On Social Media and Its Discontents

Split Reactions

As someone who has publicly criticized the major social media platforms for years, I’ve become familiar with the common arguments surrounding this topic.

One of the more interesting trends I’ve observed about this conversation is the split reaction to social media I used to hear from the political left before the 2016 election scrambled everything.

This split was defined largely by age.

Younger progressives were fiercely in favor of social media and were often appalled that people like me might say something negative about these services.

I remember one particularly lively radio debate, held on the Canadian equivalent of NPR, in which one of the other guests fought my suggestion that users should perform a personal cost/benefit analysis for these tools by arguing that even discussing this strategy was problematic as it might trick people into not using social media — a self-evident tragedy.

Older progressives, by contrast, were more skeptical of these platforms. This was especially true of tech-savvy activists like Jaron Lanier or Douglas Rushkoff who were connected to earlier techno-utopian movements.

On closer analysis, this gap seemed to stem from how these different cohorts understood social media’s relationship to the internet.

Two Visions of The Internet

The young progressives grew up in a time when platform monopolies like Facebook were so dominant that they seemed inextricably intertwined into the fabric of the internet. To criticize social media, therefore, was to criticize the internet’s general ability to do useful things like connect people, spread information, and support activism and expression.

The older progressives, however, remember the internet before the platform monopolies. They were concerned to observe a small number of companies attempt to consolidate much of the internet into their for-profit, walled gardens.

To them, social media is not the internet. It was instead a force that was co-opting the internet — including the powerful capabilities listed above — in ways that would almost certainly lead to trouble. (See Tim Wu’s The Master Switch for an interesting take on this inevitable “cycle.”)

I’m introducing this split because I think the older progressives largely had it right. There’s a distinction between the social internet and social media.

The social internet describes the general ways in which the global communication network and open protocols known as “the internet” enable good things like connecting people, spreading information, and supporting expression and activism.

Social media, by contrast, describes the attempt to privatize these capabilities by large companies within the newly emerged algorithmic attention economy, a particularly virulent strain of the attention sector that leverages personal data and sophisticated algorithms to ruthlessly siphon users’ cognitive capital.

I support the social internet. I’m incredibly wary of social media.

Understanding the difference between these two statements is crucial if we’re going to make progress on the issues surrounding social media that have, during the last year, finally entered our mainstream cultural conversation.

If we fail to distinguish the social internet from social media, we’ll proceed by attempting to reform social media through better self-regulation and legislative controls — an approach I believe to be insufficient on its own.

On the other hand, if we recognize that the benefits of the social internet can exist outside the increasingly authoritarian confines of the algorithmic attention economy, we can explore attempts to replace social media with better alternatives.

In my opinion, any vision of a better future for the internet must include this latter conversation.

One Possible Solution: Social Protocols

The tricky question, of course, is how exactly one enables a useful social internet in the absence of the network effects and economic resources provided by the algorithmic attention economy.

One intriguing answer is the idea of augmenting the basic infrastructure of the internet with social protocols.

In short, these protocols would enable the following two functions:

  • A way for individuals to create and own a digital identity that no one else can manipulate or forge.
  • A way for two digital identities to agree to establish a descriptive social link in such a way that outside observers can validate that both identities did in fact agree to form that link.

There are few serious technical obstacles to implementing these protocols, which require only standard asymmetric cryptography primitives. But their impact could be significant.

As proponents of this approach have pointed out, social protocols hold the potential to revolutionize the social internet.

In more detail, these protocols could enable a version of the internet that includes a vast and descriptive social graph that’s owned by the users themselves, instead of existing in the private database of a single monopolistic company.

In this ecosystem, many different applications can leverage this distributed social graph to offer useful features to users. By eliminating the need for each such social application to create a network from scratch, a vibrant competitive marketplace can emerge.

Crucially, this marketplace could then offer useful alternatives to the increasing number of people fed up with the excesses of the algorithmic attention economy.

People like Facebook. But if you could offer them a similar alternative that stripped away the most unsavory elements of Zuckerberg’s empire (perhaps funded by a Wikipedia-style nonprofit collective, or a modest subscription fee), many would happily jump ship.

This discussion of social protocols, of course, elides many important details. For an interesting take that fills in some of this missing information, check out Steven Johnson’s recent New York Times Magazine article.*

In Conclusion

My point with this essay is not to present detailed technical proposals. I’m interested instead in providing a flavor of the types of options that emerge once we begin to realize that the social internet and social media are not the same thing, and that this reality gives us more options than we might have first imagined for improving our digital lives.


* While reading the Johnson article, keep in mind that I don’t necessarily share its conviction that blockchain technology is somehow fundamental to implementing these social protocol visions. As a computer scientist who specializes in the theory of distributed systems, I’ve become increasingly wary of the  arguments that lead blockchain enthusiasts to believe that “trust” requires the disintermediation of any formal organization or institution in the design of a distributed system. But this is a different conversation for a different time…

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