When I signed up to Facebook and Twitter in the mid-2000s, there was no fake news, no conspiracy theories, no political rants, and, thankfully, no Minion memes.
Before Facebook’s endless scrolling timeline, posts didn’t hang around long enough for people to stalk each other. Likewise, nothing autoplays, and ads have remained outside of the News Feed and just outside of your immediate field of vision. It was a beautiful time to live.
Now, social media is a very different place.
While some would say it’s the fault of partisan politics, Trump, or the rise of fake news, for me it’s not the content that has changed, but the user experience.
The slow decline of these platforms is not the fault of an outside force; it’s the fault of the designers, engineers and corporate decision-makers who have progressively eroded these platforms from within.
Connecting to social media used to be a fun experience. Facebook provided an opportunity to find lost contacts, reunite with friends, and see what family members had been up to that week.
Likewise, Twitter offered a unique chance to stay in touch with your favorite celebrities, try some silly jokes, and strike up easy relationships with a handful of strangers.
Both of these sites had an incredible sense of community and introduced groundbreaking technologies that set the standard for social media design (in the case of Facebook, the “like” and in Twitter, the hashtag).
At the same time, the limited nature of these platforms greatly increased their initial appeal, making them raw, intuitive and fun. On Twitter, you only had 140 characters to play with and, later, a single image to share.
Hyperlinks did not expand or shorten automatically and videos did not integrate seamlessly into posts. Similarly, Facebook did not offer page recommendations, game invites, or “friends of friends” content. Everything was basic, simplified and had a single, clear function.
Today, Twitter and Facebook are a dumping ground for unwanted content, features, recommendations, and apps. Viral videos, third-party content and an endless wall of sponsored posts clutter the News Feed, making it harder than ever for users to access the content they actually came to see.
This preference for clickable clutter over positive user experiences is increasingly becoming part of the social media engagement model. As such, the only way to remove this element might be to ditch today’s social media and start fresh.
What if there was a better way? And if… we banned the hyperlink.
Hyperlinks are a basic functional element – and a necessity – of the Internet. But what about social media? Facebook is already cracking down how people share links to political sites; so why not go a step further and prevent people from sharing hyperlinks to external sites?
Immediately, you have limited the problem of fake news. More political articles shared, more links to viral YouTube videos or conspiracy sites, and more clickbait headlines shared.
Overnight, Facebook and Twitter would once again become places where friends talk to each other and share their photos. They would become social networks again.
As crazy as that suggestion sounds, I honestly believe that the reason so many social media users have flocked to Instagram is because: A. Hyperlinks don’t automatically expand and therefore can’t be shared as as the focal point of a publication.
And, B. Hyperlinks cannot be shared in the comments section under posts. As a result of these two small UX decisions, Instagram remained an efficient social network, free of reaction gifs, political arguments and detailed opinions shared in the form of third-party links.
Given the success of this approach, the idea of extending the hyperlink ban to all social media may not be so far-fetched.
Of course, banning hyperlinks would have major implications for those who fund their careers through social media clicks. Journalists, PR professionals, and content marketers should all take a hit. But then again, is that really such a bad thing?
Sites like Facebook and Twitter were designed with friends, family and community in mind; the endless push of corporate updates, news articles, and “content marketing” is just a perversion of that original design.
In reality, of course, Facebook and Twitter will never take this dramatic step. Likewise, they will never take their platforms back to a simpler time when users actually enjoyed being there. Today, there is too much money at stake to start learning from the past – even if a failure to do so kills these platforms in the long run.
Like much of Silicon Valley, Facebook and Twitter have become so obsessed with growth that they can barely figure out what’s best for the end user.
Whether they plaster their sites in third-party content, harvest user data en masse, or hide their best content behind layers of ads, the quest for endless growth to justify their inflated ratings cannot be disrupted.
Until we stop reinforcing the myth that to be useful, tech companies must constantly evolve, disrupt, and grow, this problem will never be solved.
We need to move beyond endless growth and start to consider the possibility that sometimes it’s good to just create a great product and give users an experience they enjoy.