Captive Social vs. Open Social

Language matters.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the language we use to talk about social media and content creation on the web. And as I’m writing about social media — especially microblogging and the indie web movement — I feel like we need a phrase to refer to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others that try to lock in users and leverage their private data to sell more ads, compared to the other newer services with revenue models that are less interested in ad sales or lock in.

I know that we already use “indie” and “indie web” as a way to differentiate between the two approaches, but I’m not sure that meaning is clear to a broader audience.

I’m going to go with “captive social” and “open social.”

Captive Social. Social media networks and services that make money through advertising, leveraging their user’s private data. Captive social networks benefit from gathering as much data on their users as possible and using that data to sell more relevant ads to users. To be profitable, that also means that they benefit from having users spend as much time as possible engaged with their platform. Examples of captive social networks: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linked In, Snapchat.

I think my time in the insurance industry has partially inspired this terminology. Captive insurance agents are contractually obligated to only sell products from a single vendor. But I think the term is appropriate for the relationships we have with social media platforms. We are locked into each service silo with very little interoperability between competing platforms.

Open Social. Newer social media networks that are aren’t interested in trapping your data. They benefit from interoperability and the sharing of data between services. Their profitability isn’t based on leveraging personal user data, but on the value you derive from the service.

The inspiration for the terminology isn’t open source, it’s open web standards. I was a Mac user during the years of Internet Explorer dominance — when you sometimes couldn’t access a web site if you didn’t have the right browser. The open web standards push in the early 2000’s freed us from that nightmare and led to expanded browser choice. I hope that open social can have a similar effect on social media that open web standards had on the web.

Open social does have a distinct meaning from indie web. Indie web aims to separate itself from the corporate web, but open social is not necessarily limited to only small companies and decentralized platforms. A large corporation could build an open social platform, as long as they weren’t profiting from trapping your data and locking you into their service.* The difference isn’t the size of the provider, but instead, their goals, objectives and business models.

So here are a couple of examples of captive social and open social in context:

  • I don’t know why you spend so much time on those captive social sites.

  • I’m going to focus on open social platforms like Micro.Blog and limit the time I spend on captive social sites like Facebook and Twitter.

  • Hopefully, open social platforms will have the same impact on the web that the open web standards movement did.

It’s a subtle change — a language shift that I think will help when we are having discussions with people who are concerned about privacy and the power of social media, but who aren’t comfortable hosting their sites or maintaining a server.

* I recognize that the concept of an open social network from a large corporation might seem absurd in today’s environment, but you never know.

Bob Wertz writes about design, technology and pop culture at Sketchbook B. Bob is a Columbia, South Carolina-based designer, creative director, grad student, college instructor, husband and dad. He’s particularly obsessed with typography, the creative process and the tools we use to create. He recently finished a project to design a new shirt a week for an entire year. Follow Bob on Instagram and Micro.Blog.