Toward a unified taxonomy of text-based social media use


The most important thing to know about social media is this: Most people don’t post.

You know this. I know this. God knows this. I am going to limit my analysis to text-based sites because video sites such as TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram are not my ministry. This analysis may transfer in whole or in part to those platforms, for all I know.

The silent majority of every successful text-based social media site is lurkers. These are sane, normal people with sane, normal lives. They are well-balanced and have hobbies. One of those hobbies is visiting social media sites, where they are usually looking for either information or entertainment. They’re the audience.

The development of trolls appears to be the internet’s version of carcinization

Of the remaining minority, there are several classes of user: the influencer, the commenter, the reply guy, and the poster. We’ll take them in turns.

  • The influencer is building a business. They are making #content. They are doing at least one of the following: posting for social capital, getting paid out by the social media site directly, or getting paid by sponsors for their posts. They are valuable in that they push internet commerce, but they are also usually operating within the bounds of safety, for fear of alienating sponsors.
  • The commenter is trying to have a conversation with another human being. They are hoping, however misguidedly, to have a meaningful interaction online. Perhaps it is because they are going through an isolated period in their lives; perhaps it is because they have an esoteric interest unshared by those in their IRL orbit. Perhaps they have been stirred somewhere in the depths of their soul — or maybe they’re just bored at work. The lesser trolls, who have nothing nice to say, ever, and live to annoy other commenters, are a notable subclass.
  • The reply guy can be thought of as the most important subclass of commenter; they are specific. They are usually interacting with or on behalf of a favored internet user. Muting a reply guy will not make them go away. Interacting in any way will only encourage them to continue replying. Their motivations are wholly unclear to me, but they are an important part of virtually every internet ecosystem; there is a school of thought that this behavior is a reflection of parasocial relationships. With that in mind, and after great deliberation, I have placed stans here as notable clade of reply guy.
  • Finally, we have the poster, sometimes referred to as a poaster. The poster is required for every social network to function. Their lack of inhibition is part of what makes social media entertaining. They are the oversharers. They are the Types of Guy. They have thoughts about what is problematique. They are Engaged in the Discourse. Greater trolls, the ones who post bait or otherwise deliberately kick off flame wars that consume entire platforms, are a subclass of posters who’ve lost the mandate of heaven. (The development of trolls appears to be the internet’s version of carcinization.)

I have come to believe that any social media platform that dips under 10 percent poster will fail, but as the early days of Bluesky demonstrated, if you over index on posters, you will have endless fucking chaos. It is possible that posters are deeply unwell. Certainly they are far too online.

Comes now Threads, Adam Mosseri’s attempt to keep Instagram relevant. Here’s my guy:

The features that are being requested are features for influencers and posters, the power users. An edit button allows for correcting captions and also trolling. A following feed and trending section builds Discourse, as do hashtags. The argument for building these features for your power users is that the power users are what everyone else is there for. Growth is the second-order effect.

The successful social media network is an aquarium. The influencers and posters are the denizens — jellyfish, filter feeders, sharks, octopuses, rays, squid, clownfish, and so on. The lurkers are the visitors, marveling at the shape and color of the aquarium’s denizens. Trying to make the aquarium actually functional is an impossible task; better to simply adopt an attitude of slim-pickens-riding-the-atom-bomb.gif.

Generally speaking, posters generate Discourse; reply guys and commenters continue and refine it; finally, influencers and Brands capitalize on it. It is possible, though rare, for reply guys, commenters, and influencers to generate Discourse, but the point is: someone has to kick it off and usually that someone is the person with the least inhibitions.

The friendliest of the influencers and posters are over in the petting zoo section, where commenters and reply guys can reach into the water and touch them. The less friendly ones occasionally smash through the glass to take someone out; put in the same tank, they may consume each other. This sort of thing tends to draw visitors — who doesn’t want to be in the splash zone when the shark gets fed?

Will this be useful or even entertaining to my readers?

Twitter grew using celebrities and journalists — two of the more exotic clades of poster, prone to entertaining fights and bizarre output. Part of its original draw was that it was up-to-the-minute coverage of what was going on; if you thought you felt an earthquake in San Francisco, you could search Twitter and discover people posting “earthquake?”

That aquarium was already unbalanced and leaking users when Elon Musk took it over and renamed it X. Musk further skewed the ecosystem by alienating posters and promoting an overgrowth of influencers and reply guys via his blue check system. The people who are likeliest to purchase a blue check for priority in feeds are those with something to sell. The next-likeliest are people who want to make really sure you see their reply.

Threads is also unbalanced as an ecosystem, skewed toward Brands, a particularly noxious infraclass of influencer that is nonetheless profitable for the network. But for Threads to be valuable to Brands — more valuable than, say, TikTok — there needs to be a strong base of lurkers. Most lurkers will tolerate Brands, but Brands themselves aren’t a draw. They’re just the gift shop at the aquarium.

I am grateful to Mosseri, who has given me the opportunity to finally expound on a taxonomy of users I have been cobbling together for months. I do not operate under the delusion that this will sway his decision-making, or that he will even read this. Will this be useful or even entertaining to my readers? I have no idea. Why am I writing this at all? No one knows what motivates a poster, least of all me.



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