What if…social media were not for profit?
My first interaction with online social platforms – other than email – was on MSN Messenger. My memories of it sit alongside the unforgettable tones of dial-up internet and the bonsai kittens hoax.
The program had an unadorned interface and text-based, mostly one-on-one, chats. There was no public posting, or algorithms (mathematical rulesets) determining who read what.
When MySpace, and later Facebook, came along we mistook their novelty for fun. But, fast forward not so many years and the love affair with social media has quickly soured – save for a brief interlude where, having copied from tools developed by social movements, Twitter took credit for a swathe of revolutions and protests.
It shouldn’t have taken Elon Musk’s ego to prove that having the world’s digital public spheres – core sites for democracy and social life in our age – controlled by a handful of rich men was untenable.
From service providers to the fibre optic cables, the internet has been handed over wholesale to corporations.
Its ills flow from that: social media’s monetization through the attention economy means data mining and the nurturing of users’ insecurities; advertising fuels consumerism; and platforms are incentivized to favour the spreading of far right messages – after all, outrage is seductive.
So, what would it look like if we called time on Big Tech’s failed experiment?
A better social media would need to be decentralized – away from the US stock markets and men like Mark Zuckerberg, on whose watch images of breastfeeding have been banned as misogyny spreads. As well as avoiding a single point of failure (or censorship), this would help with other goals: community ownership, and democratic control, would be facilitated by having many smaller, perhaps more local, sites.
Existing social media giants must be brought into public (and transnational) ownership – in a way that hands power to citizens, not governments. But they should also be broken up, using existing anti-monopoly rules.
It is hard to know what sort of algorithms would best promote real community until we try (Facebook has been tweaking its software for years, casually nudging elections while profiting from misinformation). But the algorithms that determine what enters peoples’ social feeds must be transparent: open source, open for scrutiny, and for change.
We could also adapt from sites like Wikipedia (collectively edited) and Reddit (where posts and comments’ visibility is determined by user votes). Moderation policies – what content is and isn’t allowed – could be decided collectively, according to groups’ needs. Interventions could be developed to help individuals in crisis.
A new social media could be slower and kinder; designed to be satisfying, to build connections in the real world, rather than addictive.
That would also help make it green, as behind the analogy of the cloud lies a huge infrastructure of cables, servers and throwaway devices, sucking energy and materials – not to mention the army of exploited Global South labour, from brutalized coltan miners to burnt-out content moderators, that corporate social media rely on. Our social media would reduce and optimize, rather than maximize, network flows and screentime.
An important step towards a decentralized social network would be interoperability, and data portability. Different sites need to be able to talk to each other (or ‘federate’), just as email providers or mobile operators are required to. There’s no point being on a site if your friends aren’t, but if your server can relay messages to theirs there is less of a barrier. Meanwhile encryption will be vital for privacy.
One particularly intriguing idea is that of artist and software developer Darius Kazemi, who suggests every public library – there are 2.7 million worldwide – could host its own federated social media server. As well as providing local accountability and access, and boosting increasingly defunded neighbourhood assets, these servers would benefit from librarians’ expertise in curating information.
Back in 2023, there’s reason to hope. In response to the chaos at Musk’s new plaything, several million users have set up accounts with the Twitter-like federated social media software Mastodon. It feels like an experiment. We will need many more. But from little acorns...