A Proposal For Bringing Social Indicators to Micro.blog

Is there a taboo on Micro.blog? It depends to who you ask. Here’s a proposal.

A Proposal For Bringing Social Indicators to Micro.blog

Image generated with Dall-E.

Micro.blog is built on principles and values of its founder, Manton Reece, which have been abundantly documented and are reflected in his book here. If I understand correctly, one of those principles is to refrain from promoting the use of what I would call “social indicators” (like, reblog, followers count). According to Manton:

“Micro.blog is not a popularity contest.”.

On Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter / X, likes, retweets and follower counts are indicators of someone’s relative popularity. Most “heavy-engagement” platforms voluntarily offer these on purpose for others to see. Not only that, but timeline-building algorithms are taking these indicators as input. Together, algorithms and indicators form a system where maximizing user engagement is the ultimate goal. This is not the case on Micro.blog, hence the quote “Micro.blog is not a popularity contest”. It doesn’t mean these matters aren’t discussed within the community; they are in many interesting and useful debates, like in this example.

As a heavy and passionate user of Micro.blog, this discussion made me think and reflect on my position in this debate and ask myself these questions: what is my position regarding these principles? Do I agree? Is there some middle ground where principles could be relaxed a bit? Let’s see.

Back in 2018, I wrote this article: “The End of my Micro.blog Experiment”:

It is impossible to see who’s popular and attracting a lot of people. I don’t even know how many people are following me. Why this obscured view? I think these design decisions are part of the problem on this platform. It makes it look like a communist party.

Ouch. 🫢

I’ve been blogging for quite some time and participated in many social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Posterous, Blogger, etc. I’ve seen them all. I am no longer on these social networks. I don’t think about Micro.blog as a social network but as a community. That being said, I’d like some indicators for my own curiosity. For example, I subscribe to Plausible and Tinylytics and both are enabled for my blog. I don’t expect Micro.blog to add built in analytics time soon, but I do like the possibility of using these services with my blog. What about other metrics? As a blog owner, I wish I knew how many people follow me. I don’t want to brag about it; I just want to know because I’m curious about these things.

As I wrote in the previously mentioned thread, and for writing this small reflection, I gave some thoughts to this and I think these popularity indicators should be “regulated” in some specific ways:

  1. They should be enabled or disabled on author’s request. But enabling them wouldn’t make the indicators visible to the author just yet;
  2. If enabled, they should be made available to the content owner upon request, just like the content itself;
  3. The author should decide to make them publicly available on an individual basis;
  4. Most importantly, they shall never be used as part of an algorithm that aims to increase user engagement with the platform or any other means without the author’s consent.

Regarding statement number 1, I think the platform shouldn’t gather this data by default. Once activated, the author might want to get access to it or disable it while the data is still available and updated. People joining Micro.blog should know that by default, no followers or likes data is gathered. For some people, this is important and might be part of their decision to join and subscribe to the service.

A screen capture of a Glass photo with some appreciative comments.
A screen capture of a Glass photo with some appreciative comments.

One last thought. I’m fond of Glass’s approach with likes. They weren’t part of the service’s initial launch. Nobody can see an appreciation count on a photo, but only written comments. After their introduction, I saw a drop in written comments on my photos. It may be anecdotal. Both are feedback, and I’m appreciative of those. Do I want these appreciation marks to be public? No. Just like Glass’ appreciations, likes are another form of feedback indicator that should be under the full control of the author. This is where I draw the line between a possible addition to Micro.blog and what we get with traditional social media platforms.

If I think my followers might be interested in seeing a post, I’ll retweet it. A like is just an acknowledgment or show of support. Nobody needs to see that but the recipient. — Mitch Wagner on help.micro.com

I couldn’t agree more.

In summary, as I recently shared, I always think appreciation, likes, reactions, and follower count should be made available privately to the content owner. Making them public should be an opt-in decision, if at all possible.

One final idea: if Micro.blog ever decides to enable followers to count, it should consider only “active” accounts. Accounts without activity for over a few months shouldn’t be considered as active followers. This means possible variance over time as a blog can become active after a period of silence.

It occurs to me that social indicators implemented this way should, in fact, be called feedback indicators.

My goal with this article is to help move the debate and possibly influence Micro.blog future, even if in a small way. Let me know about your view on this. I’m genuinely curious.