Refractive Fragmentation of the Social Web

I responded to something Peter said this morning on Bluesky:

Pete’s post on Bluesky. No, I haven’t found the link button yet, maybe they haven’t built one.

I responded that, yes, I have been thinking about this too. And, as I’ve found useful over time, seeing the problem for individual and collective perspectives helps. Zoom in, zoom out, repeat.

The problem is magnified in the macro; as much as you have your own map for what each social platform is for, you then need to find others with a similar matching map in the place you encounter them?

For example: Peter and I may share a ‘tone’ on bluesky for whimsy. And therefore we connect well there, our initial expectations and experiences match. Yet others might find it useful as a very serious work platform. It jars with our experience, and feels less likely we’ll connect.

So, what is this called, we wondered?

I have ventured the idea of refractive fragmentation. And I promised a blog post to expand a little on that idea.

Firstly, fragmentation of platforms feels fairly obvious at this point; where once there was Twitter (I’m not calling it X, because I’m not mentally a teenager), it now feels that there’s also Mastodon, Bluesy, Threads, and maybe a couple of others in the same space.

What is interesting is what is happening to our once-singular presence on Twitter. Which is where refraction comes in.

You will remember refraction from high school physics; a single beam of white light will scatter in a simple prism into the constituent seven colours, as different light wavelengths experience a different degree of deviation.

From Adobe Stock. As with everything nowadays, I’m not entirely sure it’s not GenAI…

In our metaphor, we can take the single beam of white light as our previous twitter stream, perhaps.

Refraction is splitting out the different content types into, for instance, the seven categories of tweet; Hilarious, Jovial, Earnest, Reflective, Acerbic, Indignant, and Why Wasn’t I Consulted?

Yet the classic prism isn’t quite cutting it as a metaphor; these splits in our content aren’t simple adjacent, but heading in different directions.

Instead, let’s use this prism cube which I happen to have in the office.

A prism cube on a little LEGO stand I made for it

The fun thing about this is that I place it in the office on a shelf I know gets the sun, and it scatters light around the room.

The prism cube hanging out which a Zenko fox, the Lego Falling Water, and some granite

This feels like a better fit for the metaphor we want; from a single source of light, to one refracted into different colours and sent to different corners of the internet.

As mentioned before, then, thinking about one social media user like this isn’t much use. Instead, let us imagine Peter and I both have a prism cube, in the same room, and we are trying to line up the content we are refracting into the same spaces.

Firstly, the light source we use has to be of the same direction and quality. Secondly, the placement of the cubes pretty similar too.

If those things vary, we might be looking at the patterns on the wall the other is making, and trying to match them to our own.

In a way, this is what we’re all trying to do with all of our social media connections, across all of the fragmented platforms; match up what we put there to be ‘similar’ enough to what works for others.

Except, of course, we’re not in the same rooms with hundreds or thousands of connections, trying to match content styles and types. We are flitting here and there between spaces, never committing long enough to one to make it work because we’re all just dancing around fragmented platforms trying to match refracted patterns.

And. It. Is. Exhausting.

What to do then? What might happen?

Conventionally, you might expect some organisations in a market like this to set out their stalls for a particular niche; “we are the sports news social network” or something. But I fear there are too many egos involved for this, and each platform just wants to WIN in its own way.

It may be more likely that we drift on through into a version of the Fediverse that doesn’t really work… until something happens inside it that makes it properly interoperable. What’s the equivalent of when mobile phone networks allowed text messaging between them, for instance?

But whether people are going to be bothered by that point, I don’t know. Because this is all just energy-sapping nonsense of checking and posting on multiple networks each day just can’t last for most folks. And I’d include myself and Peter in that, I think.