Social Media is Dead; This is What We Should Have Next.
Updated: Jan 20, 2020
Eleven years ago, while I was still in the navy and relatively disconnected from the world, a friend posted something on his Facebook wall. I commented something presumably witty on his post, and a girl named Irene replied to my comment. We started dating after two weeks, got married after four years, and had our first son, Itamar, two years ago. I practically owe my life to Facebook. But today's Facebook, like all the other social networks, is an entirely different entity than the one it was in 2008. What changed, and how can we fix it?
The early days of social networks manifested the original fantasies of the world wide web to life. It allowed us to connect people in new ways, to bring them together, and create a borderless community of real authentic and meaningful interactions. Social networks created an interconnected world where knowledge sharing and communication can form between like-minded people from different parts of the world. Even as you read this, social networks are being used for positive interactions, social campaigns, raising awareness to different injustices and organizing protests.
But mostly, the promise of transforming our world into an open and connected global community has evolved into something very different. Today, we are routinely exploited online and increasingly influenced by algorithms that intentionally take advantage of our human weaknesses, leading to more screen time and less actual social networking. The new normal is profit over privacy for the sake of advertising dollars. It's the days of secret algorithms, Cambridge Analytica, shadow profiles, cyberbullies, deep fake, hyper-partisanship, paid virality, fake news, click farms, sock puppets, trolls, and lack of transparency.
We have lost our agency over our online experience. The internet, at its core, is intended to be a public domain through which we exercise our freedom. It is time for us to reclaim our freedom in it. It is time for a social network of the people, by the people, for the people. It is time for a collective social network.
What went wrong?
The glory days of social networking couldn't last forever because social networking companies are for-profit organizations. that need to make the owners, investors, and stakeholders rich. Thus, their first and foremost priority is to monetize. And as we all know - If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold. These companies needed to prioritize two things in order to maximize their profits:
1. Continuously increase the space they sell to marketers and advertisers.
2. Make us as addicted as possible to staring aimlessly at their feed.
This changed the definition of these platforms from "social networks" to "social media" and experience from proactive meaningful interactions between individuals to passive consumption of low-quality content filled with advertisements, fake news, clickbaits, and trolls. Social media companies lost genuine interest in being the enablers of connectivity and meaningful interactions - and became no more than sophisticated content curators.
A fact that accompanies the above observation is that social media use is in decline: In 2018, for the first time ever, social media usage in the US changed from 7.77% yearly growth to a 4% decline. All mainstream social media companies report a monthly reduction of around 5% in growth. In 2018 Facebook usage was down by a staggering 15% for individuals between 12-34 years old. This year Facebook lost an additional 15 million users.
While there is no consensus on what will replace them, most influencers and commentators agree that the current model of social media companies has passed its peak. And it's very logical when you think about it; If for 90% of social media users these platforms serve as a place to passively consume low quality entertainment content - then "Boredpanda" and "Buzzfeed" give us much better access to cat videos without giving away our privacy.
Let's talk about Democracy
For Democracy to work and allow citizens to self-govern, there has to be a symbiotic relationship between the media, the government, and the citizenry. The citizens need to have access to a reliable source of information that will allow them to engage and hold those in power accountable. The government needs to use the media to communicate and account for the policies they apply and receive legitimacy as representatives of the people.
Ever since journalism became less dependant on partisan funding and more dependant on advertising and their audience, there was always a tension between the drive to maximize profits and the duty to produce high-quality journalism to serve the public. But this tension was generally managed by the balancing mechanisms designed by the framers of modern Democracy, the journalist's creed, and regulation.
The Knight Commission on trust, media, and Democracy had this to say on this matter:
"Advances in technology, such as digital social networks, have given many citizens access to the world's great pool of knowledge and people. Yet readers and viewers today often have great difficulty ascertaining the reliability of a source or assertion. Technology is providing access to so much information—and disinformation—that it is overwhelming individuals' ability to determine what is true, especially in the absence of widespread digital literacy. Bad actors using digital platforms of major technology companies to manipulate and influence people with false information are making this problem worse."
While the rise of social media weakened the strength and spread of traditional journalism, it did not provide a suitable alternative. It created a distortion in the access to and the consumption of information. Recent discoveries, both from the US presidential elections and the UK's Brexit referendum raise serious concerns about the way political actors manipulate public opinion. This by using social media to bypass regulation that was placed to protect local Democracy. (And if you haven't seen Carol Cadwalladr's mesmerizing Ted talk, you should).
Although social media became a tangible threat to our modern “offline” democracy, democratization could also be the cure needed to fix our online experience with social networking. Democratizing the decision making of social media companies is not an alternative to strong and effective executive leadership. A business entity cannot survive in the competitive landscape without centralized leadership - But it will add the essential factor that the democratic method has to offer; A Mechanism of checks and balances.
The Collective Social Network
I believe that the monopolization of social networking (and the internet in general) and the exploitation of human weaknesses is holding our society back from reaching its full potential.
I believe that by implementing leadership, which is led by diversity and independence of thought, decentralization of knowledge, transparency, and trust - the wisdom of crowds prevails any centralized leadership. In other words; I believe in Democracy.
That's why I believe we need to create a real social network that operates as a collective and moves the center of power from the monopolistic companies whose only interest is to increase profits by exploiting the users, to the community which composes the network.
And this is how it will work:
When you join the network, you pay a low monthly fee, for which you receive an equal share of the public benefit company. The shares are divided evenly between all the network members, thus making the public owners of the platform.
This monthly subscription enables the financial stability needed to run the operation and maintaining the collective social network. There are no commercials, no politics, and no hidden interest - only the general public's interest. All of the data belongs to the individuals who uploaded it, and they have complete control over it. Forever.
You can also donate a subscription to people who cannot afford it. And, when the collective's financial status allows it, and according to the R&D priorities, members will receive dividends from the network's profits.
Profits? What profits?
We've already established that on social networks, the users are the asset. In that case, monetization should come from whoever needs to use this asset; organizations and companies that have the interest to get access to the network's user base and get our attention or the data we produce.
The subscription fee collected from members will always be directed to fund the operation and R&D. In addition to the main feed section, there will be additional services provided through the platform. These services will have an independent section which will not be integrated or interrupt to the main feed in any way, such as:
Survey institute - The members will be able to enter a dedicated surveying section and answer questions as a type of community service.
Marketplace - The marketplace section will allow members as well as retailers and brands to sell and buy goods. Here advertisements will be allowed.
News & media - A section for news and entertainment content, also includes commercials.
Research Institute - A place for researching human behavior, behavioral economics, trends, AI, and other scientific endeavors. The community's participation will be voluntary and incentivized by the dividend program, and the knowledge will be open source. Entities that wish to implement the knowledge will buy implementation and consulting services.
The profits from the services section (after operating cost reduction) will be divided; 40% dedicated to the R&D of the platform and other social good and growth endeavors, 60% dedicated to being given back to the community as dividends.
The operation and governance
There is also the question of how decisions will be made; how to enable operational effectiveness, which is essential to maintaining competitive advantage while encouraging participation and supporting the collective's values. To achieve this, we'll turn to advanced democratic models. Our physical world of governance might not yet be ready to adopt models of participatory Democracy, but our digital co-living domain might be ideal.
As mentioned above, the company which owns the technology will be owned by the community members. The public will elect the executive management of the collective (once in X years), and the executive management will choose the employed personnel. The compensation system will be based on a relative percentage of the earnings system.
The entire operation will be transparent to the public, including live meetings, strategy, and financial data.
The meetings will be broadcasted, and the agenda will be published ahead of time. The participants can add issues to the meeting agenda, and vote on the priorities of the topics and the meeting agenda will be decided accordingly.
Decision making in the collective will be made according to participatory democracy practices with the collective members. Members will also be able to suggest their own initiatives to the collective.
It is time to evolve
In this article, I've addressed what I believe to be the ills of the current way social networks operate. In the second half, I described a new model for building a social network that will move the center of power to us, the public which composes this network.
If you think about it, this is the same evolution our democratic method of governance went through during our history, and which brought to the rise of our current structure.
In the past two decades, online communication became an essential democratic and open domain to the citizens of the world, through which we can exercise our freedom. We must protect this domain from the firm grip of monopolization and profit-driven interest groups. There is no doubt that the internet is and should stay part of the capitalistic economy, which brings us ongoing prosperity. Still, there are certain domains in our life that should be taken out of the hands of strictly economic drivers. The same way as we regulated the education system, railroads, and phone lines.
I believe in the collective human potential. I believe that as isolated individuals, this potential is limited, but as an interconnected cooperative society, our potential is infinite.
Every leap in human progress came after or was accompanied by, technological development which made the world more interconnected and collaboration between humans easier. Social networks can play a vital rule in empowering us as a society to communicate and reach mutual understanding, instead of being an agent of hatred and divide. We want our children to be able to use social networks to meet their future love and be part of a borderless community of real, authentic and meaningful interactions, without fearing that their weaknesses will be exploited in the name of quick corporate profit.
It is time to democratize our online social experience; it is time for the collective social network.