I suspect that the payola approach (great characterization, despite the differences from the specific scandal) could succeed, but only to the extent that it’s another form of paying for advertising. That is, normal people won’t won’t shell out for Meta Whiz-Bang or whatever, but brands will do it, if it means that the algorithm will prioritize their posts.
And that gets to another issue: Ads are inherently bad. People who sell ads fantasize about relevance and the magic person who desperately wants to spend money, and only needs to serendipitously discover that a product exists. But the reality is that ads are for wealthy companies to pull consumers away from companies with less money available. Over the long term, it’s an auction for market-share. I don’t mind ads on a personal level, but they’re economically destructive.
Interestingly, the United States Supreme Court nearly banned advertising in the 1960s, and the only reason that they stopped was the informative aspect. But we have this fancy new thing called the Internet, now, and if you have a fantasy product/service in mind, you can search for the idea to see if somebody is selling it, so that’s no longer legitimate. (Side note: I wonder if that’s why search engines have declined so much, over the last few years. If Google doesn’t actually tell you anything useful when you want to buy widgets, then maybe ads are super-important?)
As for a brand-less social network, isn’t that just all our communication channels? There’s no discoverability, but I sat in on at least a few discussions in the mid-1990s where people started designing something that looked a lot like social media, but they all abandoned the ideas, because there’s no user benefit (from the perspective of a regular Internet user in the mid-1990s, anyway) to have a central company over e-mail, chat programs, and a personal webpage. Today, the “only” hurdle is hosting those things without any friction.
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