Counterfactuals about Social Media

Link post

Re­sponse To (Marginal Revolu­tion): Coun­ter­fac­tu­als about So­cial Media

See also: Against Face­book, Against Face­book: Com­par­i­son to Alter­na­tives and Call to Action

The idea that the pri­mary prob­lem with such pro­grams is ‘they make poli­ti­cal fights weird’ or that ‘they en­able cen­sor­ship’ is to miss the big­ger prob­lem. So­cial me­dia is ru­in­ing our lives. Directly.

They also de­gen­er­ate our poli­tics. That’s mostly a side effect.

So­cial me­dia suc­ceeds largely be­cause of net­work effects. One uses Face­book, Twit­ter, In­sta­gram or the oth­ers mostly be­cause oth­ers you want to in­ter­act with are us­ing them.

Many peo­ple know so­cial me­dia to be ter­rible for them and for their lives. Many peo­ple know Face­book is ter­rible, in par­tic­u­lar (whether or not the photo-based Snapchat and In­sta­gram, which my cir­cles never used, are even worse, as I sus­pect they are). Many of those would love a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive.

But co­or­di­na­tion is hard. By the time many peo­ple figured this out, it was too late.

Shift­ing the equil­ibrium by force is a rea­son­able re­sponse.

Even if it wasn’t too late, it’s not clear many or even a ma­jor­ity of peo­ple know­ing it is a trap are enough to stop the trap. If Face­book is where the dis­cus­sions are, and Face­book is where your friends are, that is where you will be un­less you are will­ing to pay a heavy price. The de­fault out­come is for Face­book to con­tinue op­ti­miz­ing for its us­age and rev­enue in ways that make our lives worse, un­til most peo­ple are worse off than with­out so­cial me­dia and know it, but think they are bet­ter off than if ev­ery­one else was on so­cial me­dia with­out them.

I did man­age to get a bunch of my friends and read­ers off of Face­book, such that the equil­ibrium shifted to a bet­ter one. It can be done. But it is damn hard.

Th­ese com­pa­nies also are en­gag­ing in a bunch of profit-max­i­miz­ing and power-max­i­miz­ing ac­tions, like not let­ting users have con­trol over what they see, that force users to learn to do what Face­book wants and be who Face­book wants them to be, ad­dicts con­stantly pro­duc­ing free con­tent. All com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween friends be­comes op­ti­mized to re­in­force the plat­form. The sys­tem re­wards and shows all com­mu­ni­ca­tion based on its an­ti­ci­pated re­in­force­ment of user ad­dic­tive be­hav­ior. This de­clares war for coal­i­tion poli­tics and play­ing pop­u­lar­ity and so­cial games, and war against truth or any at­tempt to ac­cu­rately map or model the world.

And yes, at some point (if they haven’t already) they will in­creas­ingly in­evitably use that power more ex­plic­itly. To fa­vor peo­ple and ideas and in­for­ma­tion they like over oth­ers they don’t. In ways far less nice than cen­sor­ing ‘hate groups’ and ‘ob­scen­ity.’ To di­rectly guide us and tell us what to think.

I don’t know what ‘cen­sor­ship’ means in a world where a self-re­in­forc­ing al­gorithm de­ter­mines whether or not any­one sees your post, ever, if it doesn’t mean what we already have.

Un­less it is the dis­tinc­tion be­tween ‘no one sees your post’ and ‘no one sees your post and the sys­tem pun­ishes you for post­ing it, and we’re not just talk­ing about mak­ing all your posts less visi­ble.’ Which is, for now, an im­por­tant differ­ence, but less im­por­tant and less sharp than one might think.

Where ev­ery­one is forced to look at a con­stant stream of low-band­width clay tablets cho­sen by a com­pany with a profit mo­tive, be­cause the only way any­one sees any­thing is to look at the clay tablets, and we have the tech­nol­ogy to use pen and pa­per and ad­dress let­ters, but you can’t be­cause no one checks their mailbox, then yes you should go af­ter the com­pa­nies mak­ing the clay tablets. You definitely should not ‘equip your­self to win the hearts and minds of the peo­ple us­ing the tac­tics of clay tablets.’

What we should in­fer about the in­tel­lec­tual vi­gor of a so­ciety that does so is that they rec­og­nize that the or­ga­ni­za­tional forms of in­for­ma­tion mat­ter and are worth fight­ing for.

What we should in­fer about the in­tel­lec­tual vi­gor of a so­ciety that chooses in­stead to fight with clay tablets is that they care about win­ning hearts and minds. Good. But they do not look at the big pic­ture, and they can’t co­or­di­nate.

Sup­pose tele­vi­sion was as bad as its ear­lier crit­ics said it was. That it rots brains, turns peo­ple pas­sive, eats their lives, makes them less happy over time. This does not seem like an un­likely hy­poth­e­sis. Do you like it when you see your kids watch­ing? Should we have done some­thing about it when we had the chance? Were the reg­u­la­tions we did put on it, to re­quire ac­tions in the pub­lic ser­vice and pre­vent ob­scene and in­ap­pro­pri­ate con­tent, bad for the peo­ple? Should we have just let who­ever first thought to run sta­tions run wild? Should we have done far more?

Do past ex­am­ples show that such tech­nolo­gies can’t be im­proved, in their im­pact on us, by smart in­ter­ven­tion? That we shouldn’t try?

So, what is to be done?

You, yes you, should aban­don Face­book and its ilk to the ex­tent fea­si­ble in your life. En­courage oth­ers to do the same and provide real in­cen­tives and rea­sons. Be will­ing to pay a real price for all this. See my pre­vi­ous ar­ti­cles on the sub­ject.

But what is to be done as a so­ciety? With our col­lec­tive ac­tion and en­force­ment mechanisms?

At a min­i­mum, we should re­quire that users have full con­trol over the form with which they in­ter­act with ma­jor so­cial me­dia plat­forms.

They should be re­quired to use open pro­to­cols that al­low third par­ties to see all in­for­ma­tion the user has ac­cess to. Or­ga­nize it in the way the user wants. Com­bine it with in­for­ma­tion from other sources and plat­forms. Sort and pre­sent it in chronolog­i­cal or­der, threaded or­der, speci­fied pri­or­ity or­der, a cho­sen ma­chine learn­ing al­gorithm with goals the user shares, or any­thing else the user de­sires. It must also al­low users to post back to the plat­forms, in­clud­ing com­ments and re­ac­tions and ev­ery­thing else one can in the­ory do on a plat­form. It must be im­pos­si­ble for oth­ers to know which one you are us­ing.

Peo­ple could try RSS feeds, emails, email di­gests, cus­tom apps and web­sites and pro­grams. They could be as ex­act or as broad as de­sired. Over very lit­tle time, many free, open and very good al­ter­na­tives would arise. So would a few paid ones, up to and in­clud­ing ‘have some­one else whose job it is to read all this and cu­rate it for me and their other clients.’

We should also ban es­pe­cially vi­cious brain-hack­ing tech­niques like the ‘snap streak’ that re­ward pe­ri­odic rep­e­ti­tion of be­hav­ior to build habits. Any­thing that makes peo­ple feel like they have to log in con­stantly.

Tum­blr’s re­quire­ment that each com­ment quote the en­tire post, the im­pos­si­bil­ity of rea­son­able sort­ing, and its rel­a­tive ease of us­ing pho­tographs and videos ver­sus text, lead to one type of so­cial group and in­ter­ac­tion. Face­book’s sys­tem does a sec­ond. Twit­ter’s does a third. Blog­ging does a fourth, In­sta­gram a fifth, email a sixth, and so on. All are very differ­ent from each other. The de­tails of the plat­form we use to com­mu­ni­cate have profound im­pacts on how we talk, how our so­cial groups func­tion and how our lives work. We have a choice. We need to care, and choose wisely, how we put ‘all our ideas out there.’

So­cial me­dia lives on net­work effects. Thus, we can im­pose rules on it. Hope­fully we use that power to make the ser­vices com­pat­i­ble with life, and not for cen­sor­ship. So far, it seems we only use that power for cen­sor­ship.

The coun­ter­ar­gu­ment is that be­tween differ­ent re­quire­ments, rules and ju­ris­dic­tions, all we would do is im­pose in­creas­ingly oner­ous and con­tra­dic­tory re­quire­ments (see Euro­pean pri­vacy reg­u­la­tion) that would keep out challengers and re­in­force the cur­rent monopoly. That’s what reg­u­la­tion does by de­fault. So we should keep a light touch as much as pos­si­ble, if only to dis­cour­age other ac­tions in the fu­ture.

What would hap­pen if we out­right banned Face­book and other ma­jor in­cum­bents?

My guess is so­cial dis­rup­tion on the or­der of a week, net im­prove­ment on the or­der of months as groups use more healthy mechanisms and the suc­ces­sor states are forced to fight for users.

If all we did was clear out cur­rent in­cum­bents, we prob­a­bly end up back where we started as clones rise up as the nat­u­ral co­or­di­na­tion points. Peo­ple want what they’re com­fortable with, so Face­book clones fight to be the new Face­book, Snapchat/​In­sta­gram clones fight to be the new that, and so on. We already see some of that with Tum­blr. There would still be shifts to­wards healthier plat­forms, such as blogs and email, that sur­vived the purge, and those effects would per­sist long term.

If we al­ter what is per­mit­ted in ways that effec­tively ban similar re­place­ments, there will be an in­no­va­tion race to find what is still al­lowed. In the mean­time, the things that sur­vived – pre­sum­ably email, blogs, mes­sage boards and RSS, at a min­i­mum – would have a win­dow to re­gain co­or­di­na­tion power and have the edge of be­ing re­fined ver­sions. Peo­ple’s lives would be de­stroyed much less.

I don’t see how the threat of cen­sor­ship gets worse by tak­ing out the peo­ple do­ing the cen­sor­ship.

I do think that we mostly can shut them down, and we might. So­cial me­dia lives on net­work effects. It can’t do its job un­der­ground. Depend­ing on what ex­actly we ban, and what we al­low, it could be a great boon. But it would come at the cost of the prece­dent, the growth in gov­ern­ment power and the re­sult­ing de­cay of our ba­sic free­doms. Let us stay as much a na­tion of laws, not men, as we can.

There’s also risk that we end up do­ing what most reg­u­la­tions ac­tu­ally do, which is fa­vor those with money and power and the ear of the leg­is­la­ture, and we end up even more cap­tured by monopoly. That the law tries to dic­tate what comes next, im­poses a bunch of ter­rible rules, and ev­ery­thing gets far worse. I don’t want to make the mis­take of ask­ing for some­thing to be done, and ac­cept­ing the some­thing that emerges, merely be­cause I saw a some­thing worth do­ing.

So I’m not there yet. But I un­der­stand. Oh boy, do I un­der­stand.