Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄
The song for this post is Trisection, from the Final Fantasy Tactics soundtrack, composed by Masaharu Iwata and Hitoshi Sakimoto.
I really loved this piece on social media and toxic communities by Andrew Marantz in The New Yorker. Any piece that connects the dots between Zuck saying
"The idea that fake news on Facebook, of which it’s a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way, I think, is a pretty crazy idea"
with the fact that Facebook did research, nonconsensually, to demonstrate precisely this in 2012, deserves a shout-out. My main quibble is with this transition line, emphasis mine:
Trolls set a cunning trap. By ignoring their provocations, you risk seeming complicit. By responding, you amplify their message. Trump, perhaps the world’s most skilled troll, can get attention whenever he wants, simply by being outrageous. Traditional journalists and editors can decide to resist the bait, and sometimes they do, but that option isn’t available on user-generated platforms. Social-media executives claim to transcend subjectivity, and they have designed their platforms to be feedback machines, giving us not what we claim to want, nor what might be good for us, but what we actually pay attention to.
There are no good solutions to this problem, and so tech executives tend to discuss it as seldom as possible, and only in the airiest of platitudes.
There are only "no solutions to this problem" if you maintain some of the unspoken constraints they're operating under. Remove the constraints, and you suddenly have extremely good solutions.
Maximize short-term revenue and profit for the top, whatever the cost.
There's a cost and revenue side of this directive.
From the cost side: one could hire, incentivize, or empower moderators who can enforce community standards. But Pablo! That won't scale! I don't know, Facebook made $40b in revenue last year. While it costs good money to run those datacenters and fill Menlo Park with Vitamin Water, I'm pretty sure there's enough extra revenue there to throw some money at the problem (especially if you look at executive salaries!). But it would be sizeable money, and they're currently getting away with spending minimally.
From the revenue side, if gullible Republicans who buy Alex Jones' colloided silver leave the platform because their lies and paranoia aren't rewarded and centered, that's fewer users looking at Facebook ads, so they don't want to say no to that sweet, sweet revenue, even if they participate in our century's version of internment camps.
If you're interested in healthy online communities, there's no substitute for leadership and the hard work of community management. We've known this for as long as online communities have existed. But Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter aren't in the business of healthy online communities, they sell ads. Investment in making this happen will raise costs and lower some revenue, which they will never let happen unless they're existentially threatened.
The sad thing is, it would probably generate more total value in the long run, for many firms, if enough companies kept a mind for overall social and user health. Our financial structures don't incentivize this. Incidentally, if you're not familiar with the parable of the paperclip maximizer, check it out, it's relevant.
Don't alienate people who historically get everything centered around them at the expense of others
This directive is harder to talk about in brass tacks, but I firmly believe it's a factor: well-intentioned powerful people get sad when underprivileged people are oppressed, but they panic when privileged people lose some of their status. Remember when the Tea Party stormed Republican Town Halls? It was effective in part because the people who showed up were old, White Boomers. We've had protests for Black people getting murdered by cops who were found to be lying; we've had West Virginia teachers do a state-wide strike, and none of them shaped our politics the way old White people yelling at Town Halls has.
Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and the rest could enact stronger policies, and there's a short-term, narrow-minded business case they could make for this. But I believe part of their reticence to do anything substantial is discomfort when people who are too different from them start influencing their spaces, and similar discomfort when people who look like them start losing status.
So again, loved the article! But just like one of my favorite Onion headlines:
We should push back on the narrative that "there are no good solutions to this." There are! You just have to pull some heads out of some asses, first.
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