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    A hopefully different kind of internet is waiting for us

    January 2020

    Social media in my opinion is broken. It has poisoned the way we communicate with each other and undermined the democratic process. Many of us just want to get away from it, but we can’t imagine a world without it. Though we talk about reforming it, “fixing” it, those of us who grew up on the internet know there’s no such thing as a social network that lasts forever. Facebook and Twitter are slowly imploding. And before they’re finally dead, we need to think deeply about what the future will be like after social media so we can prepare for what comes next.

    I don’t mean brainstorming new apps that could replace outdates ones, the way Facebook did MySpace. I mean what will replace social media the way the internet replaced television, transforming our entire culture? I absolutely believe that we can design interfaces that create more safe spaces to interact; in the same way we know how to design streets that are safer. But today, the issue isn’t technical. It has to do with the way business is being done in Silicon Valley. The problem, as more and more people know by now, is that tech companies want to grab a ton of private data from their customers without telling anyone why they need it. And this is, in my opinion, bad design for users. It leaves them vulnerable to abuses like the Cambridge Analytica scandal or to hacks where their data is exposed.

    What’s more, companies like Facebook and Twitter lack an incentive to promote better relationships and a better understanding of the news because Big Tech make money through outrage and deception. Outrage and deception capture our attention, and attention sells ads. At a business model level, they are ad networks parasitic on human connection. There is already a lot of pressure on tech companies from the government as well as from activists’ employees to change what they do with user data. But that doesn’t mean in my opinion that we’re going to see an improvement soon. We might even see Facebook getting more comfortable with authoritarianism.

    I personally predict that we’re about to see a showdown between two powerhouse social media companies – Facebook and WeChat. WeChat has more than one billion users in China and among Chinese Diaspora groups, and their users have no expectation of privacy. Facebook has 2.4 billion users, dominating every part of the world except China. If Facebook wants to reach inside China’s borders, it might take on WeChat’s values in the name of competition. As scary as that sounds, none of it is inevitable. We don’t have to lose our digital public spaces to state manipulation. What if future companies designed media to facilitate democracy right from the beginning?

    Is it possible to create a form of digital communication that promotes consensus – building and civil debate, rather than divisiveness and conspiracy theories?

    I personally imagine a new wave of digital media companies that will serve the generations of people who have grown up online (soon, that will be most people) and already know that digital information can’t be trusted. They will care about who is giving them the news, where it comes from, and why it’s believable. They will not be internet optimists anymore in the way that the current generation of tech billionaires wants them to be. They will in my opinion not believe the hype about how every new app makes the world a better place – they will be in my opinion internet pessimists and realists.

    So what would “internet realists” want from their media streams?

    The opposite of what we have now. Today, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are designed to make users easy to contact. That was the novelty of social media – we could get in touch with people in new and previously unimaginable ways. It also meant, by default, that any government or advertiser could do the same. I think we should turn the whole system on its head with “an intense emphasis on the value of curation”. It would be up to you to curate what you want to see. Your online profile in “my Internet world” would begin with everything and everyone blocked by default.

    Think of it as a more robust, comprehensive version of privacy settings, where news and entertainment would reach you only after you opted into them. This would be the first line of defense against viral falsehoods, as well as mobs of strangers or bots attacking someone they disagree with.

    The problem is that you can’t make advertising money from a system where everyone is blocked by default – companies wouldn’t be able to gather and sell your data, and you could avoid seeing ads. New business models would have to replace current ones after the demise of social media. I believe that companies will have to figure out ways to make money from helping consumers protect and curate their personal data.

    This could take many forms. Media companies might offer a few cheap services with ads, and more expensive ones without. Crowdfunding could create a public broadcasting version of video sharing, kind of an anti-YouTube, where every video is educational and safe for kids. There would also be a rich market for companies that design apps or devices to help people curate the content and people in their social networks. It’s all too easy to imagine an app that uses an algorithm to help “choose” appropriate friends for us, or select our news.

    Right now, we know billions of items per day are uploaded into Facebook. With that volume of content, it’s impossible for the platform to look at all of it and determine whether it should be there or not.

    Trying to keep up with this torrent, media companies have used algorithms to stop the spread of abusive or misleading information. But so far, they haven’t helped much. Instead of deploying algorithms to curate content at superhuman speeds, what if future public platforms simply set limits on how quickly content circulates? It would be a much different media experience. Maybe you’ll submit something and it won’t show up the next minute. That – in my opinion – might be positive. Maybe we’ll upload things and come back in a week and check if it’s there.

    This kind of slowness would give human moderators or curators time to review content. They could quash dangerous conspiracy theories before they lead to harassment or worse. Or they could behave like old-fashioned newspaper editors, fact-checking content with the people posting it or making sure they have permission to post pictures of someone. This in my opinion might help accomplish privacy goals, or give consumers for better control. It’s of course a completely different business model, with far less operating margins. But it would be the key to slow media and puts humans back in control of the information we all share.

    There isn’t a decent real-world analogue for social media, and that makes it difficult for users to understand where public information is coming from, and where their personal information is going. In my opinion, it doesn’t have to be that way. We have centuries of experience designing real-life spaces where people gather safely. After the social media age is over, we’ll have the opportunity to jointly rebuild our damaged public sphere by creating digital public places that imitate actual town halls, concert venues and pedestrian – friendly sidewalks. These are places where people can socialize or debate with a large community, but they can do it anonymously. If they want, they can just be faces in the crowd, not data streams loaded with personal information. That’s because in real life, we have more control over who will come into our private lives, and who will learn intimate details about us. We seek out information, rather than having it jammed into our faces without context or consent. Slow human-curated media would be a better reflection of how in-person communication works in a functioning democratic society.

    The legacy of social media will be a world thirsty for new kinds of public experiences. To rebuild the public sphere, we’ll need to use what we’ve learned from billion-dollar social experiments like Facebook, and marginalized communities like Black Twitter. We’ll have to carve out genuinely private spaces too, curated by people we know and trust. Perhaps the one part of Facebook we’ll want to hold on to in this future will be the indispensable phrase in its drop-down menu to describe relationships:

    “It’s complicated. “

    Public life in my opinion has been irrevocably changed by social media; now it’s time for something else. We need to stop handing off responsibility for maintaining public space to corporations and algorithms – and give it back to human beings. We may need to slow down, but we’ve created democracies out of chaos before. I am sure, we can do it again.