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Pattern Matching

What a Better Social Network Would Look Like

An offhand tweet sparked an outpouring of ideas to fix what’s broken about Facebook and Twitter

Photo by Tayler Smith. Prop styling by Caroline Dorn.

Welcome back to Pattern Matching, OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context.

The advertiser boycott of Facebook and other social networks, which I examined in last week’s Pattern Matching, continues to grow. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly has no plans to budge on the Stop Hate for Profit campaign’s calls for the company to take a tougher line on hate speech. “My guess is that these advertisers will be back soon enough,” Zuckerberg reassured his employees, according to The Information, even as the platform continues to be dominated by reactionary pages such as Breitbart, Franklin Graham, and Blue Lives Matter. His confidence hints at a recognition that Facebook’s dominance of both user attention and data leaves even its largest customers little alternative or leverage. Stop hate for profit? No thanks, says Facebook: We’ll keep both.

The dispiriting stalemate, coming at a moment of broader social unrest and political ferment, makes freshly appealing the old question of what a better, healthier social media landscape might look like — if we could imagine such a thing. Tuesday evening, New York Times writer Charlie Warzel casually tweeted a version of this question to his followers, not expecting much of a response. “Odd question but: what are your most far-fetched utopian ideas for fixing social media platforms?” he asked. “The stuff that’s likely never ever gonna happen.”

More than 1,000 replies later, the thread was packed with provocative proposals, which together show that there is not only a tremendous appetite for change but a constellation of bright ideas for what that change could be.

The Pattern

Imagining a path forward for social media.

Some of the ideas really were far-fetched and utopian; others were more firmly in the realm of the pragmatic. Some were clearly the result of years’ worth of intensive study and thought; others were a few short moments’ reflection or a quick bolt of inspiration. Some were funny; some perhaps misguided. They ranged in their goals from reworking the dynamics of virality to reprioritizing safety and privacy as core values to making social media less addictive or divisive to doing away with it altogether. Warzel mentioned a few in his subsequent Times story, which made the case that Facebook can’t be reformed, only “survived” or “reimagined.”

He may be right. It’s a view long espoused by, among others, University of Virginia media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, who Warzel quotes. Still, the collective brainstorm that his tweet sparked suggests that there remains a dizzying array of policy and product possibilities that have yet to be tried. Warzel told me he was bowled over by the “outpouring of clever and creative ideas, many of them actually pretty doable.”

I decided to make those replies the focus of this week’s newsletter, as an antidote to the kind of fatalistic cynicism that can congeal into apathy. We journalists are often more comfortable pointing out problems than pointing to solutions, but this feels like a juncture where the problems have been rather worked over. Below I highlight some common themes among the most constructive proposals, along with a quick note about what some of the pitfalls might be based on my years of reporting on social platforms (including some high-minded ones that fell flat). I include this not to undermine or dismiss them but in the spirit of taking them seriously as ideals, no matter how unattainable they might seem.

(Update: I’d also like to make it clear that the people listed as “proponents” of these ideas were not necessarily their originators — just the ones who happened to raise them in this thread. In addition, my summary of each idea does not necessarily capture its full nuance, as articulated by the person who tweeted it.)

The idea: Make social networks nonprofits

The proponents: Shane Ferro, Jane M. Wong

The dream: Liberated from the profit motive, social media companies could stop optimizing users’ feeds for engagement, stop harvesting their data, invest more in human moderation and user support, and organize their networks around public-spirited values rather than market dominance.

The downside: Unless you could somehow insulate them from competition with for-profit rivals, nonprofit social networks that don’t optimize for attention might risk losing, well, people’s attention. One can imagine a nonprofit social network becoming the internet equivalent of PBS, serving vegetables to sober-minded oldsters while the youngs flee to fun, freewheeling alternatives.

The idea: Ban algorithmic amplification

The proponents: Roger McNamee, Mark Hurst

The dream: No longer would automated systems determine which posts reach a wide audience. You’d see just two things — posts and shares from the people and pages you have specifically chosen to follow and posts selected by human editors for wider distribution. With no algorithm to game or exploit, purveyors of propaganda, lies, and outrage bait could no longer thrive, and users’ information diet would look more like what they’d get from a newspaper or magazine.

The downside: While users often say they don’t want an algorithm determining what they see in their feeds, strict chronological timelines have their own drawbacks as the posts you really care about can get buried in a mountain of mundanity. And for all the virtues of human curation, editors are fallible, too, and are liable to overlook worthy posts that come from unexpected sources.

The idea: Restrict personal data collection and behavioral advertising

The proponents: David Carroll, Jason Kint

The dream: Dismantling surveillance capitalism would not only restore users’ privacy and autonomy, it would reduce platforms’ incentives to drill ever deeper into our lives and manipulate our behavior. Wired’s Gilad Edelman recently explored in depth how this might play out.

The downside: Less-relevant ads, more paywalls, and a hit to small businesses for whom behavioral targeting works far better than the contextual variety. As free social networks became less profitable, we might also see less innovation and competition and less investment in expensive human moderation.

The idea: Stop putting white men in charge

The proponent: Ellen Pao

The dream: Platforms run by “Black and Brown women and nonbinary people,” as Pao proposes, would be far more likely to prioritize values of safety and equality over unfettered speech and be more attuned to the impacts of a product’s implicit biases.

The downside: While fresh leadership could be a very good start, those leaders would face a daunting task of changing the whole culture of large organizations, and in the absence of regulation, they would face many of the same unhealthy business pressures and incentives as their predecessors.

The idea: Let a field of smaller social networks bloom

The proponents: Casey Newton, Anil Dash

The dream: Healthier competition would mean more space for alternative visions of social media and lower the stakes of any single company’s decision-making — including its power over whom to amplify and de-platform. Facebook wouldn’t be able to brush off boycotts so easily if users and advertisers had more viable alternatives. Dash imagines “networks built for a purpose, to accommodate particular communities with tools suited specifically to their needs.” On a similar theme, P.E. Moskowitz wrote in defense of small social networks in OneZero last year.

The downside: More intense competition might further fuel the battle for engagement and data harvesting, with the most unscrupulous players gaining at the expense of the responsible ones. (Dash, covering his bases, further specifies that the networks exhibit transparency and accountability and use “non-surveillance-based business models.”)

Dash’s tweet might be my favorite in the thread in terms of envisioning what a healthy social media ecosystem would look like. Alexis Madrigal’s suggestion, meanwhile — “design distribution around a different principle than vitality” — may be the most elegant and concise. And Elizabeth Joh’s, which outlined some north stars for user safety, includes the most concrete guideposts for product development.

There were also plenty of respondents who proposed simply shutting social media down altogether. I didn’t include those here because, to the extent they’re serious, I think they’re not only implausible — as some of the ideas above admittedly are, too — but short-sighted. Social media has undeniably created urgent and troubling new societal problems, but it has also fostered unprecedented progress on old ones. I argued last month that the George Floyd protests, like the Ferguson, #MeToo, and Arab Spring before them, remind us why social media is worth fixing. The replies to Warzel’s question prove there is no shortage of ideas for how to do that — and remind us that social media itself can be fertile ground for finding and developing those ideas.

Imagine a social platform where you can send a question out to your network at night and wake up to hundreds of intelligent responses in the morning. We have that much, at least, already, given the right circumstances. Now to work on the rest.

Undercurrents

Under-the-radar trends, stories, and random anecdotes worth your time

  • One thing the ideal social network would probably not look like is Clubhouse, at least in its current form. The new social app, which is open to beta testing by an exclusive group that seems to include an awful lot of venture capitalists, allows users to host voice-based chat rooms, intended to facilitate natural, free-flowing conversations. This week it became the subject of controversy (again) when combative investor Balaji Srinivasan used the app to try and enlist his fellow techies in his campaign to discredit a specific New York Times reporter, Taylor Lorenz, after she left the chat room he was in. (Vice published a recording of the session). The details of the dustup — part of a longer-running feud between segments of the tech community and the tech press — are beyond the scope of this newsletter. But suffice it for now to point out that social platforms’ norms and design are shaped in large part by the interests and biases of their early users. Clubhouse’s strategy of catering to VCs may have helped it drum up FOMO and cash. But it risks laying the groundwork for a platform that puts the interests of the rich and powerful first and hands influential users an echo chamber that reinforces their sense of entitlement without the messy dissent they encounter on more open platforms. (To be fair, some Clubhouse users did speak up in Lorenz’s defense despite feeling intimidated by the tenor of the discussion.)
  • Reddit banned some 2,000 subreddits, including the influential pro-Trump sub The_Donald, that it said had repeatedly violated its rules. In what may have served as a bit of a political fig leaf, the second-most noteworthy sub it banned was Chapo Trap House, a left-wing hub. It’s part of a broader, ongoing project to clean up a platform that was once emblematic of the web’s Wild West. Meanwhile, YouTube banned several popular right-wing personalities for violating its policies on hate speech and white supremacist content. The timing probably isn’t entirely coincidental: Multiple big tech companies are in the midst of moves precipitated at least partly by pressure associated with the George Floyd protests, including pressure from their own employees.
  • Here’s an idea for what advertisers could do with the money they’re withholding from Facebook and other social media companies: buy ads from reputable news publishers instead. I first heard the proposal from Vinny Green, chief operating officer of the fact-checking site Snopes, which has set up a campaign called Start Funding Facts as a corollary to the larger Stop Hate for Profit campaign. The Information’s Jessica Lessin advanced the same idea, pointing out that advertisers’ unease with serious topics such as the coronavirus and George Floyd has had the effect of punishing news publishers at a time when they were already hurting. Green said Friday the Snopes-led campaign had found its first corporate supporter: the DIY electronics company Adafruit.

Headlines of the Week

“Behind Bars, but Still Posting on TikTok

— Louise Matsakis, Wired

“Who Is the Mystery Shopper Leaving Behind Thousands of Online Shopping Carts?

— Paul Ziobro, Wall Street Journal

“Vanilla Ice has stopped, collaborated and listened after backlash, will postpone Texas concert

— Joe Concha, The Hill (…technically this one is a tweet, but it should have been a headline)

While We Have Your Attention…

Medium recently launched a blog about the fight against anti-Black racism. We are committed to a long-term conversation about awareness and change so that anti-Blackness is confronted and, with time, wiped away. Read and follow it here.

Thanks for reading Pattern Matching. Reach me with tips and feedback by responding to this post on the web, via Twitter direct message at @WillOremus, or by email at oremus@medium.com.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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