Mutual Aid and Social Media

The Lyft driver drove to support his passion, he said: standup comedy. He offered his business card, with his website, phone number, and a long URL at Mixstep, a file-sharing platform, where he had uploaded audio from his 45-minute set. He said he was paid 20 cents every time someone listened, but he laughed at the suggestion he get all his friends to do so. The 81 MB file has been downloaded six times.

Any of us with something to plug—blog, published poem, book release, performance, restaurant opening, charity—know how difficult it can be to get things noticed on social media, let alone acted upon. Meanwhile, even minor celebrities get thousands of likes for a snapshot of any old sunset.

What would happen if we formed mutual-aid societies on social media, to like, comment on, and share posts and tweets that promoted each other’s projects equally? This would presumably activate algorithms and alert nonmutual friends that something was happening. The goal, of course, would be to go viral, in hopes that one or two users out of a hundred would click through, and a small percentage of those might read the article or poem; buy the book, ticket, or plate; or download the set or song.

How well would this work? Say you start a Facebook group with 1,000 members. Each has 1,000 friends. Every month, 200 members of the group get to share something that requires action (such as clicking through to a gallery exhibiting their photos) instead of passive viewing (a meme). By being in this mutual-aid society, you have to re-post others’ stuff to your friends—at an average rate of seven times a day. In return, one of your projects will be shared by a thousand people, once every five months, and have the (low, as you will see below) chance of being seen by one million viewers.

It is not a great return on time, and likely you would lose friends who would become bored with your constant, undiscriminating marketing. Facebook might even feed the group members their own identical posts, until they choked on them.

But what if a small, independent publisher press-ganged its authors into mutual praise? Cut all numbers by a factor of 10. The group has 100 members, each with 100 friends. Every month, 20 group members are shared around and built up. You are required to post once each business day, and when it is your turn, your project might (theoretically) be seen by 10,000 users.

But while Facebook permits each of us to have up to 5,000 friends, we see only about 150 posts per day in our feeds. (This is apparently why I never hear from many of my 850 Facebook friends, ever.) If Facebook did not use this governor, those with even 100-500 friends might be fed 1500 posts. Who would keep looking at that jumble?

This is the surprise to me, I guess—that Facebook still has this in common with pre-digital social life. Human interaction in the olden days meant pockets of interest, as well as natural barriers to information-sharing. Where I grew up, gossip rarely jumped towns, for instance, and sometimes not even neighborhoods. Groups might post flyers or take a small ad to get the word out. The press was one of the few methods for firing the synapses of the entire body politic. An individual might count himself lucky to have an audience of six.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.