I spent a few years working, in vain, on a social media platform intended to facilitate “quality” discussion.
Having attempted to make a livelihood out of what was, for all intents and purposes, an “anti-Facebook”, made me realize that there’s nothing wrong with Facebook.
Imagine this: I create an alternative social media platform for only “real” news, only civilized discussion, no personal attacks, no trolls and malicious bots allowed.
Sure, you’d probably join. The fact that you’re reading this means that you are probably interested in the issue of so-called “responsible social media”. But good intentions only go so far in the business world. Eventually, we would have to scale up, drive more traffic, and monetize.
Once enough people join, no matter what policies we have in place, or what the original intent of the platform was, it will inevitably devolve into what Twitter or Facebook are now.
One could argue (and I have) that the problems with these platforms are ads. But ads are everywhere — online and off. Putting them online and using an algorithm to present them to the people most likely to buy a product is not wrong, it’s efficient.
If I made my anti-Facebook subscription only $20 a month, no ads, you might subscribe to it. But subscriptions will quickly reach a critical mass. Facebook is free. And I’d be willing to bet an absence of ads is not enough incentive for most people to pay an extra 20 dollars a month. In fact, there are several browser plugins which do just that. Facebook — still free, minus the ads.
So no matter how I go about it, my anti-Facebook is doomed to fail. This is because the problem with Facebook is not Facebook. The problem with Facebook is its users. The same goes for Twitter.
These platforms tailor their algorithms for engagement not because they’re evil, but because all engagement is good engagement. To make a very brief political example, the pushback towards Donald Trump on social media made his followers support him more vehemently. Donald Trump knew this, so he consistently made inflammatory statements which would further incite his opposition, leading to a more supportive base.
All engagement is good engagement, for the person whom you’re engaging with.
So if we disagree with something on social media, the last thing we should do is get angry at it, argue with it, retweet it with a pithy comment. All we are doing is exacerbating the views expressed in the original post/tweet/whatever; making them go further, and giving the people who agree with them more of a reason to fight back.
As such, Twitter is not wrong for designing its algorithms to maximize engagement. People are addicted to controversy, to arguing, to conflict. And if @jack can sell extra ads as a result, you can’t say he’s wrong for doing it. He’ll just tell you back: “That’s what the people want”.
The issue lies not in the algorithm, but deeper in the mentality of people who would rather “attack negativity” than “spread positivity”. Social media is a toxic place only because we have toxic habits which bleed into our online lives.
The solution: Learn how to regulate your reactions to things. Make yourself untriggerable. Meditate. Ignore negativity. Spread positivity.
If we all did this, Twitter would be a shining beacon of peace and love in this world. And @jack will still be able to sell his ads.