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How to reinvent social media?
We have gone through a painful learning experience that requires improvement
It is coming up for two years since I was deplatformed from Twitter. This was a major assault on my freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom to earn a living. It stole from me a huge amount of work over many years. It denied me access to the public square and participation in community life. It impoverished me by preventing me from marketing my art and writing. It cut me off from many people I considered friends. It stopped me from having the joy of sharing everyday beauty and seeing the positive impact on others.
The period “in the digital wilderness” has taught me a lot, and allowed me to refresh my sense of mission. I now understand that our top priority in everything is to renew our respect for the sacred — notably truth and morality — and make that figural in our values. I have also experienced gains by using other platforms, including a variety of perspectives on what social media can be and how it can work. I was also a world-class telecoms and IT consultant before I took on the dissident role, and have given this subject considerable thought in the past.
Twitter is relaunching as a post-criminal enterprise and engaging in serious reform under new management. The authoritarian intelligentsia were notable for having celebrated the general loss of free speech, and the creation of a de facto “lords and ladies” class via the verified account tick mark. Now it is time for those who were the victims of that corrupt ethos to have their say in how things should be run in future. Here are my thoughts on where social media needs to go. I hope they make their way to the right people.
Say what you do (allow), do (allow) what you say
Platforms have free speech rights too — so a social media service for knitting can legitimately refuse to host discussions on military matters. A hard problem is defining where the platform’s right to moderate ends, and where the users’ free speech rights begin. The first step is to get each platform to be clear on what the boundary is on their own assertion of speech rights. This may need to be a “constitution” type issue rather than “law”, so can only be changed with the consent of users, who have a large sunk investment in the platform.
Natural justice must prevail
I have been deplatformed over and over as the result of criminal racketeering, and each time I was given no concrete reason, no rule I had broken, and no example of infringing content. Nobody should be denied access to a public forum without having this information given to them, so that there is transparent due process. There should also be a process of natural justice that includes an appeal to an independent arbitrator or ombudsman (with a nominal fee) for permanent bans. Users collectively are entitled to statistics on how the governance process is working, so there is transparency.
Community before corporate governance
It is crazy to have an army of paid moderators curating the work of users to fit a narrative or aesthetic. We should draw upon the precedent of common law and jury service, recognising that a cost of participation in these platforms is also to partake in the governance of the community, lest we be governed. For example, when a post is reported then another user’s ability to read their timeline is briefly suspended until they review that post on behalf of the community and state whether they feel it is in breach of the posting guidelines.
The users are the advertisers
You cannot serve two masters at once, and there is an innate tension between meeting the needs of brands versus support for free speech and dissent. I can see a lot of mileage in adding features to social media to enable better interaction between brands and the public, especially for customer service and support. I am less convinced of the benefits of generic advertising. That said, creators themselves have products — books, subscriptions, art, merchandise, donations — so these should be supported as “tier 1” design objects with revenue share back to the platform.
Constrain input not output
“Garbage out” is an inevitable part of any community with free speech values, and that means there has to be a filter somewhere so we aren’t all subjected to “garbage in”. Muting and blocking go some of the way, but the real need is for choice in our input filters. Whereas computer programmers tend to be strict in what they emit and lax in what they accept, the reverse is true of social media. In order to scale our information inputs we should be allowed to construct our own custom feeds using our algorithms of choice.
Ticks for accountability
Anonymity is an important part of free speech, since it protects whistleblowers and supports dissenting views without fear of reprisal. At the same time it can be abused by cowards, and provides cover for criminals. A verified tick should be used to record what “identity collateral” has been offered, although that need not be visible to the public. The purpose of verification is to prevent identity hijacking and false impersonation, fostering trust and accountability. It should never be a class system offering privilege to selected insiders.
Unlawful action needs action
Over the years I received two death threats on Twitter, one overt, and one sly and indirect via plausible deniability. This kind of behaviour is of a different nature to ordinary abuse of the posting guidelines, and needs to be taken seriously as a criminal matter. We may have to recognise that there is a shared cost to policing the public square and keeping if free from criminal activity. Character assassination via Soros-style hired hitmen also needs to be taken seriously, and is not legitimate free speech. I have been a victim of this, but how to regulate it without introducing a new form of tyranny is not obvious.
My social media accounts and avatars are owned by Twitter, Gab, Telegram, etc. — and this is a form of digital slavery. When I was deplatformed by Twitter it also meant nobody could reference me any more, and I was effectively de-existed as a human being in the social space. This is wrong, akin to having our phone number taken off us because someone disapproved of what we said. We need to be able to bring our own self-issued identity and credentials to these services, so that we no longer have to supplicate to others just to exist. Corporations should not have “life or death” type powers over any aspect of living men and women, including their virtual identity.
Riffing off this last point, we have an “all or nothing” approach to dealing with problematic behaviour. A permanent ban should only be for repeat and serious violations of the posting guidelines. A better approach is to progressively limit your access, so you can still be mentioned, or do direct messages, even if you cannot post, or if your post rate is limited or tagged with some message. Access to reading posts and search may be considered a human right, from which nobody should be excluded except in extreme cases of technical abuse.
Beware of human scaling
I was kicked off Twitter with over a quarter of a million followers, so I know a few things about how these platforms scale. The essence of social media is the timeline that you can dip in and out of, and have no obligation to read. Mentions and comments also create no obligation to acknowledge or respond. This decoupling allows the system as a whole to scale, and not be limited by the constraint of human attention. The one exception area was direct messages, which I had to restrict to just followers, and even then could be problematic. The design of the system at “celebrity” level needs some extra thought, as social media success brings its own challenges.
I used to work in telecoms, and I can see parallels between how social media is developing and the early days of the telephony network. There are some difficult public policy questions that remain to be addressed. Do we as a society want a better kind of feudal landlord of the social network, or to be sovereign and fully own our own social graph and run out own delivery systems? Should we follow existing common carriage and telecoms regulations (telegraph, telephone, tweets) or keep it out of the regulatory sphere? Do we need to force interconnect and identity portability, or is that an unnecessary encumbrance?
My hope is that the nightmare of the last few years, with the experience of tyranny, and awful consequences of censorship, all lead to a golden age of free and responsible communications ahead. Twitter can be reformed and relaunched, but the real issue is more of a refounding of the social sphere. No one corporation should hold so much sway over the public mind, and that means distributing power in new and innovative ways. The information war is not over, and I will rejoin Twitter if I can, but it is time to look beyond the limitations of the current organisational model of social media. In order to have a representative society we must stop having rigged conversations.
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