In early May 2019, Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook and a former employee of the social networking giant, used an opinion piece in the New York Times to call for the American government to break up his former employer. Hughes argued that Facebook’s monopoly over social media gave it unprecedented power to influence the public, and that this power should not be in the hands of one company, and by extension, one man (In early June 2019, Mark Zuckerburg used his controlling shares at Facebook to quash an investor uprising that saw 68% of ordinary shareholders vote to oust him as chairman).
Hughes, along with prominent thinkers in the space such as Turkish scholar Zeynep Tufekci, think that power in the social media landscape is both too concentrated and also too opaque: The algorithms that decide what users see in their social feeds are extremely complex and proprietary to the massive organizations who control the major networks. We do not know exactly how social media may be used to influence politics, culture, health, etc., but we do know that it has, and many do not expect its power to dissipate.
Social media is not the first form of media to influence public opinion and thus behaviour, but its nature is different than other media channels. For over 300 years, from the early 1600s to the early 1900s, publishers of printed newspapers controlled the flow of information to citizens. By choosing what information to include and what to omit, publishers and editors had tremendous power. With the advent of radio and television, two additional channels were added to the world’s media diet, and these, along with outdoor advertising and magazines, made up ‘mass media’.
Due to its nature, mass media was, and to some extent still is, designed for broad consumption. The goal is to get as many people as possible to watch/see/read one thing at the same time and charge advertisers according to the size of the audience. Get too progressive or too conservative and you risk losing a sizeable chunk of that audience.
Conversely, social media offers every individual user a stream of content that is personalized to them. Controversial publishers who, in the past, may have only been able to reach a small number of readers are now able to take advantage of personalized social media feeds that allow them to grow their audience and spread messages that they never would have been able to disseminate via mass media. Elevators, busses and park benches may be filled with people all on Facebook, but one person’s feed may be populated primarily by puppies while another’s feed consists instead of posts calling for racialized violence. One platform, completely different messages.
In a chilling talk given at a 2017 TED conference in New York, Tufekci suggested that social media algorithms, tasked with capturing and holding attention for the purpose of selling as many ads as possible, would show viewers increasingly extreme content, pulling them deeper into the proverbial rabbit hole. The code that carries out the robotic role of content curation, unburdened by mass media’s imperative to stay somewhere in the middle, has determined, Tufekci asserts, that divisive, extreme, inflammatory content is better equipped to hold attention than more moderate fare.
If the engine is funded by ads, then social media companies are incentivized to serve as many ads as they can, even if it means tapping into our basest fears, curiosities and interests. While the business model of social media stays the same, so will the nature of the content served to users.
At the same time, social media as a tool for connection and organizing can be incredibly positive. Not every niche media outlet that uses the platform has destructive tendencies. There are billions of wonderful citizens and tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of positive organizations that use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to communicate with one another. How do citizens of the internet sort the social wheat from the advertising chaff?
The benefits of ‘social’ can be separated from the drawbacks of the ‘media’. An online platform that allows you to connect with wonderful, knowledgeable, interesting individuals does not have the right to buy data about you from brokers. One search should not influence the content that follows you around the web for weeks. Looking for hobby inspiration does not need to ruin your productivity for an hour and leave you frustrated and polarized.
The future of social is community, not media. Where the currency of social media is ostensibly attention, the goal of a community is much broader. Because a social community forms around a shared interest, attitude, or objective, its goals are rich and nuanced. Community members seek to learn, experiment, and improve either skills or knowledge. Community members are looking for inspiration, for guidance, for mentorship. The currency of communities is camaraderie, creativity and ideas.
Read More: Why Lush is Leaving Social Media
When a social platform is built to facilitate these things, it starts to function in a very different way than social media does. Divisiveness is counter-productive. Finding what you are looking for quickly is beneficial. Negativity or abuse is self-policed in the rare case that it happens; online communities are often overwhelmingly positive, because they are made up of individuals with similar interests and goals.
Much of the internet was built around the idea of online community, of strangers coming together to accomplish scientific, social, and artistic goals. One of the great powers of the internet is to transcend the barriers that divide us, and to do so in ways that other forms of communication and information sharing have not been able to do before. There is great irony in the fact that social media identifies the barriers that divide us, and, instead of reducing them, makes them stronger. We pay for social media platforms with our attention, and they, in turn, are paid to divide us.
May we, as a society, refuse the divisions that social media sows, refuse to settle for an advertising platform masquerading as a community, and instead build an internet of vibrant, diverse, positive social communities. May we come together, instead of being torn apart.
If you are interested in building a social community, a member of my team would love to talk. Contact us