Can social media be saved?

Radical moves are needed if we want to change how social networks operate


I don’t need to tell you that something is wrong with social media. You’ve probably experienced it yourself. Maybe it’s the way you feel while scrolling through your Twitter feed – anxious, twitchy, a little world weary – or your unease when you see a child watching YouTube videos, knowing she’s just a few algorithmic nudges away from a rabbit hole filled with lunatic conspiracies and gore.

Or maybe it was this month’s Facebook privacy scandal, which reminded you that you’ve entrusted the most intimate parts of your digital life to a profit-maximising surveillance machine.

Our growing discomfort with our largest social platforms is reflected in polls. One recently conducted by Axios and SurveyMonkey found that all three of the major social media companies – Facebook, Twitter and Google, which shares a parent company with YouTube – are significantly less popular with Americans than they were five months ago. (And Americans might be the lucky ones. Outside the United States, social media is fuelling real-world violence and empowering autocrats, often with much less oversight.)

But it would be a mistake to throw up our hands and assume that it has to be this way. The original dream of social media – producing healthy discussions, unlocking new forms of creativity, connecting people to others with similar interests – shouldn’t be discarded because of the failures of the current market leaders.

And lots of important things still happen on even the most flawed networks. In the United States, for example, the West Virginia teachers’ strike and last weekend’s March for Our Lives in support of tighter gun control were largely organised on Facebook and Twitter.

The primary problem with today’s social networks is that they’re already too big, and are trapped inside a market-based system that forces them to keep growing. Facebook can’t stop monetising our personal data for the same reason that Starbucks can’t stop selling coffee – it’s the heart of the enterprise.

Many of the fixes being proposed involve regulation. The Honest Ads Act, a Bill in the US Senate, would require greater transparency for online political ads. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which goes into effect in May, aims to give users greater control of their digital information trails.

But these efforts don’t touch the underlying problems, and in fact could make it harder for start-ups to compete with the giants. If we’re really serious about changing how social networks operate, far more radical interventions are required. Here are three possible ways to rescue social media from the market-based pressures that got us here.

Power to the people

In their book New Power, which comes out next week, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms write about the struggle between centralised, top-down institutions, which represent “old power,” and decentralised, bottom-up movements, which represent “new power”.

Facebook, they write, is an example of a new-power institution that serves old-power interests. It harvests the creative output of billions of people and turns it into a giant, centralised enterprise, with most users sharing none of the economic value they create and getting no say in the platform’s governance.

Instead, the authors ask, what if a social network was truly run by its users?

“If you’re contributing economic value to something of this much social consequence, you should share in the value you’re creating,” Heimans told me.

Nathan Schneider, a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado, had a similar idea in 2016, when he proposed that Twitter users band together to buy the platform from its shareholders and convert it into a user-run collective, similar to the way a local credit union is run. People who made valuable contributions to the network, such as employees and power users, would receive bigger stakes and more voting power. And users would have a seat at the table for major decisions about the platform’s operations.

It’s exceedingly unlikely that Mark Zuckerberg, who has fought hard to keep control of Facebook, would ever convert the company into a user-owned and run collective. But Schneider believes that giving more control to responsible users could help restore trust in the network, and signal the kind of values Zuckerberg says he wants Facebook to represent.

“He could show that he takes democracy seriously enough to start with his own baby,” Schneider said.

Create a social federation

Another radical approach would be to make social networks work more like email – so that independent apps could seamlessly work together with one another, across a common protocol.

Instead of one big Facebook, a federated social network would look like clusters of independent nodes – Mombook and Athletebook and Gamerbook, for instance – all of which could be plugged into the umbrella network when it made sense.

Rather than requiring a one-size-fits-all set of policies that apply to billions of users, these nodes could be designed to reflect users’ priorities. (A network for privacy hawks and one for open-sharing maximalists could have different data-retention rules, and a network for LGBT users and one for evangelical pastors could have different hate speech rules.) If a node became too toxic it could be removed without shutting down the entire network.

“Email is the most resilient social network on the internet,” Schneider said, “and the thing that allows it to adapt is that it’s an open protocol, and people build apps on top of it, and we evolve how we use it.”

Versions of this kind of network already exist. Mastodon, a decentralised Twitter-like social network, has got more than 140,000 registered users since its debut in 2016. And various social networks based on the blockchain – the ledger system that underlies virtual currencies such as bitcoin – have sprung up in recent months.

To be sure, decentralised networks have their own problems. They’re messy to administer, and they can still be gamed by bad actors. They can also fall prey to the same kind of privacy issues that Facebook is being criticised for. (In fact, part of the reason users are angry at Facebook right now is that the company’s data infrastructure was too open, and made it overly simple for third-party app developers to take user information outside Facebook.)

None of this is a panacea. But experimenting with more decentralised models could give social media users a sense that platforms represented their interests, rather than those of a faceless corporation.

Expiration dates on social graphs

A single friend of mine once remarked that the major difference among dating apps such as OKCupid, Tinder and Bumble wasn’t the way they were designed or the companies behind them, it was how long they had existed.

New apps, she said, were more likely to attract interesting and smart people who were actually looking for dates. Older apps, by contrast, were eventually overrun with creeps and predators, no matter how well built they were.

A similar theory might apply to social networks. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat all had plenty of issues in their early years, but they were by and large cleaner, with fewer types of exploitation and malicious behaviour. Today, the enormous size and influence of these platforms have made them irresistible honey pots for bad actors. And many of our “social graphs” – Facebook’s term for the webs of digital connections we create – are clogged with years’ worth of clutter.

In a blog post last year, venture capitalist Hunter Walk proposed an interesting idea: a legally mandated “start over” button that, when pressed, would allow users of social networks to delete all their data, clear out their feeds and friend lists, and begin with a fresh account.

I’d go even further, and suggest that social networks give their users an automatic “self-cleaning” option, which would regularly clear their profiles of apps they no longer used, friendships and followers they no longer interacted with, and data they no longer needed to store.

If these tools were enabled, users would need to take affirmative action if they didn’t want their information to disappear after a certain number of months or years.

Making social graphs temporary, rather than preserving them forever by default, would undoubtedly be bad for most social networks’ business models. But it could create new and healthy norms around privacy and data hygiene, and it would keep problems from piling up as networks get older and more crowded.

It might even recapture some of the magic of the original social networks, when things were fresh and fascinating, and not quite so scary. – Copyright New York Times 2018

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