"It's easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism."
The above remark, about apocalyptic science fiction, comes to mind when reading the recent New York Times (NYT) interview with Ev Williams about social media.
"I think the internet is broken," the cofounder of Twitter says, referring to the recent spread of graphic violence, harassment, and fake news online.
"The trouble with the internet… is that it rewards extremes," goes the interview. "Say you're driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them."
It soon becomes clear that Williams is not talking about the global system of interconnected networks that is "the internet," rather the news and social media apps that rely on it. Specifically Facebook and Twitter.
The truth behind the soundbite
It's interesting to reflect on why "the internet is broken" makes for a great soundbite at this point in history. The truth is Facebook and Twitter are becoming increasingly intertwined with our everyday experiences of the internet.
Ovum forecasts that Facebook will have 2.1 billion monthly active users (MAUs) by the end of this year – equal to three out of five internet users. And for some consumers in emerging markets, Facebook is the internet, thanks in part to its efforts to partner with mobile operators to offer free access to its apps. Twitter has fewer MAUs, at around 300 million, and a smaller share of digital advertising revenues, but it is integral to how news is generated and shared.
In other words, it's becoming harder to imagine an internet without Facebook and Twitter.
Beyond the "black mirror" theory of social media
Williams hopes that his latest digital publishing start-up, Medium, will encourage more civilized and thoughtful debate. And the NYT article does a very good job of highlighting the challenges Medium faces in making his vision commercially viable.
A further argument against is more fundamental. This theory, so vividly articulated by Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, posits that smartphones, social networks, and other forms of digital technology merely reflect human nature, both good and bad (but mostly bad, in the case of Brooker's sci-fi TV series).
It's a modern twist on the age-old excuse of the cynical gutter press: "We're just giving readers what they want."
But can we imagine a world with a "better internet" (to hijack Williams's phrase)? Let's try three scenarios:
Facebook and Twitter fix their problems. The social giants are experimenting with a mix of professional moderation, crowd sourcing, and artificial intelligence to solve the problems of graphic violence, harassment, and fake news on their platforms. Although the challenges are great, it's worth remembering that Facebook has successfully softened the impact of several backlashes about consumer privacy over the years.
Consumers turn away from traditional social networks. People use different identities for different digital platforms – just like they do for different situations in the real world. Numerous studies show, for example, that teenagers behave differently on Facebook, where their activities are more likely to come under the gaze of their parents, than on Snapchat or Instagram where they can act more privately. If being on Facebook and Twitter becomes less comfortable, consumers will take some – or perhaps all – of their socializing to other platforms.
"Born safe" platforms offer attractive alternatives. It's true that start-ups have struggled in the past with popularizing their visions of more enlightened online spaces (see the ad-free social network Ello). But that doesn't mean there isn't a mass-market need and that it can't be served successfully. You could, for example, argue that the right to be forgotten is part of Snapchat's DNA, thanks to its concept of disappearing messages.
Of the above scenarios, I'm least confident about the first. Why? Because mechanisms to "reward extremes," to quote Williams, are part of the DNA of Facebook and Twitter.
But such mechanisms are not in the internet's DNA. Yes, Facebook and Twitter will remain major players, but at least part of the future will belong to born-safe start-ups that can imagine more friendly places for consumers to be.
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