Platform austerity and small state social media
Given the endless stories of growth upon growth, cutbacks don’t sit comfortably in social media’s narrative arc. The various reports of large scale job cuts at Meta and Twitter, amongst others1, might seem to go against that established tale. Viewed another way, it may be that what we are now seeing is the emergence of a kind of small state version of social media - where the central workforce, services and infrastructures are scaled back. We could think of this as a type of platform austerity, with a tightening of expenditure and a narrowing of investment. Perhaps tech leaders are shrinking their centres in the hope that revenue and population growth will continue in a less managed social media space.
Meta, which we should remember incorporates WhatsApp and Instagram as well as Facebook, is making large scale cuts to its workforce. Estimates are that it will cut 11,000 workers, which could be as much as 13% of its total staff. From the outside, based on their media output and marketing, it would seem that Meta’s attention and likely also its revenues are being guided toward its venture in the metaverse. The metaverse will never actually happen, but Meta’s preoccupation with innovation, driven by a fear of being left behind, means that it has become monoscopic in its vision of a rigid and unlikely future.
Twitter, which we might hesitate to call a giant given that it is only the 15th biggest social media platform and seems to get attention far outstripping its actual size, has announced even more severe cuts. It is currently a shifting and slightly chaotic picture as I write this, but reports suggest that from a staff group of 7,500 it is cutting 3.700 workers. That is nearly half of what is already a surprisingly small workforce.
If these tech giants are operating at a scale beyond the size of nation states, it looks like they have moved through a boom period and are now orienting their political economy toward a form of austerity. The reasons for the move toward small state social media are a little opaque. Global reductions in advertising market spend will be part of this. It may also be that this moment presents an opportunity for those who have been looking to reshape or find so-called efficiencies. It’s hard to be sure of the motivations. Yet it is possible to begin to build an impression of what the consequences might be.
The most obvious impact is likely to be upon moderation and content management. This was already proving to be a challenge beyond any satisfactory resolution. If cuts fall in the moderation teams then the problems will only get worse. If interventions dwindle the problems may spiral even more quickly. If malicious posts go untreated, then this will be seen as an opportunity. The outcome is likely to be felt by all users. In small state social media there could well be growing problems around online safety. AI is unlikely to provide any genuine answer to the assessments of content, at least not for some time.
There is also the question of distraction. Dealing with what is on their plate will become more difficult if it surpasses the capacity of these small state social media. This will have unpredictable consequences. Plus the obsession with staying ahead of the curve of innovation in order to maintain relevance and population will become a more pressing distraction if advertising spend reduces further. The imagined future will come to outweigh what is happening now.
The coming network changes will have wider influences. The nature of social connections will change as people stick or twist in their social media platform choices. A greater level of churn may occur in these less managed social media spaces (the recent movement of Twitter users to other providers is illustrative of this). As people’s choices of social media alter in response to changing platforms, we may see more mobility in preferred social media profiles. The flickering connections that occur in social media may become even more precarious. By undermining social connections, any heightening of the volatility of content and churn of networks has the potential to lead to a heightening of anomie2.
Finally, small state social media companies may become even more difficult to regulate. Jamie Susskind's recent book The Digital Republic explores the depth of the existing challenge. One of the main difficulties with regulating and taxing such organisations is that they spread so far across the globe and integrate large portions of populations in different regions. A new problem may well present itself. As social media companies shrink they are likely to become even more distant from the activities occurring within their own platforms. Responsibility may well become even less of a focus, but so too might the way that these platforms slot into national governance, tax and legal frameworks. Fitting into such frameworks will become even less of a concern for them, there will be more powerful pressures around profitability. Plus the management of a narrower set of interests will trump such worries. These pressures could overpower an interest in complying with anything that is viewed as being optional.
Despite the reduction in infrastructure and human workforce, small state social media's power and influence will not necessarily be dimmed. It is just that their interests and priorities will shift - which will have wider consequences that are yet to be seen. Platform austerity may be a period of resetting in which greater levels of unchecked automation are integrated into these vast systems and through which a narrower vision of the future will be pursued without question.
On top of this, if we think of platforms in broader terms, Amazon are also planning to layoff around 10,000 jobs.
Beyond this, the geopolitics of social media might also begin to alter with changing networks and an altering make-up of the social media ecology. The ownership of platforms could well become even more important in those geopolitical tensions.