Perhaps the most defining characteristic of social media is that it only rewards speaking, not reading. Every metric, from “likes” to “followers” are prefaced upon the primacy of publication. Even influencers are defined as those whose posts are the most read, rather than those who read the most posts. There are no equivalent metrics for those who spend the most time consuming and learning from social media. A user who spends their days spouting off uninformed bombastic platitudes will be lavishly rewarded with likes and followers, graduate to influencer status and earn revenue. A user who spends their days quietly listening, like a patron in a library, will gain no recognition of any kind. What if social platforms rewarded the latter more than the former?
We accept as inevitable that social media platforms must be based around the idea of publishing rather than reading, but why is that? Why are social platforms filled with metrics and reward structures that prioritize producing content rather than consuming it?
What if social platforms offered a ranking of how many posts a user had consumed? Every video they watched till the end, every post they scrolled through at a sufficiently slow speed to have read, every image they paused to look at, would be tallied up in a “readership score.” The time spent on each item could even be tallied, with quick skims counted in one metric and deep dives in another.
Instead, today such viewership is counted only when it becomes publishing, with that reader commenting on that video, post or image.
What would a well-read individual “mean” to a social media ecosystem and what would their “value” be to platforms?
Social media platforms derive their revenue primarily from advertisements. While content produces see those ads, the majority of ad sales come from consumption. Thus, the reason social platforms prioritize publishing comes down to simple economics: they need a steady stream of content to draw readership in order to sell ads.
Seen in this light, however, it is readers that are actually the greatest direct source of economic value to social platforms. Publishers produce content that draw in those readers, but it is the readers that consume ads and thus drive the revenue of sites. A publisher who produces a steady stream of content without ever reading another post may draw in other users, but they themselves do not yield any actual revenue for the company, only cost from hosting their content.
If non-publishing users were rewarded through “readership” metrics, it would elevate and recognize those users that are more “valuable” to companies than others. Most importantly, it would recognize readers who choose to quietly contemplate the words of others without leaping in with their own uninformed commentary.
There is no penalty for stupidity or falsehoods on today’s social platforms. Deliberately spread a wild rumor and there is no consequence, only the reward of gaining new followers, likes and influencer status. Publish an uninterrupted deluge of uninformed and false commentary and again there is no downside, only the upside of influencer status and potential sponsorship revenue.
This model encourages users to pour forth their thoughts on every topic in the hopes of striking it big.
In contrast, contemplative users who wish to merely consume the thoughts of others and sit quietly considering them are not rewarded with any status on today’s platforms, despite being the most economically valuable part of the social equation.
In traditional information theory, such individuals are known as “lurkers” in that they quietly lurk in the background of conversations, consuming what is said but not contributing their own thoughts. In some cases, these users can be the most knowledgeable about a topic, spending their time keeping tabs on the latest discussion and applying it to their own work, rather than spending all their time speaking when they have little to add.
Rewarding readership with its own metrics would actually offer intriguing opportunities in helping to assess the interests of users. If each user was assigned a set of badges based on the topics they most commonly consume, it would not necessarily indicate their expertise in that topic, but at least would demonstrate they are deeply versed in the social conversation around that topic.
In the end, social platforms have devoted all of their efforts to rewarding production. Perhaps it is time to start examining the consumption side of the social equation and the myriad ways such consumption-centric indicators could help combat the deluge of digital falsehoods and foreign influence that wash across today’s digital shores, according to Forbes.