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  • Writer's picturebonkleton

Some thoughts about content platforms versus social media platforms

Our current Internet landscape is based on creation - but creation of what, and by whom?

The term "content creator" gets thrown around in discussions a lot, and most often in reference to YouTube. Largely, this is because of its high profile, extreme accessibility, and enormous user base, three factors that combine to make the relations between its users and between the users and the platform obvious. It is also a very good example of what a content creation platform is - a system designed to allow people who want to make things to publish those things easily for consumption by others. In the case of YouTube, the "things" are videos, freely uploaded and published for (not quite but mostly) everyone to see with (very few but close to) no restrictions.

This is exactly what I want.

This is the kind of democratized media I both want to enjoy and desire to participate in. It allows people with no other voice to publish their creations openly, and as individual items in their own right.

Contrast this with social media. Social media, on the surface, offers much of what content platforms do - one can share text, images, often videos, and such, just like many content platforms (YouTube itself only offers video, unless you count community posts). They seem feature-equivalent, but the issue lies in the context under which they are published. In social media, the content presented to the user is a stream, with little emphasis given to the individual items, where, while some content platforms present streams, as well, there is much greater emphasis given to the content itself, often having more or less a dedicated web page for each item (even if they are actually generated dynamically from templates). The point is not the endless stream, the point is the content. The items are not important primarily as an aggregate, but individually as well.

Contrast Snapchat with YouTube. On YouTube, each video, when brought into primary context, is the entire presentation. It has its own description, title, and discussion, as well as auxiliary elements to supplement it, like cards. On Snapchat, each snap is part of a larger whole, a message thread, or more often, a story. This serves the purpose of being a social platform, but fails the task of presenting content for primary consumption. The app experience itself is the focus, rather than the user-generated material.

Similarly, this blog and Twitter - this blog features this text in its own content, presented as the primary focus, rather than a tweet or thread of tweets presented as an intermission on an infinite scroll into banality. To be fair, this blog may not be much more insightful than that infinite stream, but the point about presentation stands, irrespective of content quality. This blog is a content platform, while Twitter is social media.

Social media has its purpose, to be clear. I love what it can do for connectivity between people who would normally not be exposed to each other's thoughts and expressions. It's a great tool for keeping people informed and interacting with people you care about.

Social media's purpose is not content.

Let me back up - recently DeviantArt switched over to a new interface style, branded "Eclipse". It's geometric, flat-colored, anti-aliased, and heavy, just like any modern UI. It has issues, and it has benefits. This blog is not about that. The interface is what it is. The reaction, however, was frankly hilarious, but relatable. Large numbers of users decried the new interface as the single blow that would RUIN DEVIANTART FOREVER (as if the Sonic porn didn't do that already), and predicted the end of the website as a whole because of it.

Personally, as someone who was in that position when Wikia redid their UI, and felt similarly about that change, I have learned from experience that this line of reasoning is not necessarily representative of reality. Wikia kept on chugging, despite the userbase outcry, and nothing really changed. It only really started having issues when it was acquired by FANDOM, but that's another issue. The outcry was overly negative, and overblew genuine issues into full-on disasters, when that's not really accurate, and despite the doom prophecies, the website continued.

That all being said, with this context, many people pulled out of DeviantArt to search for greener (only true DA users will get it) pastures. They wanted a platform that would be more stable and accessible for their art to be discovered, and, as you can expect, for many, the fact that Twitter's content guidelines are less restrictive than DeviantArt's for some reason factored in as well.

Users leaving DeviantArt were checking the boxes:

  • discoverability

  • accessibility

  • stability

  • looser content guidelines

And for the most part, Twitter checked them. This is all well and good, but what fascinates me is that there is a crucial piece missing.

Twitter is not a content platform.

For all its issues, some intrinsic, some from the userbase, DeviantArt is actually a content platform, and, honestly, one of the most pure in this sense. It's not a stream of text, or of images, or rows of videos, or even a simple portfolio gallery. DeviantArt is more or less a webpage-generator. Each deviation gets its own title, description, and comments, as well as a button to download the item, if applicable, and the content is presented front and center as text, a document, an image, or even a video (if the user is on the subscription). The content is the focus, pure and simple, whatever quality one might ascribe to the content itself.

Twitter does not do this, as previously mentioned. Twitter inserts one's content as an addendum to the infinite, composite stream of consciousness. Twitter's layout cares not for original material, only your engagement with the platform, which they may use to engage others in said platform. Yes, this is the motivation behind both companies, but Twitter is not built to present content. It is built to connect people while they vent about current events or have random thoughts on the toilet.

One might argue that, to present art, one only needs an image upload option, and that will suffice. I would agree, but contest that DeviantArt is not actually built with that in mind. Yes, the name implies it's an art platform, and many use it as merely that, but the website is better known for people using it to generate original characters. The quality of these characters aside, I propose that this is DeviantArt's primary use case because it allows for the use case of character design and worldbuilding better than nearly any other platform.

Twitter is extremely restrictive in this way. Twitter's character limit, while sort of understandable slightly maybe, gets in the way of this severely, especially since there is no way to format link text using HTML to save space. Facebook is slightly better, but not much. Tumblr is extremely versatile, but lacks the ability for one to organize their content beyond tags. Even Newgrounds would be preferable to any of these, were it not for its relative obscurity, which eats into discoverability. Wikis are the second-best option, as far as I know, and I have used them in this way for a while now, but their presentation is dry and objective, lacking flavor, and is far too focused on information rather than content itself, despite their high versatility otherwise. Honestly, DeviantArt is, perhaps unintentionally, possibly the best platform for focusing on user-generated fictional content of various forms from a functional perspective, other than a dedicated website (which has its own issues).

This makes it amazing to me that people honestly jumped ship for Twitter, of all platforms, seemingly primarily due to its looser content restrictions. If the goal is to present user-generated content as the primary focus, platforms that serve this purpose are in very short supply, and Twitter is no counterexample.

This example highlight a larger trend I am seeing of late. Many people who wish to break into some creative field wish to use the power of social media to do so, because of how accessible it is. I think this is largely because, since social media is increasingly becoming the "default" internet experience, many are becoming confused about the nature of the platforms they are using. To be fair, the expectation of user content has changed with the available platforms, and that's fine, but I think it's a diversification rather than an evolution. I think the social-media-format types of content are valid, but do not replace other forms by any means.

As an aside, an example of how to use Twitter as a content platform correctly would be Ali Spagnola. She is very effective at using this platform's restrictions and idiosyncrasies to her advantage, but I would like to present two caveats:

  1. Behind her "Outrageous" exterior, she is quite canny, and has clearly thought this through more than most users would.

  2. She is using Twitter in a way that minimizes its weaknesses as a content platform while taking advantage of its discoverability as much as possible, which means it works for her content in spite of its design, not because of it.

My issue is not with the proliferation of social media platforms, but of their starvation of content platforms, and I believe that misunderstanding of oblivion to this distinction is responsible. I think that because most assume that the way to present media on the Internet is via social media, that there is no need to seek out any other type of platform. Why use DeviantArt when Twitter lets you upload better-quality images of more racy things? Why use Newgrounds when Instagram is more visible? Why use YouTube when Tiktok is more convenient? This is natural and reasonable, and I accept it. I simply think there is a systemic push away from focus on content to focus on streams of thought, and the DeviantArt-Twitter example is a illustration of this. I truly think everyone involved is making reasonable decisions, that is, when you take the platform focus out of the equation. Once this is factored in, however, I think that pulling out of one of the few sites left that presents content first and stream second, for simply the one stream-focused site that allows slightly more nudity in higher detail with a less-initially-confusing UI, is not logical.

If the issue is visibility and discoverability, then sure, that makes sense. It makes sense for accessibility to a wider userbase, as well. Even the content restriction concerns make some sense to an extent (although, if that's the primary issue, why one would not simply skip right to the full liberty of Newgrounds is beyond me). The fact remains that Twitter is not a content platform, and probably the worst one could possibly choose for that use case (even Pastebin is better in some ways). I truly wish content creators the best with it, but I am fascinated by the apparent perception of the interchangeability of these platforms.

Honestly, when this first started happening, I had no real reason why it felt strange to me, simply that it did. It took me a while to formalize the thoughts above. In doing so, however, I hope to take this observation to heart in my own endeavors, and be cognizant of what my platform of choice is built for, and what it is not.

I want more platforms like DeviantArt, honestly. I like making things, and I like dressing up how they are presented to suit my desires. Social media does not provide this to me, and I wish that people who do not appreciate DeviantArt (perhaps rightly) had somewhere to go that was truly similar, and did not have to settle for a social scrolling site that does not accommodate this neglected use case.

Perhaps my issues stem from the fact that worldbuilding and character design being art forms in their own right is a relatively new concept, and are still not largely recognized as such. This gets into a larger discussion of these relatively esoteric art forms and what I imagine of their future, but that's for another time. For now, have a great whatever, and be good to each other!


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