Social media has become such an integral part of the internet that it is almost impossible to opt out of it completely. Even if you do not have an active account, you cannot ignore its reach and impact on whatever it is you are trying to accomplish. It has become both our primary means of distribution and discovery.
In a strange turn of events, social media has gone from commenting on the real world to being the real world. As Balaji Srinivasan wrote in his blog post on the subject, "It has converted society into a zero-sum status game played by elites with real consequences. Every day, blue checks compete for a finite pie of attention with ever more sensational posts."
These days, what happens on twitter is the event. It's not just the commentary anymore. It gives the impression that twitter itself is the real world. Some would say this is a natural and inevitable process. As we continue to offload more and more of our daily activities online.
The Town Square
It is to be expected that we recreate the role of public spaces and town squares into the digital realm. Are social media giants like Twitter the town square of the internet age? While the debate on whether we should treat these companies as private property or more in line with a utility company rages on, we all need to reflect on what we are looking for out of a social platform.
Because isn't that the original promise of social network? Some sort of healthy relationship between that of your peers. A way for us to connect with distant loved ones and unite and build products, art, and services that the world has never seen before?
While our current systems may be dividing us, I believe we are just at the beginning of wrestling with this question of how to integrate these systems into our lives and into our society. This is not going to be solved overnight, and it's quite possible that this issue remains a defining topic that will define the 2020s.
Features of the Next Social Network
As we look forward to the next platform, the next draft. Here are some features that I personally would like to see. Some of these have already been implemented, and some of them are pure wishful thinking.
1) Transparent, and variable feed algorithms
No one likes being manipulated, but yet for years we've allowed social media companies to make decisions about how we spend our time on these feeds behind closed doors. The algorithms that govern your feed are some of the most closely guarded secrets in the tech industry.
The solution? Allow users to choose their own algorithms that govern their feed. Whether they choose something deterministic like reverse chronological, or perhaps opt into a recommendation engine to help separate the signal from the noise. Users should be in now just who they follow, but how that content is prioritized and delivered to them.
2) No Native Advertising
As Jaron Lanier points out, the major factor that has degraded our conversation online is not necessarily a technical problem at heart, but rather the results of a broken business model.
Since there is a large percentage of the population without any disposable income, it's imperative that a general purpose social platform have some sort of free. Open protocols.
2) Open API
A truly open API that would allows users to develop third party applications on top of the platform. We've seen what happens when open source platforms encourage developers to build on top and it leads to a thriving ecosystem.
The message here is simple. Win over the developer community.
3) Discovery & Amplification
The main reason to utilized these sort of platforms is to extend your reach. There must be a balance here between generating echo chambers by suggesting similar content. A retweet like functionality is key to be able to break into new social circles. Platforms like instagram are extremely opinionated in the matter in which users are able to amplify other accounts. A simple way to boost content and mix social circles is imperative.
4) Flag the bots (but do not ban them)
A general purpose social platform should be able to support any type of account that someone might want to create. This includes things like content bots, AI agents, decentralized programs, collectives, and businesses accounts, and whatever else you can cook up with an internet connection and a little imagination.
However, I do think that in order to increase the productivity and efficiency of conversation users should be entitled to knowing if there is an actual human being on the other line. Whether this is determined by detecting natural mouse movements, or checking against programatic posting. It goes without saying that the source code governing these decisions should be 100% open source and auditable, and under constant revisions and scrutiny.
5) Private Keys, not Blue Check Marks
A centralizing body that issues out blue check marks is clearly a bad idea. The primary reason for this is to prevent against spam attacks and imposters, but due to our need to form social hierarchies the blue check mark quickly devolved into a stamp of approval, to separate the haves from the have nots. The downside of this is that "Blue Check Marks" were given an unproportional amount of credibility relative to their underlying credentials, and generally were subject to the biases of those issuing the credentials.
If the ultimate goal of a verification system is to validate the genuine accounts and prevent spammers, then linking your identity in a cryptographic fashion to a service like keybase or PGP signatures to your website or a known email address is the best way to ensure legitimacy. It might take a decade or more to reach the point where this sort of identification system, but it's where we must head in order to communicate privately and effectively on the Internet.
6) Built in Wallet
Very few users are able to directly monetize their content on twitter and facebook. The platform should have native support for bitcoin and other leading cryptocurrencies.
7) Anti Harassment Tools
The block tool remains an important to empower the users of the platform. Beyond manually creating ones's own black list or white list, users should be able to subscribe to directories of known predators, bullies, or any arbitrary list.
While this system is by no means perfect, the alternatives is that you put faith in a centrally governed group of human beings who to govern decisions of dispute. As we have seen, these sort of governance systems are subject to all the political, social, and human flaws that got us to the situation we see unfolding.
9) Privacy by default
If a user wants to remain private they should be allowed that opportunity.
Blue skies ahead?
There are some promising solutions on the horizon. While each one takes a slightly different approach, the general trend is that the next big platform will be built ontop of an open protocol.
We are already seeing example of these platforms emerging, and capturing a small percentage of marketshare as people leave twitter and other major platforms.
At Twitter, Jack has stated that they will continue to fund the BlueSky project, which aims to develop an underlying social protocol that Twitter would ultimatly adopt and build on.
Mastadon is another twitter competitor gaining traction. In this model individual servers are hosted and managed by a community of users. Like Reddit, moderation is passed onto the admins of these servers. While not a perfect system by any means, it does give us a look into the user experience of a client based open protocol. There is no single app to download, and various companies are incentivized to build better or personalized clients in order to parse the underlying protocol however they see fit.
Urbit, while more for the developer rethinks the entire concept of computer from the ground up. A bold and audacious project, the barrier to entry for the average users is still high. I've been a fan of Urbit for sometime now, but I'm always left feeling like this project is going to take decades to come into fruition. Moral of the story here, it's hard to reinvent the wheel.
Alternatively, we see Balajis opting for a Connected RSS feeds on open source blogging platforms such as ghost. This feels more reminiscent of the blogosphere of the early 2000s. It's possible that individual RSS feeds supply the raw content and users can separate out how they consume the content from the content itself.
Regardless of which big platform continues to reign supreme, I will personally be continuing to focus much of my attention of building out a content library here on my personal website, and increasing my distribution. As long as we are on this new frontier, I find it meaningful to me to have a sovereign home on the web that I can call my own.