Can the problems with social media be fixed?

Social media sites have not done well recently. Twitter is full of trolls and Nazis but is reluctant to remove them. Facebook is leaking user data and not doing much to prevent it. Conservatives feel that they are systematically being cut off from social media by having followers removed or voices censored. The online abuse against women has gotten so bad that Amnesty International wrote a report about it. Twitter and Facebook attempt to give people news but fake news travels farther than real news. YouTube has become popular, but studies find that the YouTube algorithm pushes people to watch increasingly extreme content. Even Instagram has an anti-semitism problem. And I haven’t even talked about 4chan.

The question is, can these problems be fixed? Can a social media platform be built that doesn’t create a crappy experience for most of its users? Can you have an online space where people are actually respectful to each other? I believe you can.

I think there are two important changes that could be made that will improve social interactions on the internet. But before we get to those, let’s discuss some of the reasons people are frustrated with social media. There are a wide variety of problems but I am going to focus on four: opinion bubbles, internet mobs, harassment, and bad faith arguments.

Opinion Bubbles

One issue people often call out when discussing social media is online opinion bubbles. This is the idea that people online generally only follow people they agree with and end up only hearing opinions from one worldview. This can lead people to start believing that their worldview is the only legitimate one and to start seeing people with different worldviews as crazy. I do think this is a problem. Opinion bubbles make it much harder for a society to get to some version of a shared truth. But I don’t think that opinion bubbles are any worse in social media than in other parts of our media culture. We are increasingly living in a fragmented media market where people with different opinions  consume very different media diets. I’d argue that the bigger divide is between people who only watch Fox News and people who only read the New York Times. I am not sure social media deserves much of the blame. Also, in certain cases opinion bubbles can also be beneficial, by giving people a safe space to discuss ideas with people who agree with them. And people are generally happier hearing opinions they agree with so while they might not be a good way to come to a shared truth, opinion bubbles can be good for mental health. Ultimately, I think of people who are stuck in online opinion bubbles as similar to people who eat a lot of fast food: not the healthiest thing in the world but not something I think we should be trying to stop.

Internet Mobs

One thing that people find very frustrating is when someone says a small “wrong” thing and that thing is circulated across the internet in order to punish that person. Often the goal is to get that person fired. Sometimes the mob does righteously punish an awful person, like someone who marches in a neo-Nazi rally. But often, the person punished simply made a slightly offensive joke. The best way to resolve a situation with an offensive joke is usually to let the person know you found the joke offensive and maybe ask for a simple apology. Instead, internet mobs treat the person like they have committed a grave sin and tries to get their employer to fire them.

One of the worst examples of this was the #HasJustineLandedYet controversy. Before getting on a plane to Africa, Justine Sacco tweeted a joke that, in my view, was an acknowledgement of how black people have it tougher than her (she is white). But others interpreted the joke as racist and an internet mob sprung up. The awful wrinkle in this particular story was that Justine was on a 11 hour flight and wasn’t on the internet. The internet mob thought it would be fun to see if they could get her company to fire her before her plane landed so that the internet would have the joy of knowing Justine was fired before Justine did. Ultimately, Justine was fired.

This type of “call out culture” causes many people to just avoid posting on the internet so they don’t have to worry about accidentally saying the “wrong” thing. It also leads to some people reining in their opinions so much that it feels fake. This can be frustrating for many people who want to post online.

I think one cause of this phenomenon is the natural human tendency to see everything as black and white seems to be even worse on the internet. I also think that because social media is a fairly impersonal medium, there isn’t a build up of trust that someone is on the “good” side. People are afraid to be associated with the “bad” side and one way to prove you are “good” is to quickly and loudly call out someone doing something “bad” and bringing this to the attention of as many “good” people as possible. This leads to a culture where people are suspected of being potential “bad” people unless they are frequently calling out other “bad” people. Obviously, this is a problem. I encourage you to read the entire article on Justine that I linked above. The stories of how why people were “called out” are very enlightening.

Harassment

Another reason people avoid the internet is fear of being harassed by people who disagree with them. Some people don’t realize how awful it can be to become famous online. Take the story of Lauren Batchelder. All she did was ask a question at a debate and she was harassed for months. And it wasn’t just people sending her nasty messages on Facebook, some were threats of rape or violence. Often, in cases like these, people find your email address and flood your inbox. They publish your home address online and send you threatening messages. People have been forced to move from their home or have developed PTSD after being harassed online. Even though Lauren Batchelder did nothing to stoke the flames of this controversy, she was still getting threatening messages a year after her debate question. And there are many other women who have been similarly targeted for the simple act of expressing an opinion online.

Besides being awful and ruining people’s lives, this kind of harassment makes people afraid to go online and express any opinion. No matter how many controls social media sites put in, this kind of harassment will still occur to some extent. But a lot of the harassment does occur on places like Twitter and Facebook and these sites have not done enough to prevent it. Even if the internet will always have “bad neighborhoods” you would think major sites like Twitter and Facebook would be safe places to have good discussions. But at this time, they are not.

Bad faith arguments

Not every post on a social media site is part of a debate or a discussion to find common ground. In fact there are plenty of fun, innocent conversations going on. Posts about people’s day or things they are excited about. But a lot of passionate discussions are happening around politics or related topics like race and gender. These arguments tend become very contentious and at the end no one changes their mind or is convinced of anything. Why are arguments on the internet so bad at doing anything other than making everyone upset?

One main reason is that the people arguing are often not trying to convince the other side. They are trying to “win” the argument, or possibly they are trying to vent their anger. This is a bad habit people have whenever they are arguing, but it seems to be particularly bad on the internet.

Similarly, a lot of the posts that get “liked” or “retweeted” aren’t well-formed arguments designed to convince people. Instead they are posts that make the “other side” look stupid or your side look smart. There are some nuanced arguments being made on the internet but people don’t “like” nuance. Instead, what get the most popularity are the posts that get the most hate from one side and the most cheers from the other.

There are plenty of people who do want to have a good-faith debate but it is hard to sift through all the bad-faith arguments. Many people get side-tracked by the trolls and the bad-faith arguments and find it too exhausting to get to find the real debaters. Therefore, they leave and you are left with a platform that is mostly people who want to have the passionate argument but not actually accomplish anything meaningful.

Solutions

Given all these issues, there are a lot of different changes that can be made, but I want to focus on two core problems that I think can be fixed. First is the anonymous and impersonal nature of online interactions. When you are sending a message to some random person on the internet you have never met, you don’t have the natural instinct to be concerned about their feelings that most people have in person. People hiding behind anonymous accounts have even less incentive to care about others feelings since it is very unlikely they will have to face social consequences for their actions. This is why you have so much harassment, online mobs and bad-faith arguments. People care about the reaction of their group, but they don’t care about the single person they are interacting with.

The second problem is less technical. I think the culture of the internet is bad. The culture of the internet is driven by people on the internet but it can also be influenced by the policies of the social media companies. Most social media sites tout that they “connect the world” but they don’t care much about the culture of their site.

To get a better sense of the culture that social media companies envision here is Facebook’s “Mission Statement”:

Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.1

And here is Twitter’s “vision”:

We believe in free expression and think every voice has the power to impact the world.2

Both Facebook and Twitter focus on connecting people and allowing all voices but they don’t seem to care about how those connected people are interacting. I think their goal is to have their platform be seen as having a “free speech culture”. In general, I am a fan of a free speech culture and I am a strong supporter of the First Amendment. However, I think it has become clear that free speech culture doesn’t work on the internet. The internet is crowded with harassment, internet mobs and people mostly arguing for the sake of argument. It is not a place where the “marketplace of ideas” is running efficiently and producing the best ideas. I’d also point out that if you look a the Lauren Batchelder story or some of the stories in the Justine piece you will notice that some of the “wrong” opinions being punished weren’t posted on the internet. In some of these cases the “wrong” act was done in public and then someone else put it on the internet. We are frequently seeing pictures or videos being put online to shame someone for something they did offline. So the internet culture is not only hurting the internet, but is hurting the public square as well. I think the free speech culture of the internet needs some amendments.

Solving the problem of anonymity is a fairly simple rule change. Changing the culture of the internet is a little trickier. The interesting this is that there actually is a website on the internet that has a good culture. There is a website where people debate controversial topics and are able to come to compromises. Where people disagree while still be respectful of each other. I am talking about Wikipedia.

Wikipedia

On one of Chris Hayes’ podcasts he asked the question: “If you wanted to build Wikipedia today, could you?” That question has been gnawing at me for months. Why is it not possible to build something today that was successfully built 18 years ago? I think the answer is that you need a certain type of culture to build Wikipedia and that culture no longer exists on the internet.

To be fair, Wikipedia is not a social media site. But it does have a a large community of people discussing what should be allowed on a Wikipedia page and what shouldn’t. In order to facilitate how these people work together Wikipedia has put a lot effort into developing a culture of resolving disagreement. One thing I found while doing research for this post is the Wikipedia Etiquette page. I was blown away. I recommend reading the whole thing but here are some highlights:

  • “Assume good faith”
  • “Be polite”
  • “Keep in mind that raw text may be ambiguous and often seems ruder than the same words coming from a person standing in front of you. Irony is not always obvious when written.”
  • “Concede a point when you have no response to it, or admit when you disagree based on intuition or taste.”
  • “Take it slowly. If you are angry, spend time away from Wikipedia instead of posting or editing.”
  • “Calmly explaining your thinking to others can often result in their agreeing with you; being dogmatic or uncommunicative evokes the same behavior in others, and gets you embroiled in an edit war.”

Try to imagine any of these statements being on the community guidelines of a social media site. For reference here are the Twitter Rules and the Facebook Community Standards. These rules mostly focus disallowing violent and extremely hateful speech. They make it clear that all voices are important unless they fall into the narrow categories of violence or hate speech. This is a product of their free speech mindset. There are no rules trying to encourage people to be polite or have useful conversations.

These etiquette rules are a good indication that Wikipedia is trying to do more than just “connect the world”. If you look at what Wikipedia describes as it’s “purpose” you can see a clear difference from the mission statements of Facebook and Twitter:

Wikipedia’s purpose is to benefit readers by acting as an encyclopedia, a comprehensive written compendium that contains information on all branches of knowledge. The goal of a Wikipedia article is to present a neutrally written summary of existing mainstream knowledge in a fair and accurate manner with a straightforward, ‘”just-the-facts style”.3

There isn’t really anything about having a quality conversation, but it is clear that the “conversation” is not the important part of Wikipedia. It is the results of the conversation that is important. I think that is a key to Wikipedia’s ability to not have its users constantly at war with each other.

I think another important “innovation” of Wikipedia is how they use their “admins”. Rather than having the company itself try to deal with bad actors, Wikipedia grants permissions to admins who are allowed block users and lock or unlock pages. You can read the Becoming an Admin to see how people become admins but it basically says that if an editor is adding value to Wikipedia and following the community standards, he/she can become an admin. The feeling of a community is very strong in Wikipedia and I think it solves certain problems for them. It becomes clearer what is “good” and what is “bad” by seeing what the admins do and don’t do. Facebook and Twitter are finding it hard to decide who to punish because enforcing a Terms of Service doesn’t handle nuance very well. Facebook and Twitter frequently find that people from the extreme ends of the political spectrum will try using the “harassment” tools they have set up to “work the referees” to punish the people they want punished. But a community with a well established culture can better handle the nuance. There aren’t referees to try to pressure to do what you want, there is the community. And if the community kicks you out you can’t really claim it is unfair since the understanding is you are only allowed in the community if the community thinks you deserve to be there. I think if social media sites added admin tools to allow users to police the site it would solve a lot of problems.

A community first, a tool second

Hopefully I have convinced you now that an important aspect of a social media site is the community and the culture. Social media sites today are focused on building tools that “connect the world” but they should be focused on building a community that people want to be a part of.

So if we were designing a new social media site what rules would our community have? Below is what I would propose as the “Etiquette” or “Community Standards” of a good social media site. I should note that I am focused on how I think things should work for a community debating American politics and culture. I would expect less charged topics might want different rules. And I would expect countries with different laws or cultures might need different standards.

Greg’s Social Media Site Community Standards

  • All opinions are allowed. Arguing in bad faith is not allowed – My social media site would not kick people off for expressing genuinely held beliefs. Feeling like you can’t express your actual opinion leads to resentment, leads to people afraid to argue in good faith and eventually leads to the community unable to tolerate even small disagreements. However, “all opinions are allowed” is not the same as “all statements are allowed”. If someone is purposely misrepresenting facts to win an argument that is not tolerated. If someone is saying controversial things just to be “edgy”, they shouldn’t be allowed on the platform. If someone is engaging in conspiracy theories to rile up their “side” they should be kicked off. Let me give some examples. Saying “all Republicans are racists” is perfectly fine. Taking an individual Republican’s statement out of context to make him or her look racist and rile up an internet mob against them is not acceptable. Believing that “whites and blacks will be happier if they live in separate communities” is acceptable. Being part of a group that tries to terrify blacks until they leave “your” community is not acceptable. I would add some exceptions for certain extreme opinions. The opinion that “the Holocaust never happened”, even if genuinely held, should not be allowed. Some opinions are so far from reality that they don’t add value to the conversation.
  • You have a right to speak, but not a right to be listened to – The debate about free speech has morphed in weird ways and the idea of free speech is often used to scam people. I think some people on social media have fallen for the scam. There is an idea that the best conversation is where every voice is heard. But this is ludicrous on a platform with millions of voices. A lot of voices are just trolling or pushing their own agendas separate from the actual conversation. These voices don’t need to be heard. A good social media platform will have tools for filtering out the voices that are trying to steal your attention. And a good social media community would have the standard that if you are blocked or ignored, you shouldn’t consider it an insult. It should be taken as a sign you weren’t adding value and you should change the way you are interacting online.
  • Well-formed arguments should be promoted, brilliant “takedowns” should not – The posts that should be bubbling to the top of a social media site should not be partisan attacks that get the most cheers and the most hatred. A good social media community will celebrate clear arguments that get people to consider new points of view. In practice, this will be very hard. Most people get more excited about “winning” a debate than reconsidering their position. I think a community that commits to “quality arguments” as a first principle and is supported by technology that is geared to do the same will be a good first step to having real, useful debates.
  • Use real names – There are some very good reasons for people to want to remain anonymous, especially for marginalized voices. But it is clear that anonymity has been abused online. I think if we are building a community of trust and good faith arguments, we need real names. It is too easy for people to see their online persona as completely separate from their real-life persona and therefore not really care about the reputation of their online persona. A site with real names where people have to stand by what they mean will be an improvement.

Just four rules, simple enough. You will notice that most of these rules are pretty vague. I think an existing social media company trying to enforce these “community standards” on their current community will likely make things worse instead of better. These rules are more like tenets and in order for them to succeed you need a community that agrees to these tenets and enforces them on themselves. If social media sites continue to see themselves as simply tools to “connect the world” they are never going to be able to build a community where people actually want to hang out and have good conversations. If they start focusing on the community that they are building they might be able to improve things and actually have a site that is adding value to the world.

1 https://investor.fb.com/resources/default.aspx

2 https://www.comparably.com/companies/twitter/mission

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Purpose

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