Stuart Langridge, Jono Bacon, and Jeremy Garcia present Bad Voltage, in which we take ourselves up on a challenge we set a couple of episodes ago.
Social media. There’s pretty wide agreement that there are issues with it; that it fosters divisiveness and a lack of nuance, it amplifies the narcissistic, that it’s easy to harass and bully people, that there are ways in which it’s had a detrimental impact on society. But is that the fault of the social media networks, or the fault of humanity who just didn’t have an audible voice before? And if that’s the case… what can be done about it? Anything?
We have some thoughts, and have been reading up about social media, engagement, and the “techlash” more generally, and the motives behind some of these actions. So, why’s it happening, and can it be fixed?
Speaking as a 20 year old, the only way anyone around my age communicates is Facebook messenger. Text messages are obsolete, email is only used to share utility bills between flatmates. I’ve also found that it is rare for anyone my age to use Twitter. The big ones are Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Getting anyone to communicate with me beyond these platforms is difficult. I have personally had difficulty with Facebook and deleted it, twice. I am not current on there. This can feel isolating as no one makes any effort to reach beyond their Facebook friends. I have now found out you can use Facebook messenger through the app without creating a Facebook profile; which I now do. So taking a week off social media, or deleting it all together may be alright if you have other forms of communication, but for many is impossible because it is the only way to communicate with others. I honestly don’t enjoy social media, but until everyone leaves it, no one can.
I don’t know how to fix these issues of social media but some key ideas I would want social media companies to consider are:
Chronological feeds, this removes any bias, intentional on unintentional in your algorithm.
Finding a way to remind users that people are on the other end. This is far more difficult and I don’t know how it can be done but if the person typing the comment could see the other person as in face to face conversation I think comments would be much more constructive.
Having some sort of junk filter. I don’t know how this can be unbiased or how this would work but I don’t want to see 52 unfunny memes before finding any real content. For Facebook this could be as simple as not showing me what my friends have liked, only what they post. I don’t follow the meme pages they follow, so I’m not interested, even if they are.
Somehow encouraging constructive conversation between disagreeing groups, while discouraging the personal attacks that currently occur. I know this is an impossible pipe dream.
Encouraging real world events and meetups. This is where Facebook actually does pretty well with their Facebook Events platform. Hat’s off to them.
I know these points are practically impossible, especially for a for profit company. I wonder if a Not for Profit social media charity would be possible. Maybe something like the business model of Wikipedia. The problem here is that an existing company would have to convert to this model and bring users with it, as nobody wants to signup to a social media where they are the only users. This would also avoid divisive advertising.
Long time listener, first-time poster (well, I emailed LUGRadio a few times).
I was startled by the conversation of following the five "Why"s down the path to “destroy capitalism”, and how everyone agreed that the problem was advertising money - yet the implicit assumption remained that advertising was the only conceivable business model.
Working within the framework of (in this case) capitalism, it seems to me that the path to success is making capitalism work for you instead of against you. As long as it is the case that the users are the product and not the customer, I think we’re hosed. Farms don’t exist to maximize happiness of cattle, with the possible exceptions of boutique dairy farms.
I think the first step to improving things is to break the link to advertisers, and go to another business model where maximizing customer satisfaction is the same as maximizing user satisfaction. A subscription model - for example - could well be more viable than was previously the case. People are willing to pay to access all sorts of Internet-hosted functionality nowadays, and the fact that users place value on the current craptacular Facebook has been established:
“How much is social media worth? Estimating the value of Facebook by paying users to stop using it”
I have been wishing for quite some time now that there were an open source, transparent, non-advertising, possibly even non-profit social media site to start up. I would be more than thrilled to kickstarter, subscribe, Patreon, whatever, just as I’m more than happy to send money to Wikipedia, Free Software Conservancy, Internet Archive, and other value-creating non-profits which spark such joy in me (to use the catchphrase du jour).
One of my favorite use cases of Facebook (I’ve been off for months now) is interest groups - Bad Voltage, vintage computers, Linux, whatever. Even so, Facebook is terrible for those use cases (hard to search for info, hard to share files, lack of understandable organization or management of news feed, you know the problems). Unfortunately, as sucktastic as it is, Facebook is better than most! Sure, there are some terrific cases (community.badvoltage.org, vcfed.org/forums), but they are insular - not integrated into a single cohesive social platform. A person of varied interests and social groups has a hard time finding, using, and curating the various insular platforms without the old RSS-feed syndication methods, and not really all that great then.
Sadly, though, you are not usual, as evidenced by Wikipedia, Free Software Conservancy, Internet Archive, and other value-creating non-profits being constantly on a donations drive which teeters on the very edge of a guilt trip, and sometimes over that edge. Most people don’t do that. Setting up a social media site which relies on it just means that they won’t have any money…
I didn’t mean to suggest donations as the only possible model; subscription or other pay-to-use models would probably be a better way to go. If people need to be paid to take something away (see linked study), then if they are remotely rational actors they will be willing to pay to keep it.
More directly to your point of non-profit begware, though; I’m no financial expert, but it looks to me like Wikipedia for example is much better off than your average American middle class employee when it comes to having a reserve of cash and investments:
Fair comment on Wikimedia! On the other hand, it is the fifth most popular website on earth and has total assets of $145m. Which ain’t nothin’, don’t get me wrong. But the three ahead of it are Google (google.com and YouTube), Facebook, and Baidu, and Google made 20 times that amount in revenue last year, so Wikimedia’s popularity-to-money-they-get-from-it ratio is well below everyone else
(did I miss the “linked study”?)
I don’t think people in general are remotely rational when it comes to money or decision making or almost anything else, to be honest. I know I’m not, and a whole pile of behavioural economics and psychology studies have said the same thing. Homo economicus is not a good model for actual people. I mean, I basically agree with your point that the world might be better if it were that way, but I fear I do not think that it is.
Listening to the show, I think that you might find it interesting to read The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. They’re looking at the change in attitude toward free speech in Universities in America, but I think a lot of it applies to social media too. They also identify one of the trend shifts as being for the generation of children who have had social media for their whole adolescence.
(FWIW, if you could get Jonathan Haidt on as a guest on this subject I think he would be very interesting. I’ve heard him on a couple of podcasts now)
Re social media: Totally impractical but I would (if world supremo) make them:
Liable for mis-information which they spread (e.g., anti-vax “research”) and,
Tag facts or opinions as such (i.e., this is a verifiable fact, this is an opinion presented as fact, and this is just someone’s opinion)
Like I said, until AI overlords take over this is not going to happen … and who knows what they’ll be thinking!
I think part of the problem is that everyone has a different idea of policing social networks. You can’t trust governments to do it as every government has a different idea of what is correct and possibly different agendas. You can’t trust the companies to do it because… well money. It appears at least in the UK’s case the government wants the companies to do it and gives them a mild slap on the wrist when they don’t do a good enough job.
I’ve often thought about the possibility of having some kind of UN style organisation that effectively policies social networks. Without the agenda of governments. A body that is actually there for the users. Not thought through all the ramifications of it but surely something independent has got to be better?
Unfortunately, there is no reason why anyone would listen to such a body. Most of the social media networks we’re discussing here are American, and the American government takes a pretty hardcore view on whether international organisations are allowed to exert control over American citizens and companies, i.e., they aren’t.
In principle, it would be highly hypocritical that the US government is barred by the first amendment of the US Constitution to pass any law abridging the right to free speech but then allow an international body to do just that.
Edit: A point to ponder: If facebook found that their revenues would increase by 30% and have a sustainable 10% annual growth by restricting users to ones who are under 5"-3", prefers Italian roast coffee over French roast and thinks Tiny Tim was the greatest artist ever, what would they do? The only way to change these corporations is if there is a financial incentive to do so.
It sounds like a really good workaround to their conundrum for me . There is already so much they are trying to censor (terrorist propaganda, Russia election tampering, etc…) and they try to push that onto the social media companies to do anyway. This just makes it a bit more official and in-theory fairer to everyone.
I agree with @sil that it is hard. But anything worth doing will be hard now that we are so far down the road.
I don’t thing the first amendment was designed to give people a platform to be heard. Especially if that platform is directly responsible for many deaths and indirectly responsible for thousands more (by not so subtly rigging elections, I want to cite the John Oliver episode covering this but I can’t remember which one).
Right. The first amendment was not limiting people or business, but congress from enacting laws that will abridge free speech. For congress to try to regulate free speech on what ever social media platform should be challenged in court. It doesn’t mean that the said platform cannot regulate speech.
According to CNBC Facebook makes about $24 off of each user per year1 whereas most cloud services I use charge around $50 per year for the first level above free. So Facebook could double their revenue by dropping their advertising and just charging everyone the typical amount a cloud service charges.
But they haven’t done that and I’m sure there’s a good reason for it!
I think switching their business model from the user being the product to the user being the customer would be too drastic a change and would incur much higher costs in support and lawsuits. Definitely not one that would happen under the current CEO. I also suspect (I don’t have hard evidence, just what I know on FB’s infra from past visit) Facebook make more profit on that $24 than a cloud vendor does on $50.