The technological age of social media is on fire. That, more than anything, seems crystal clear here in late 2022.
Facebook, while still widely used, has seen the writing on the wall. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has focused all his attention on virtual reality. Instagram is losing cultural relevance as it also struggles to compete with TikTok, in part because the latter app no social media but more television.
Meanwhile, Twitter seems to be careering like a toddler just learning to walk as new CEO Elon Musk lurches from one ill-advised new policy to another.
It’s not like billions won’t continue to use these platforms, at least for now.
Rather, it’s that the future of how we connect, discover and communicate online must now move away from these massive global platforms and the aggressive Californian ideology behind them.
In a sense, social media is a global experience. let’s launch a whole new way of sharing information, socializing and consuming media and see what happens.
Consider what happened with the recent release of the chatbot ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence project that can produce persuasive texts, even song lyrics or poetry, but can also spit out incorrect or biased information.
Given this new tool, how do you now trust what you read? That’s a question that the creators of ChatGPT either never thought about, or simply didn’t care about.
Now, attempts to curb or somehow moderate that technology are being called “censorship” by AI proponents such as prominent tech investor Marc Andreessen.
As it happens, Elon Musk and a wide range of Silicon Valley powerhouses, including David Sachs and Peter Thiel, are on a mission to destroy what they call the “woke mind virus,” a kind of right-wing, catch-all. term for any policy that deals with the vulnerable or marginalized.
This is the version of technology whose demise we cheer or encourage.
When the platforms of modern digital life are run by people who are increasingly radicalized and hostile to common human decency and kindness, it’s time to move on.
A difficult question, however. if we go forward, where will we go?
Social media is dominated by what are called network effects; you go or stay where people in your network are, which fosters a kind of stickiness. That’s why it’s so hard to let them go, and why I struggle to get off Twitter too, even though I think I should.
But these network effects have drawbacks. The larger the network, the more difficult it becomes to find a community. And moderation is getting harder, whether it’s controlling spam or bots or fighting hate and harassment.
Perhaps, then, it’s the focus that’s the problem… when people like Elon Musk say they want something like Twitter to be a global city square.
Jack Dorsey, the former CEO of Twitter, seems to believe this to be true. In a post this week, he attempted to address the problems social media faces with content moderation, such as the mishandling of Hunter Biden’s laptop story (links to the New York Post story were briefly blacked out for a day).
He suggested that the only way forward is for social media to offer more user control, more transparency about how content is moderated, and that instead of one central network, you should choose from a number of smaller networks that all are will be able to connect to each other.
Dorsey’s basic idea that huge global networks will be better replaced by smaller, more niche creations is promising.
Twitter alternative Mastodon, which has seen significant growth since Musk’s takeover, operates what’s called a federated model; instead of one global network, Mastodon is made up of many smaller networks that can all talk to each other.
However, it is intimidating to beginners and also more clunky and confusing than its main competitors.
What is needed is a middle ground between the ease of use of incumbents and the independent, more local ethos of new alternatives.
The future of social networks will be smaller, less centralized.
For this to happen, a lot needs to happen: user-driven change, perhaps government regulation, and broad social change.
But perhaps more than anything, it’s time for a tired tech bros approach: haughty; Satan will care; affected by the concerns of the marginalized;
Ashes after a brush fire are said to be very fertile. As we approach the new year, it might be a good time to think about stoking the social media fire. From the burnt embers something new and better can grow.