All great ideas for “fixing” social media are bad

If you have the Facebook app on your phone — and I don’t recommend it — this week, you’ll find things are a little different.

Once self-described as a “social utility that connects you to the people around you,” the network decided to downplay all that friendship stuff and rebrand itself on the TikTok video app instead.

To this end, the application takes place a new home page “uniquely personalized for you via [Facebook’s] machine learning ranking system”, i.e. a stream of messages, many strangers, heavily video-oriented and selected by an algorithm designed to upset, excite, absorb and addict you. Your high school friends’ baby photos, your uncle’s Minions political memes, your mother’s eerily consistent public diary of her daily bike rides, all of this will loop considerably in a substream.

It looks like a near reversal of Facebook’s Latest Big tweaking its feed, in 2018, including founder Mark Zuckerberg said would be “to encourage meaningful interactions between people” and “[focus] about bringing people together.

The reasoning behind this change for Facebook is easy to guess: it’s intended for increase user engagement, to get us to click on more ads and buy more stuff, and hopefully slow down graying network user base. But from the user’s perspective, it’s yet another reminder that all big ideas to “fix” social media are bad.

The average American adult will tell you that social media is a net negative for our society. Polls show that most of us think social media is divider and untrustworthythis too of its content is offensive, that it does our country worse. But we continue to use it, and we keep arguing without resolution on how to improve it. The ideas proposed are deplorable – often unpopular, impractical or unconstitutional – while the changes that might actually improve these sites run counter to their commercial interests and are therefore not offered.

“Social media dysfunction is a chicken-and-egg problem: its design encourages bad but profitable behavior, and we engage in that behavior, which generates a profit, which signals designers to encourage more of the same , and then we… well, you get it.

The legislative energy around social media fixation has centered on two ideas. The first one used antitrust law to “dismantle Big Tech”. This is supported by politicians as diverse as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Blake Masters, a Republican Senate candidate in Arizona backed by former President Donald Trump and backed by PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel. Bipartisan American online innovation and competition Lawcurrently blocked in the Senate, takes a version of this approach.

Rep. Louie Gohmert speaks during a Section 230 press conference outside the U.S. Capitol in April 2022.

Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty

In most accounts, breaking up Big Tech means blocking (or even undoing) major mergers and acquisitions in the tech industry – like Facebook’s purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp – or even splitting social networks into their component parts: Messenger, Facebook profiles, groups and social networks. Marketplace could all be spun off into separate programs and/or companies. This could also include the banning or stricter regulation of the digital equivalent of the grocery store brand. For example: forcing Google not to prioritize its own map service over other map options in its search results.

It might be doable, though it is not certain to be popular, and I’m not sure that these networks are also divisible as is often assumed. There is also the question of the history of antitrust law focus on price and the fact that social media is free to use because we are less the customer than the product. “Even so”, as financial journalist James Surowiecki argued at MIT Technology Review“it’s not clear that this would fundamentally weaken Facebook’s grip on users, given the treasure trove of data it controls and the power of network effects.”

It’s also unclear how it would address major complaints about Facebook. How does disabling Instagram or the Marketplace stop the spread of misinformation? How does it increase user privacy to have two, three or 10 companies in possession of our data instead of one? How would all of this make social media less divisive?

The second legislative idea is more about the content than the structure of the business. It is remove or significantly modify Section 230, the piece of federal law who dispenses social networks from any legal responsibility for what users post on their platforms while allowing them to apply the content moderation policies of their choice. Removing section 230 would make platforms liable for the content they host, which is exactly why Facebook—which has the resources to adapt to such a new situation—supports change Section 230, while its smaller competitors not.

Cardboard cutouts of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg stand outside the US Capitol in April 2018.

Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty

Beyond constitutional problem forcing social networks to host speech they don’t want to host, two out of three Americans oppose doing these sites responsible for user content. And if we try it, we’ll soon be find us without the internet as we know it. The good would be gone as well as the sick, the baby thrown out of the bath water.

I’m not sure there are large scale social media fixes that would fare much better. Social media dysfunction is a chicken-and-egg problem: its design encourages bad but profitable behavior, and we engage in that behavior, which generates a profit, which signals designers to encourage more of the same , and then we… well, you get it.

It’s as much about demand as it is about supply. Still, if I was unfortunate enough to be tasked with creating big fixes myself, I would suggest ideas like limiting user network size, measuring user post and comment rate, reducing engagement time total daily users, etc. add friction to calm intense discussions and slow the viral spread of false information.

We can voluntarily implement many of them ourselves, of course. But I can’t see them passing the constitutional rally into legislative form, nor can I imagine a major social network voluntarily adopting limits that would upend their entire business model. People posting, watching, buying and fighting less is the opposite of what Facebook wants. So here we are.

There is, however, a note of hope in Facebook’s shift to video. In its effort to appeal to TikTok’s younger crowd, the new stream will be confusing and off-putting to some older users – the “polarizing social media-attached baby boomers” that tech critic Charlie Warzel aptly called described as a “sort of trope in our national discussion of politics and misinformation.”

Maybe baby boomers will disconnect a little more and their politics will cool off accordingly. Or maybe – because why shouldn’t this situation get worse? — the scum of Facebook’s political content will seep into Zoomers’ videos, and baby boomers will learn a whole new way to post. Maybe by trying to make social media “less bad,” these companies will end up unleashing all sorts of new hells we never anticipated.

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