For-profit social media is not fixable

Yesterday, I received a Facebook direct message telling me that I was a Jew who should get into the gas chamber. Normally I just block and delete such things, but this one was so flagrant that I felt I had to report it. This morning, I got a message telling me that Facebook had taken action — they sent that user a note reminding him of the Community Standards.

This is more response than I have gotten from the dozens of reports I have sent to Twitter over the years. To be fair, I have seldom been in the mood to write the dissertation they expect me to write, so maybe it’s my own fault. Or maybe the form is a placebo and they set it up to be intimidating on purpose, so that they can blame the reporters for not providing adequate information.

From their perspective, this tepid response makes sense. They get more money if they can show higher user engagement. Right-wing hordes are among the most engaged users of Twitter especially. The same goes with fake news on Facebook — the combination of outrage and in-group formation that fake news stories generate is an engagement gold mine.

We need to admit that right-wing harrassment and conspiracy theories are baked into the business model of social media at this point. And with right-wing political hegemony for the foreseeable future, it will only get worse, because the range of “acceptable opinion” will shift even further to the right. Asking nicely and filling out all the proper paperwork will not change this underlying material reality.

If social media is worth having, then the answer is to build a non-profit alternative to the for-profit sites. Wikipedia could provide a model here. It is not-for-profit, it includes strong self-policing mechanisms, and it is arguably the most trusted and useful site on the entire internet. Wikipedia shows us that a non-profit internet not only can work, but can thrive.

4 thoughts on “For-profit social media is not fixable

  1. Agree with everything here, but for your trust in Wikipedia. I understand what you are getting at, but the culture of editing at Wikipedia is a nightmare as well, with a very small group of super-editors wielding the lion’s share of the power over what community standards are. Women and other groups are marginalized as a result. Moreover, Wikipedia maintains a specific type of knowledge as appropriate for its pages, experts and researchers be damned.

    That said, it MIGHT be preferable to what we have, which is increasingly looking like the best we will get because of lock-in.

    In other news, here is rare footage of the complaint department at Twitter in operation:

  2. Yeah, it would be nice to think that Wikipedia provides a model to follow. But it doesn’t:

    Personally, I think we’re going to have to abandon centralized services of all kinds, and with them the fantasy of a “public sphere.” Non-sociopathic social media will look more like loose federations of private clubs of various sizes. Unfortunately it will be a lot harder to find interesting new people. But maybe that’s the price we have to pay to keep “interesting” people from finding us.

  3. I don’t mean to imply that Wikipedia is perfect as-is or to downplay the problems. I would say that it is possible to imagine fixing those problems in Wikipedia in a way that it simply is NOT for the for-profit social networks. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be better than a hotbed of rape threats and Nazi memes.

  4. I hear you Adam. Wikipedia is a much better starting point. Hell, it might be a much better ending point. If given the choice of “you can have a Twitter world and try to make it better or you can have a Wikipedia world forever but never expect any better” I am not sure what I would pick. The latter at least has a semblance of actual debate, an agreed upon set of norms, even if those norms have been twisted to cater to a small block of the overall population. I guess I just described the choice we had in this election. We are living in a Twitter world now and we have to try to make it better.

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