The promise of social media

I’ve been studying social media for 16 years.


I think what Charlene Li and I observed back then is still true.

People want to connect with friends.

People want to connect with strangers with whom they share an interest.

People want to engage intellectually with strangers. Or at least, they used to.

Back when blogs were the epicenter of social media, these things all applied.

These connections are powerful, taken together. People with like interests form movements. They are formidable in groups. The Arab Spring proved that social media could remake the world.

Now the epicenter of social media is corporate. Facebook. Instagram. YouTube. Twitter.

Platforms are, or must make themselves, referees, or else social media devolves into trolling and disinformation and, at worst, doxxing and violence.

Elon Musk purports to support the idealistic view of social media for Twitter.

Unfortunately, there is no way to put this particular genie back into its bottle.

You open things up, the trolls run wild. You allow violators back on the platform, and they feel there will no longer be a penalty for harassing people.

You shut down the people that you claim are “woke,” you tilt the debate.

When your CEO takes political positions, it’s hard to believe his platform will remain neutral.

Truth is no longer an absolute, there are no definitive sources. No wonder so many journalists are deserting Twitter.

Game over?

I wonder if it is even possible to have a mode of social media interaction that:

  • Is free.
  • Is available to everyone.
  • Has enough freedom to be interesting.
  • Has enough control to prevent the worst of trolling, nastiness, and violence.
  • Has few enough ads to be tolerable.

It seems as if the same algorithms that are necessary to target ads and encourage interaction are subject to subversion for evil purposes. Nastiness invites “engagement.”

Every popular place curdles into evil.

Social media used to be a nice neighborhood. I miss that.

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  1. Money quote:

    When your CEO takes political positions, it’s hard to believe his platform will remain neutral.

    Dude is also hurting his at least one of his other businesses. How do his pronouncements not dissuade some folks from buying Teslas?

    1. It has dissuaded me from buying a Tesla or Starlink. I don’t want any of my money supporting that clown. I started losing my confidence in Musk when he refused to close his plants in California at the beginning of the pandemic. His handling of the Twitter acquisition has been a disgrace. I was planning to get a Tesla for my next car. I’m not now.

  2. I feel that it should be possible – though I think the financial part is hard. Here is why: there are some costs to run social media, even if it’s just the infrastructure and network costs to run it. But added to that, there are probably also some costs for design and development and operating the platform (though much of that can be opensource). However, the expensive thing is content moderation – either expensive in people’s time, or wages, or technical development.

    So it seems to me that if the platform is free, then the advertising needs to pay for those things – and the big question is whether that adds up.

  3. I was big advocate for social media as a way to help level the playing field in the same way I believe websites have done. That is, what you can see and hear isn’t controlled by a few large entities. It seems now we find ourselves back in a similar situation with large entities writing the rules that govern what we see and hear. Only now those shadow voices that once were on the fringe have an outsized presence.

    I now feel free social media may be a pact with the devil. What used to be simply having to endure commercials has morphed into those algorithms that drive interaction that drive revenue. Sensational, outrageous, conspiracy-driven and unfortunately just hate-filled content get more “engagement” than other content. Trump’s lies about the election, immigrants and all the rest is one huge example but there are many others. I for one would be happy to pay for an ad-free, well managed twitter-like service in the same way I’m willing to pay for ad-free streaming services.

  4. I know a platform that meets all your criteria: free, available to everyone, interesting, well controlled, and not overrun with ads. Wikipedia has been motoring along for more than 20 years. While It’s not social media per se, I wonder if the social-media community could learn anything from its funding model and from the way it governs its content. Just a thought.

  5. A big-shot throws a rally and during it cries for openness in social media, no gate keepers, let it be a free-for-all. But their own event has rules and gate keepers determining who can enter and who can’t. And if you try to shout down the big-shot, they escort you out. Just like the big-shot was escorted out of Twitter and other social media venues.
    When I moderated discussion boards back in the day, and now FB groups, my attitude was simple: it’s my party at my house and therefore it’s my rules. If you don’t like them, go play somewhere house. Gathered together in real life or online, the rules to maintain civility and allow the people to interact as a community should be the same.