise harder to reach, and WhatsApp allows almost free instant messaging with anybody worldwide (ME: as long as they are so clueless to accept phone numbers as account names](/tag/whatsapp), of course): this is utility. Social capital instead, is basically equivalent to social status, and social networks work somehow like cryptocurrencies.
Even social networks issue tokens of social capitals that you earn through some “proof of work”, that becomes harder to gain as the network grows, as it happens with Bitcoin mining. But unlike cryptocurrencies, “mining” social capital still largely happens “through one’s own blood, sweat, and tears”.
It’s true that as more people join a network, more social capital is up for grabs in the aggregate. However, in general, if you come to a social network later, competition for attention is more intense than it was in the beginning.
Proof of work matters for a social network exactly because humans are status-seeking monkeys, and status isn’t worth much if there’s no skill and effort required to mine it, and everyone can achieve it.
Since people look for the most efficient ways to accumulate the most social capital, some social networks are better for some demographic group than others. Examples: TikTok is best for people who are good at, and interested in, lip-synching and dancing. Twitter is best for people who can become “master of the 140 character or less punchline”.
It is thirst for status that is the lifeblood of a Status as a Service business. Any new business of this kind must “devise some proof of work that depends on some actual skill to differentiate among users”.
Some networks reward those who gain a lot of followers early on with so much added exposure that they continue to gain more followers than other users. Eventually, if this effect dominates, new users lose incentive to come, or remain: “Trickle down economics works, but often just down the veins of family trees”.
[Therefore] social networks should continuously track the Return on Investment (ROI) on posts for NEW users, to remain successful.
The greatest social capital boom in history was the launch of Facebook’s News Feed: merging all updates from all the accounts you followed into a single continuous surface and having that serve as the default screen.
It’s difficult to overstate what a momentous sea change it was for hundreds of millions, and eventually billions, of humans who had grown up competing for status in small tribes, to suddenly be dropped into a talent show competing against EVERY PERSON THEY HAD EVER MET.
Now, we have a generation that has been trained through hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of social media reps on what engages people on which platforms.
[But] For humans, what matters is less our absolute status than how are we doing compared to those around us. By taking the scope of our status competitions virtual, we scaled them up in a way that we weren’t entirely prepared for. Is it any surprise that seeing other people signaling so hard about how wonderful their lives are decreases our happiness?
Fact is, if you believe that people want to accumulate social capital as efficiently as possible, putting a bound on how much they can earn it is a challenging business model, as dark as that may be.
ME: and THAT IS THE POINT. This must stop being a business. We need to go beyond social media “platforms”.
For young people, new Status as a Service businesses, are the fastest and most efficient path to gaining social capital. But social media has extended the reach of the youth status game in just about every direction possible (ME: and it did it to the people least prepared to recognize, and handle properly, both meaningful success and unavoidable failures).
Incidentally, kids still in school have to maintain an identity among classmates at school, then another identity at home with family. Facebook, with its explicit attachment to the real world, is a poor structural fit for this need (ME: here is more proof that context collapse always was a totally dumb idea).
Risks for today’s unacknowledged “Status as a service” businesses
Status as a Service businesses are particularly fraught with network effects traps because social capital is FRAGILE. Status relies on coordinated consensus to define the scarcity that determines its value, and consensus can shift in an instant, for example when a new group of users arrives: when parents arrived on Facebook, kids abandoned it.
Besides, the proof of work needed to achieve status is based on skills that are not evenly distributed. This limits the maximum number of users. TikTok successful creators must be good at lip-synching and dancing. Not everybody is born able to create “witty 280-character info nuggets” for Twitter forever.
Success is another problem. If a social network achieves enough success, it must establish an algorithmic feed to maintain high signal-to-noise for most of its users. But this diminishes the distribution of any single post from any single user.
Social capital does tend to be non-fungible which also tends to make it easier to abandon ship. If your Twitter followers aren’t worth anything on another network, it’s less painful to just walk away from the account if it isn’t worth the trouble anymore. Also, since social networks often attract different audiences, as long as those networks “don’t quite work the same way”, there will continue to be copying work from one network to another to accumulate social capital on closing the distribution gap.
ME: Please stop a moment to realize what a HUGE WASTE of money and human resources this is. It is the opposite of POSSE)
Finally, without metrics that distinguish between healthy and unhealthy activity, social network execs largely have to steer by anecdote, [also because…] On a day-to-day basis, they hardly face a single issue that their core users grapple with constantly.
Conclusion: Everybody Wants to Rule the World
That many of the largest tech companies are, in part, status as a service businesses, is not often discussed. Most people don’t like to admit to being motivated by status, and few CEO’s are going to admit that the job to be done for their company is stroking people’s egos.
But if we think of these networks as marketplaces trading only in information, and not in status, then we’re only seeing part of the machine.
() post written in March 2020, put online in August 2020 because of… my coronavirus reports, of course.
Image sources: Chimpanzee Social Structure