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Burn Down the Stage
Why do social media platforms devolve into a talent show?
July 2023. Social media is in a moment of chaos. There are plenty of scapegoats, but I don’t think we’ve all agreed on the correct source of fire. Blame the business model. Blame the advertisers. Blame the protocol, algorithm, bots, moderators, or cancel mobs. Blame the left or the right. Blame one of two billionaires. But even if you built a new social network, one with a noble cause, and it fixed every single one of these problems, it would still devolve into a game of American Idol.
If you were conscious, American, and owned a television in 2003, you know this show. I remember sitting on my parent’s green, beat up couch, gazing into a 29” SONY, mesmerized at Season 2. Clay Aiken. Rubben Studdard. Normal people with normal lives became household names overnight. No one in the country had seen reality TV quite like this. We watched. We voted through a landline. Everyone had a role to play. It was the dawn of “social media,” but through television, before Silicon Valley put it on the Internet.
This is more than a hollow game show from a lost era. It influenced our culture in a profound way. The first wave of social platforms (MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter) emerged at a time when American Idol had our culture mesmerized. When Facebook hit its viral moment in 2006 with the introduction of the News Feed, American Idol was the #1 show in the country and had 3x the “user base.” Now, every major platform we have, without exception, is structured like a talent show: the owners create a digital stage (a vacuum for fame) where a mass of lurkers vote to determine the fate of disposable idols.
Instead of using the profound invention of the Internet to connect, stay in touch, and express ourselves, we’ve designed ourselves a tyrannical stage.
Some dare to jump on it and sing cover songs, but most don’t. You know why? Poll results tell us that stage fright is the #1 fear in America. It’s called “glossophobia.” We’d rather dangle from the edge of a building, suspend ourselves in a pool of snakes, drown, have ACL surgery, or get packed into an unimaginably small space, than to stand in front of a mass of people and tell them what we think.
We’ve built our worst nightmare and we can’t snap out of it.
How did this happen? Let’s look into the rise of the stage and the downstream effects on our culture. Is it possible to build social media without “the stage effect,” or are we forever destined to perform?
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The Right to Be Famous
So few people had computers in 1993, that the first online writers were characterized by an extreme lack of self-consciousness. It wasn’t about status. Nerdy, pseudonymous pioneers were basically journaling in public through HTML mazes and weblogs. The Internet was void of a main stage. It was only hallways. In the early 2000s, when I was barely a teenager, I jumped from AIM to MySpace, and the fact that I was willing to post a shirtless cringeworthy photo of myself (edited in Abercrombie-sepia), was proof that I saw myself existing in a private, barely-visible corner of the Internet.
Within a few years the ethos radically shifted. Instead of building tools for everyday people to connect over media, we built tools to make everyday people instantly famous. This happened on television before the Internet; through American Idol.
This show didn’t just feature a regular stage, but a stage you watched from home along with the whole country. It wasn’t just a regular talent show; you were the judge. And it wasn’t just for the talented; even, you could try out. This new format of media imprinted on the American psyche in two key ways:
THE RIGHT TO BE AN IDOL – American Idol popularized the idea that a normal person could reach nationwide fame overnight. The celebrities of the 90s were manufactured icons from labels, hand-selected and delivered from above, but this show went out of its way to highlight the humble origins of the contestants. It’s a meritocracy now. Everyone has a chance to be suddenly famous. Can you kind of sing? This could happen to you, too. There was an open invitation, and so 600,000 dreamers stampeded into auditorium tryouts across the country.
THE CIVIC DUTY OF VOTING – Before American Idol, television had been a one-way broadcast. Now the audience controlled the show. Call in. Text in. Millions sent data back to the show to determine its outcome. The subject matter was trivial (who sang the best Aerosmith cover song), but the mechanism was a revolution: for the first time, a mob of people could come together and determine the fate of their culture. They voted on which everyday person would join the pantheon of pop idols.
The name “American” Idol is very revealing. Underneath this talent show was a new premise that was unexpected: democratic fame. You have both the right to be famous and the civic duty to vote on the fame of others. The stage became accessible and interactive.
This show was a milestone in Americanism. In 2012, the Season 11 finale alone hit a record of 132 million votes, eclipsing the turnout in the United States presidential election by 3 million. Obama’s election was historic, but technically, Americans cared slightly more about Phillip Phillips.
The key innovation of American Idol is dangling fame on an open stage. By enabling 1% of users to radically succeed (the talent), you get the 99% hooked on the game, and that is the customer base. Whether the spectators secretly hope for fame themselves one day, want to experience the ascent of fame vicariously, or, convulse at the whole concept, it’s hard to look away. The show created an opportunity for advertising at a scale and degree never before seen.
Coca Cola was the official sponsor, Ford sold cars, and Cingular made millions on an exclusive SMS voting contract, but the main export of this show was a new joy of voyeurism. We marveled at the rise and fall of everyday people. We cringed at delusional singers, hoping Simon (the British alpha judge) would unleash his nasty snark. We watched artists reduce their complex selves into personal brands that could be digested by the public. I was young and impressionable. I learned to lurk and judge from behind the safety of a screen.
From 2003-2006, as we saw the rise in popularity of American Idol, social media companies evolved their feature set in a way that eerily resembles the mechanics of a talent show.
The feed was born, aggregating everyone’s “wall” posts onto the front page of the site. Overnight, it evolved from a semi-public bulletin board to a radically public always-on show. Cozy status updates turned into a mandatory megaphone. Now every thought you had was broadcasted to every person you’ve ever known. It was a stage; the stakes were raised.
Our lingo changed from “friend requests” to “followers.” It’s no longer about a 2-way bond, it’s about becoming the idol of your own reality. The change in terms represents that someone could accrue a following way larger than the people they actually know. You can become a celebrity, admired and worshiped by the loose contacts of your loose contacts. Followers became the currency of fame.
The like brought metrics into play, changing the game from connecting into ranking. The “thumbs up” is innocent on the surface, but it birthed an era of quantifiable status. It made our thoughts “fungible,” meaning, we can value the worthiness of posts relative to each other. The “like” is effortless; a low-friction form of participation. If you don’t want to get on the stage, that’s fine, just vote.
September 5th, 2006. I remember when Facebook introduced “the News Feed.” I scrolled, mesmerized, contemplating the implications. It’s as if I was airdropped into my own custom reality show. It triggered a radical degree of self-consciousness. Now everyone sees when I post?
There was significant backlash, but we never looked back. These 3 elements (the feed, the follower, the like) are the foundation of every platform now, and they fuse together to create the modern spectacle that we appear to be stuck in. There’s an obvious reason this happened: both the Television and Internet companies, at around the same time, learned the absurd power of owning the stage. In 2009, American Idol hit $937 million in advertising alone, becoming the first “social media”' platform to pass a billion in annual revenue. Facebook Ads launched one year after The News Feed, and by 2010, they passed a billion too.
The ethos of American Idol warped the early promise of social media. Even though the feature set evolved to put each of us in our own reality show, its outward mission statement didn’t change. Facebook wants to “make the world more open and connected.” LinkedIn wants to “connect the world's professionals.” Twitter is the “town square” for free speech. This is all feel-good utopian bullshit. It was a bait and switch. If they were to make an honest pitch it would be, “even, you can become a star, and if not, at least you can vote.”
The Lurker Generation
What percent of users on social media actually post?
Whenever I ask people this, they guess it’s around 30-50%. There’s a massive bias here: the illusion that everyone’s in on the game. It’s way closer to 1% (or under). In 2006, Nielsen posted a report on “participation inequality” on social media sites, and used the figure of 90-9-1. 90% lurk and leave no trace, 9% will like or share, while just 1% creates new content. The stage creates a radical split between Idols and Lurkers.
Maybe you think our era of social media can be defined as “loud and chaotic, with everyone screaming at once,” but it’s really an era of mass self-censorship.
We’ve built a context where anyone can share, but in reality, almost no one does. So even if viral sensations absorb all the attention in the room, a generation is defined by the sensibilities of the masses, which means it would be accurate to call us the “Lurker Generation.”
If you’ve been on the new platform Threads, you’ll notice it’s suspiciously void of normal people. On July 5th, Meta released their “Twitter Killer” and it gained a historic 100 million sign-ups in the first few days. It’s marketed as “a sane vision of the Internet” and a place where “communities come together,” but it’s really a stage for Idols. My wife and I scrolled through her feed to find an endless stream of influencers and brands. All big accounts. She follows a few hundred people we know in real life (college friends, co-workers, family), but they never appeared, either because they felt intimidated to jump on this new stage, or, because their ideas weren’t as algorithmically relevant as the musings of Bill Gates.
This is “the stage effect” in action. A few perform, but most avoid it.
The idea of extreme visibility is unappealing to most people. Being a celebrity is uncomfortable (even if you’re a micro-micro-celebrity). Stages are inherently scary. In the analog world, we have intimate and specific contexts, and tailor what we say to a group of 2-10 people. Rarely do you make a casual declaration to hundreds of people at once. Whenever I make statements to large crowds, like a wedding speech, I’m a sweaty trembling mess for at least 30 minutes before. Addressing “a mass” used to be reserved for pop stars, news anchors, and world leaders. Now, it’s the default setting to stay in touch.
Those who do step up to become Idols can tap into unimaginable opportunities. Post 20-30 times a day, build a name, build an audience, build a business, and you can close the gap between your current life and your wildest vision. You can meet your best friends online. You can tweet your way onto a yacht. This is the premise of “The Great Online Game.”
But whether you’re the Lurker or the Idol, there’s a dark, hypnotic effect when you align yourself with the stage. I’ve seen both sides. As the Lurker, I’ve been caught in multi-day doom-scrolls. As the Idol, I’ve been glued to my notification tab, refreshing every 5 minutes as a thread goes viral, asking, “is this the one to hit a million views?” You’re either addicted to the fame of others, or you’re addicted to your own fame.
The unfortunate truth is that Idols and Lurkers are the lifeblood of social media companies, and the whole dynamic is enabled through a stage. For two decades, it’s been stages all the way down. Apps might look different on the surface, but each one is a clone and a pivot: they each use the same foundation of feeds, likes, and followers, while introducing just one minor variation:
Twitter = Facebook with a word count
Instagram = Facebook with only pictures
Snapchat = Instagram with disappearing pictures
TikTok = Instagram with Fentanyl
Mastodon = Twitter with a decentralized protocol
Threads = Twitter without Elon
In recent years, the stage has gotten bigger and more hypnotizing. It became normal for these apps to deprioritize your social graph, and instead, do whatever it takes to keep you watching their show for as long as possible. I just checked my Facebook feed and analyzed the first 50 posts they showed me: 65% were “suggestions” from viral influencers (averaging 2.8 million views per post), 12 were weirdly relevant ads, and only 2 were from friends. TikTok is perhaps the first app to implicitly say, “Fuck your social graph.” They deliver. They’ve gotten a billion people hooked on vertical videos created by 100,000 influencers. The Lurker:Idol ratio here might be even more extreme (1:10,000).
When you disguise a tyrannical stage as a “friendly place to stay in touch,” it’s no surprise that the members of our culture put themselves on the sideline. It’s no surprise we’re facing a variety of mental health crises and a “loneliness epidemic” (the ultimate irony of social media).
The good news? It seems like we’ve finally had enough. For a few years, especially since the Social Dilemma hit Netflix in 2020, it seemed like we just accepted that social media was inherently dystopian. But the turbulence in 2023 seemed to have pushed us over some edge. Platforms are crumbling and startups are emerging. People are mad, shifting around to sniff things out, and writing angry essays on what went wrong and how to fix it.
Let’s burn down the stage … but what do we rebuild?
Daily Active Posters
I can’t pretend like I know exactly how to redesign the stage. You can’t torch the whole architecture and predict the emergent social effects. Instead, we need to agree on a new core metric.
TikTok, Meta, Twitter — they’re all focused on the metrics you would expect a stage owner to optimize for. TikTok has over 1 billion “monthly active users.” (Users, not posters.) Threads boasted 100 million user sign-ups in under a week (70% of which have already left). Not long after, Elon bragged about Twitter’s all-time high in “user seconds” (they’re optimizing for your consumption down to the blink).
In an epic post by Esther Crawford, a former Product Manager at Twitter, she mentions the gravity of metrics.
“There was little will to think beyond quarterly earnings calls because we were all beholden to the masters of mDAU and revenue growth as a public company.”
mDAU stands for “monetizable daily active users.” The survival of social media companies hinges on consumption. It’s actually very hard to find public stats on what % of daily active users actually post. This would shatter the “global village” illusion, and expose the talent-show-like nature of our reality. Sure, you can have over a billion users, but if less than 1% are posting, it’s a signal that you aren’t creating an approachable place for the median user to express themselves. The median user – are they posting every day, or are they silent and addicted?
What would happen if a startup optimized for daily active posters? Could it help people build and sustain relationships? Could it end the Lurker Generation and reset our culture’s psychology?
We don’t have to play American Idol. Instead, we can strive to create a digital social sphere that solves our deepest existential woe: loneliness. Being real and getting seen is seriously cathartic. The simplest starting point is to invert our intentions: let’s focus on making contributors, not consumers. Instead of making a spectacle that no one can look away from, let’s make a place where the average person feels excited and comfortable to post.
How do you enable mass-daily-posting? Eliminate stage fright. We ultimately need to find a scale between the feed (1:everyone) and a direct message (1:1). This middle scale is kind of paradoxical, in that it fuses reach with intimacy. It should let someone share all sides of themselves, but without self-consciousness. It can’t be a stage. It can’t be about blasting all thoughts to everyone. It’s about being honest and unrestricted, and letting the algorithm work for you, delivering your posts to precisely the right people.
Google+ tried to solve this middle scale in 2011 with “Circles.” You were able to create custom segments of friends to control the visibility of your posts. Twitter has a version of this now too, but it’s a single Circle capped at 150 people. The problem with both of these solutions is that it requires you to manually set up a static group of people. A middle scale should be based on interests, not people. Each person is an evolving constellation of interests. For example, I’ve recently become intrigued with the whole UFO situation, but I have no idea which people in my audience share that interest. I’m not going to rant about Tic Tac physics to an audience who opted in for writing advice. Middle scales should be emergent, interest-based, and algorithmically constructed.
Here are two archetypal problems of stage-based social media. They’re likely very hard to solve. But if we can crack them, it could put an end to the Lurker Generation.
1. The Simba Problem – The Internet was made to share cat pictures. Let’s say I have an adorable stream of pictures of my family’s cat (of course, named Simba). I’m personally not going to share these with all 483 of my Facebook followers for fear of being known as “the cat pic guy.” I’m also not going to go around and message my cat pics to my acquaintances individually, which would be even more insane. But of the 483 followers, there are probably 26 of them who would love to see a regular stream of Simba photos.
How can you share all your obsessions without spamming the majority of your followers, while extremely delighting a small portion of them?
It doesn’t have to be cats. I’m sure you have some extremely wonky interest that you don’t post about for fear of your boss seeing it. What if you were unhinged? If you knew that any given post was delivered to 1) people who opted-in for that topic, and 2) people you’re open to share with, you wouldn’t hold back.
2. The Uncle Nick Problem – I bet you have a crazy family member still going on Facebook. Uncle Nick usually posts a barrage of conspiracy theories, memes, and Bitcoin predictions, but sometimes he’ll post amazing black and white family photos from the 50s. Do you put up with the noise for the occasional signal? You shouldn’t have to commit to everything anyone ever says just by following them. That’s insane.
How can you opt-in for specific themes around the people you follow, so you can increase the signal:noise ratio in your feed?
Uncle Nick has no interest or ontological ability to categorize his own posts, but AI can do this easily. Instead of getting every post from an account, you’d get invitations when new themes emerge. “Do you want Uncle Nick’s rants on how Barbie is woke?” No thanks. “Do you want to see 1950s Flashback images from Uncle Nick?” Absolutely.
We can use algorithms to connect instead of addict. Imagine if the people in your life who have been long silent suddenly started posting nuanced things online, things you actually resonate with and respond to, leading to renewed relationships. Imagine sharing some random shower thought and then hearing from strangers on your wavelength. If “social media” can live up to its name, it would usher in a peer-to-peer revolution (kind of the whole point of the Internet).
So let’s end this era of fame, voting, and attention hoarding. Let’s enable people to share their unfiltered self and connect over granular interest. Let’s shift from idolizing influencers to enriching friendships. Let’s value psychological transformation over performances. Let’s dismantle the stage so social media resembles a social circle more than a shallow spectacle.
Let’s burn down the stage.
Special thanks for the solid feedback to:
Do you remember life on the Internet before the feed?
Do you feel the stage effect when posting?
Aside from your Internet friends, are the people in your life active on social media?
Can we escape the talent show model, or are the financial incentives to keep the show going too much to overcome? What are some alternative business models?
We’re in serious need of a UX overhaul. Can algorithms create yes/no decisions for people to connect in more granular ways? What could we learn from Hey, Readwise, Spotify, Tinder, Convertkit,, etc. Where else can we look to for inspiration?
What are your feelings in this chaotic moment of social media?
Any predictions for what social media will be like in 2025?
Platforms are feuding and changing names. It feels like they're at the edge of collapse. Clones are emerging. Masses are shifting. There's a non-zero chance that Elon and Zuck will have a cage-fight in Las Vegas this calendar year.
This 20 second clip shows Tom from Myspace being awkwardly flaunted by Ryan Seacrest, showing how these two forces swam in the same cultural stratum.
This stat was featured in the 1977 "Book of Lists" by Wallace and Wallechinsky, and made famous in a Seinfeld monologue: “According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
We’re seeing a flurry of new platforms that are claiming to fix our problems by building on a decentralized protocol (Threads, Bluesky, Mastodon). Even if the backend is new, it's still a stage. Saying Threads will make any meaningful dent in culture is like saying The Voice, America’s Got Talent, or Dancing With the Stars are substantially different from American Idol
Before there were feeds or search engines, online writers would manually link out to other writers they supported.
American Idol clips showed someone like you struggling through a normal job in their hometown, only weeks later to be mobbed in a limousine outside their high school. They sold a personalized Beatlemania fantasy.
Talent was no longer a barrier to getting on a national stage. Look at William Hung, a civil engineering student with no vocal training other than karaoke with his parents; allured by the new possibility of stardom, he tried out, bombed, and still became famous for singing “She Bangs” by Ricky Martin.
There were attempts at audience participation back to the 1950s (Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts), but it was limited to loud-o-meters from a live audience.
In case you don’t remember life before the feed, it worked like a directory. You had to actively navigate to someone’s profile, which had a “wall,” a place where you, them, and others could post and comment. The feed transformed social media from an active to passive experience, enabling you to stay in one place, scroll, and click to like.
After a year of the feed, I opted-out and barely posted on social media for over a decade (2008-2020). Only in June of this year did I decide to jump on the stage and perform regularly (on Twitter). Apparently this is divinely timed. “You’re getting onto Twitter, now?” as if I’ve walked into a burning theater.
Fromin The Great Online Game: “Anyone can play. You can choose how to play given your resources and skills at the current moment. You can level up fast. Financial and social capital are no longer tied so tightly to where you went, who you know, or what your boss thinks of you. This game has different physics and wormholes through which to jump. It's exponential instead of linear.”
I knew this was going on, but wasn’t properly disturbed by it until last year when I got manipulated by the Instagram algorithm. In 2022, I started a new pseudonymous Instagram account called “Doodle Dean.” I posted daily drawings on Post-Its, and despite the fact that I only followed other artist accounts (looking for inspiration and connections), the algorithm would show me weird, shocking things, like violent car crashes. Naturally, the subconscious mind is intrigued, and says, “Damn, let me watch that one more time.” But what they don’t tell you is that by simply looking at a video for half-a-second too long, the algorithm takes that as permission to override your conscious intentions. I was shocked at how quickly my art account feed turned into a cess pool. Animal violence. Freak accidents. SFW sex skits. The stage no longer cares about your social graph, your likes, or your conscious preferences; it seeks to hack your reptile brain.
If you want to deviate away from monetizing user attention through ads, you need a different business model. Substack, a publishing platform, charges 10% of what creators monetize. Twitter has over 640,000 Twitter Blue subscribers (over $60 million per year). We don't have to equate profitability with user addiction. What is the market opportunity to "solve" loneliness?
The stage model forces people to niche down into a caricature. If the middle scale were designed correctly, you would have the dual benefit of “off-brand” posting while also growing a niche offering.
The "right people" could be both within AND outside of your existing followers. Imagine if the For You tab actually connected you with people around the world that are worth getting to know.
Google assessed the problem correctly, but botched the solution. The average person isn’t OCD enough to categorize their friends. It's too much overhead. It also caused friction. Users had to pause and think “which Circle do I post this to?” If users are confused in the first 60 seconds, it’s doomed. Google+ fizzled in two years, and set the precedent of “don’t mess with the architecture.”
For example, I posted 55 logs in the last week and GPT-4 is able to categorize them. I've been posting about David Foster Wallace, TikTok, UFOs, Oppenheimer, Dreams, Writing, Exercising, etc. Instead of being bombarded with 8 posts a day from me, you'd be able to opt-in just for the topics you want.