It's time to rethink social media

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, September 16, 2020, 5:00 PM | comments: 0

A whole lot of people are talking about The Social Dilemma, a documentary that just landed on Netflix. This movie basically charts the growth of the social networks and how their revenue models are basically perpetual engagement engines intended to hook you. Some of the consequences are harmful. You are in fact the product, not a customer. If you work in technology and understand it, you probably already know this, but I'm surprised at how few people get it. I'm also astounded at how harmful it has been to older generations in particular, especially Boomers. The harm for post-Millennials seems extreme as well.

To be clear, social media wasn't the earliest example of this. As cable TV was able to carry more and more channels, it was possible to use mass-media to serve many more niche interests than it was before. Right around the turn of the century, Rupert Murdoch realized that you could sell advertising to a bunch of people who were ready to fiercely consume whatever deeply divisive grievance politics that a segment of the population wanted, and that became Fox News. There was the initial model. But with the Internet and nearly limitless computational power, imagine tailoring for an audience in that way for literally every sliver of interest or politics... that's why you have Facebook and YouTube.

Remember when Facebook started forcing the algorithmically driven feed on everyone, instead of just showing what all your friends posted, in sequence? That was the point at which I started using Facebook less, because it started showing me stuff I wasn't interested in, instead of what my friends were sharing. Anecdotally, I think that my fellow Gen-X'ers, and to an extent the older Millennials, used Facebook largely as a tool to remain connected to others, particularly as we moved around the country, had kids and such. I might be totally wrong about that, but that's my perception. To this day, there are fewer of us still using it. For me, I never used notifications, and the only thing that tickles my leg is a text message or phone call. I do, however, when bored, scroll. The timers say I sometimes spend a half-hour to an hour a day between Facebook and Instagram, which isn't great.

I want a social network that's simply a tool. I don't want an algorithm, I don't want advertising, I don't want to be the product. I do want to share things in both directions with friends. I don't care if people "like" things, but maybe it helps to have "acknowledgment" so I feel I'm not talking to myself. All of this means that such a network would have to be for a fee, because there is no such thing as "free." Look, if I'm willing to give Vimeo $80 bucks a year to host sentimental videos without ads, I'm perfectly willing to give $25 to a network.

I've recently observed how messed up the algorithm can be. Instagram recently edged toward the Facebook model when it started showing you "recommendations" after you scrolled past all of the stuff you followed. These used to just appear on the search page, which I almost never go unless I'm looking for someone. Very early on when I started using Instagram, which was in late 2015, I had read something about it being a source of inspiration for women looking for hair color and styles. As I've always had a fascination with hair color and styling (you know, in case this software career doesn't work out), I found that I could search for #bluehair and see a ton of styles. I followed a few people, and before you know it, it was all I would see. A few months later I unfollowed most of those. Fast forward four years, and what do you think is recommended? Photos of people with blue hair. Nevermind that most of my follows are friends and celebrities (and lots of cats) with decidedly natural hair colors. The algorithm still thinks that's what I care most about. So imagine if I was into conspiracy theories, flat earth, anti-vaccine or some other illogical bullshit. The algorithm would be happy to show it to me.

So what do I do about this? I still find value in keeping in touch with people, but I have the moral issue of knowing that I'm fueling a machine that acts not necessarily immorally, but definitely amorally and without acknowledging the consequence of its actions. It's a little like working for a health insurance company. I want that thing that:

  • Makes me a customer, not the product.
  • Doesn't track what I do.
  • Has no algorithm, just straight up ordered posts from my friends.
  • Does not do things to "drive engagement."

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