FriendGroup 0.1.0

The Journey to a Better Social Network

I remember getting home from school and rushing through dinner to jump on the family PC and use Windows Live Messenger ("MSN" as we called it) late into the night. I had a good group of friends in middle school, but I lived 15 miles from the town where I went to school - a massive inconvenience when you're a 12 year old. MSN allowed me to hang out with my friends without being able to meet up with my friends. It was a pretty basic messaging app. You signed up with an email address and added contacts using their emails. Self-expression and a sense of a profile came in the form of a status that was attached to your name on contact lists and in chats. There was no feed of statuses, just a display of your current status next to your name. I mostly used MSN to chat up crushes and talk about chatting up crushes with friends, but I remember having some thoughtful and connection-forming conversations on those late nights I spent hogging the family computer. Not long after my contact list had begun to stagnate, I started hearing about a new website that everyone but me seemed to be using.

It was weird to start using a full-blown social network like MySpace. Signing up and having this strange guy named Tom already in my friends list was unsettling, as well as the idea of sharing so much personal information on the internet - during a time, and in a community, where most adults didn't know how to use the internet. MySpace users could customize a profile with a picture, birthday, bio, and all kinds of other personal information; a MySpace page was like a personal website. I remember sharing angsty teenage posts on my MySpace blog and having a playlist of fittingly angsty punk songs that would play when you visited my page. I don't remember exactly how interaction between users worked, but I remember being able to comment on things and my friends still chatting over MSN. There were pictures, and top friends, too. MySpace made me feel like I had an online presence that was always connected to my friends' online presences - a digital network connecting us through top friend lists and public comment threads. The digital network was fragile, though, and a new site began to pull it apart by coaxing my friends off of MySpace and onto their site.

There was a lot of debate about MySpace being superior to Facebook, and strong resistance from many of my friends about creating a Facebook profile, but after a while, everyone was using Facebook. At that time, among my friends, we would post statuses of witty or dramatic text and photos to Facebook. The "like" button was a fun, new, low-commitment form of interaction for us and it seemed like everyone was posting and commenting on everything. Finding friends or acquaintances through the search tool was simple and allowed each person to create large digital networks, spreading their thoughts and sharing their experiences as far as they could reach. Facebook also had its own chat, so we said goodbye to MSN. I thought Facebook was a really great social network, but by the time I graduated high school, I had accumulated a lot of "friends", many of which I no longer wanted to share everything I was posting with. The reach of my network changed the way I shared on Facebook, so I deactivated my account after high school.

I made a new account because I would be starting college and college people made connections by saying "add me on Facebook". I re-added my close friends from high school and began growing a new network with the new people I met in college. This time around I was much more conscious of who my "friends" were and I would prune my friends regularly. But, as Facebook became more popular and more user-friendly, a lot of my family started getting on Facebook and were weaved into my friends. It's not that I didn't want to have social media connections with my family, it's just that having them as friends changed the way I shared on Facebook again. It seemed like around this time everyone changed the way they were sharing on the social network. Much fewer people were posting original thoughts and feelings in their status updates than were sharing articles. The feed also became algorithmically sorted (as opposed to reverse chronological) and it was completely filled with unoriginal shared content. This was especially frustrating during the campaign for the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

I watched people say ugly things to each other, and I said some things I regretted, on Facebook during this time. Every day it was negative. I thought a lot about social media then and about how it affected my life. After realizing how much time I spent using it, and how many people I could reach with posts, I decided to start sharing positive things on a daily basis. I would post a status every day that would include "be kind today". When I started, these were the most popular posts I had shared on my profile, getting plenty of likes and comments from friends. There were also some great conversations forming in the comments. But, after about a month, the popularity of my posts began to fade and interaction fell. Around this time, I started reading about Facebook's algorithmic feed and how it would promote posts that would encourage use of their platform while suppressing posts that might negatively affect usage. I decided to test this by sharing some of this knowledge in one of my "be kind today" posts - it received absolutely no interaction. No single prior post in this series was void of interaction. I deactivated my account again, this time for good.

I got a lot of grief from my friends about it. They would say things like "oh, you probably didn't see that because you aren't on Facebook anymore," or "if you were on Facebook, we could just invite you to the event," that would make me feel left out of things. Even Facebook gave me grief about it by hiding the functions to delete my account and warning of how much I would miss out on in the click-throughs leading to my account deletion. These things only made me realize how bad Facebook was for me and for my friends.

After graduating college I wanted to stay in touch with a close group of friends - roommates I had lived with for a couple of years. We had a group SMS chat and a group Snapchat where we would share funny pictures or try to coordinate things like a fantasy football draft. These were good for this type of communication, but what I missed most about hanging out with my roommates was the long-form intellectual conversations we had while living together. They weren't feasible using messaging and Snapchat because those technologies don't support long messages and tend toward abrupt changes of subject. I thought back to the way Facebook used to be when I first started using it in high school, and I missed it.

My first attempt to reintroduce intellectual discussion among my roommates after we all spread across the country was through a book club. This was coordinated through group messaging and polls on Google Forms; meetings were carried out with Google Hangouts. Getting the club setup was difficult and I was glad for decent attendance at our first meeting, but I knew that something would need to change to streamline the process if it were to keep up. I started working on a website for our book club. The first feature I wanted was a book suggestion voting system, but the first feature I implemented was adding a link to our weekly Google Hangout - because it was easy. Most everyone visited the site for this link because I stopped emailing it out after I added it to the site. Since they were regularly visiting the site, the book suggestion feature got a lot of use when it was first added. It looked like we would have a good list of books to keep our club going, but attendance fell off and only two of the original six people finished the book. We had been meeting every week to discuss about fifty pages, and I don't think that fit well with everyone's schedule. So, we dropped the book club. We did keep the weekly Google Hangout, though.

This time, with no commitment required outside of joining the Hangout, attendance looked more promising. There were many weeks in a row where four or five out of six people would join the Hangouts. During the first few weeks a lot of the conversation was catching up with everyone. After we had all caught up, the Hangouts topics shifted to whatever one of us could think of on the spot to keep the conversation going. Attendance began to dwindle. I realized that it is hard to keep conversations going when you aren't always up-to-speed with the people you're talking to. I started thinking about a new social media for keeping friends in touch and encouraging conversation. I drew inspiration from some social sites I had started using after Facebook.

I used Reddit and Hacker News to keep up with topics I was interested in. Users would share content on these site and other users would vote on it to curate a sorted list of interesting link- and text-posts. Discussions that formed on these social news sites adhered to community guidelines and were thus informative, thoughtful, and productive. This was the kind of discussion I had when living with my roommates that I was missing with my book club and Hangouts attempts. These sites weren't focused on reaching a wide audience, so their designs turned a lot of non-power-users off - few of my friends were regular users of Hacker News and Reddit. They were also anonymous, and many social media users want to attach part of their identity to their interactions. An aversion to anonymity on social media and a desire for ease-of-use would contribute a lot to my intentions for my new social media.

"FriendGroup" is what I decided to call my idea. It would be a group-based, non-anonymous social media site. Users would have their name attached to their profile; they would be part of groups where they knew the names of everyone else in that group; they would have some sort of score that displayed their level of experience. Posts would be group-private where users would select the group that a post would be visible to, and users of that group could vote and comment on those posts. Users would only be added to FriendGroup via an invite through a personal channel, like email or text, with a specific group as their entry point. I was excited about this idea and would start building off the existing book club site.

It took me a while to reshape the book club site to what I thought was a minimum viable FriendGroup. The first iteration (I called it "0.0.1") was just a basic reverse-chronological feed that users could post text and links to. I created an authentication system and manually added my roommates to it. I emailed each of them some context and instructions for how to use the site... but no one used it. I was the only one who posted in 0.0.1. I did a little redesign for the next release, 0.0.2, and fixed some bugs that prevented basic usage - like not being able to post if there was a single quote (most people call this an apostrophe) in your post - and my users began to post and comment. I wanted to keep FriendGroup minimal and only add features that I thought were absolutely necessary, so I made sure that my roommates had used the site and I could understand what they liked and didn't before adding features. The Hangouts attendance picked up a little during this time, and I would use those conversations and our group messaging to ask for feedback.

I continued a cycle of releasing a couple new features while making fixes and evaluating usage for a while. There were spikes in usage whenever I would bug my roommates and I would get very excited about the potential this new social media has. There were also long periods where I was the only one posting and I was trying desperately to make the site something my roommates would use on their own. I've had to remind myself that a network's value is proportional to the square of its number of users to keep me from losing hope in FriendGroup. My strategy hasn't been to add more users, so the value doesn't increase as much with new features. At this point, I think I've added all of the core features to FriendGroup and I'm nervous about trying to grow the network.

I think my site could become what I've been missing in social media. I could have a group for my roommates where I have long-form, thought-provoking discussion on current topics or philosophy. In a group with my family, I will happily share content that they might find interesting and be glad to see and interact with their posts. My high school friends could all be in a group allowing us to keep in touch without worrying about other people influencing the way we post. It's been about six months since I started developing FriendGroup, and I've still got a lot of work to do. Wish me luck.