by Khalid Tayan

When trying to find an analogy for the current state of social media discourse I can’t help but fall back to an experience I had as a kid playing an online game called RuneScape (yes I played RuneScape…). RuneScape is an online role-playing game where you can build up your character in a number of different ways, but ultimately most users were focused on building up their fighting attributes and more importantly, their in-game wealth (yes, it’s always about money).

That being said, there would be a town centre within each village where users would go to trade with other users. Whether it was coal that you were trying to buy or some fancy armour, you would go to this location and type out what you were looking for and hope that someone would see your message and approach you with a trade.

Screengrab from Runescape

Your messages would appear in two places, one above your head and one in the stream of messages that included everyone else’s messages. You could compare it to a live stream to a certain extent. And as we know with live streams, whenever there are too many users trying to participate you have what can only be described as an onslaught of messages that are almost impossible to catch and differentiate from one another. This was exactly the same on RuneScape; so, I devised a strategy to tackle this. I would double team (yes it was that serious). My job would be to frantically type out the same message over and over again, “Looking to buy coal £££”, while a friend would sit and watch to see if anyone was trying to trade with me because it was practically impossible to type, send and repeat, nonstop, while still trying to look at the screen. This approach would flood the stream of messages and therefore increase my chances of catching other players’ attention and finding a coal seller…while simultaneously ruining the whole experience for other, less annoying, users.

I find this to be a fitting comparison; although it is based on a game that I played 15 years ago, it really represents and exhibits much of the same behaviour on display in modern-day social media platforms. The town centre is representative of many aspects of social media; the news feed, replies to a trending tweet, comments on a viral piece of content on Facebook, etc.

Your average user may try to participate, perhaps naively, with a reasonable message. Querying about coal sellers outside the town hall or alternatively, a natural, inquisitive message on a social media platform, to quickly find that they are getting drowned out and swallowed up by the attention-craving algorithms.

In my last piece I discussed the kind of patterns this creates for users who do end up commenting and participating in social media discourse. And the binary like approaches that they have available to them to guarantee attention, so I won’t go into that here.

Instead, I want to propose a different question, instead of focusing on the algorithm or a way to police comments etc., why don’t we focus on the town square itself? Surely there is a way to organise that traffic into an environment that allows us to communicate without shouting or having to resort to extreme dialogue to garner ourselves attention. And perhaps most importantly, there should be a way to reduce the stakes. Users should be able to engage in discourse without the pressure of being on such a public stage and fearing public ridicule and embarrassment for making a mistake in their comment.

The solution? Let’s take that town square and organise it into stalls based on subject matter. Let’s group the coal traders together at one stall, the gold traders together at another stall and the iron ore traders together at another. Let’s then take that group of coal traders lined up in front of their stall and put them into groups of up to 10. Same for gold and iron ore.

What are we left with? You no longer need to shout, attention seek and flood everyone’s feed. The pace has slowed, and the pressure has been released; making way for natural and nuanced conversation. Long definitive statements have now become short inquisitive and conversational messages.

Suddenly with 1 simple design change, the whole behavioural dynamic has been altered and the way users interact has shifted in a way that shines a light on the majority rather than the minority. All the while, giving users more validation for their input through the implementation of a micro feedback loop through these small groups.

I would challenge the readers to try and put this into practice. Try to have a conversation with a room full of people; then take those same people and put them into rooms of between 5–10 and see how the dynamic changes.

It’s a simple solution but one that has escaped social media companies thus far. The main issue, however, is that it is something that cannot be resolved after the fact. This is an approach that must be implemented and baked in from inception and designed into the platform.

At Springchat we see the intimate grouping of users as 1 of the 3 founding pillars of our ‘Instant Chat’ feature as we strive to create a platform that represents the more conversational next iteration of social discourse.

As the founder of Springchat, Khalid is on a mission to offer users a new way to chat online about the things that matter most to them. As a graduate software engineer, Khalid enjoys tackling tech-related issues and reads anything that’s tech related. This is actually where his concept stemmed from. Khalid would read articles from the tech world but didn’t have many friends who were as passionate about the subject to allow for a good discussion…and so it began. Khalid finished off his studies with a business masters from University of Manchester Business School. Aside from sitting behind his computer, you may find Khalid practising Taekwondo or watching Manchester United (as hard as that is these days).