Many people seem to be stuck between two opposing thoughts:
- It feels wrong that social platforms have the power to arbitrary filter content.
- They are private companies, so they have the right to do as they please.
How do we reconcile those ideas?
Let's look at two entrepreneurs starting new businesses.
Mr Baker invests his savings to open a bakery, and Mr Morsy invests his savings to start a hot new Internet company called Meeper.
After all the initial hard work, they both announce their arrivals.
Mr Baker: “Hey, fellow citizens, I am opening a new bakery to bake delicious cakes in the form of raccoons. I use only the best ingredients! Come and take a bite of a tasty raccoon!”
Mr Morsy: “Hey, geeks and geekettes, I created a website where everybody can have a voice. We have the best programmers! Come and post something!”
Naturally, people are interested in both companies. Might not be the same people, but still. They come, buy a cake and enjoy it quite a bit. They load their browser, post a picture of a kitten and enjoy it quite a bit as well.
This all seems very similar, but there is one crucial difference. Mr Baker baked his cakes only with his bare hands. He created some extra value which exceeded the combined value of flour and sugar, because those two are not particularly tasty when you just pour them into your mouth and try to chew.
Mr Morsy made the site with his bare hands too, and he too created additional value, because before Meeper it was next to impossible to meep online. But, no matter how good his site is, how much effort he put into it, its value will be minuscule without people and their posts.
Your picture of a kitten added a little bit of value to Meeper. Not only that, but, surprisingly, there are some people in the world who would like to know what the hell you are meeping about – your friends, your family, your secret lover and your psychiatrist. You make the site a little bit more valuable for them. They come, they read, they join.
You, however pathetic your life might be, actually helped Mr Morsy grow his business. For free. Granted, Mr Morsy also provided his site for you for free, so the deal seems fair. You like Mr Morsy, he seems like a nice guy with some ideals that closely match your own. Everybody should have a voice, right?
Now let's jump 10 years into the future.
Mr Baker's bakery is very popular and he opened several more in different places, all over town. But being a very religious person, he gets upset about a particular group of people, who he perceives interfere with his beliefs somehow. And he decides not to bake cakes for them.
Now, this doesn't seem nice, but we understand, that it's even more not-nice to force him to bake cakes. He's not in a concentration camp, after all, he bakes cakes because he likes it. He started his company even though he didn't have to, went through all the pain of starting and growing a business. He doesn't owe us anything. We cannot demand that he now bakes his cakes even if he doesn't want to. We have no moral authority to force him.
The particular group of people that Mr Baker doesn't like will get rather upset, but they will go to another bakery and buy themselves a different cake, this time shaped like a pony.
Now let's look at Mr Morsy. His site Meeper grew to astronomical size! In particular because every new user made the site a little bit more valuable and more attractive to other people. So the more users he had, the more people wanted to join.
Mr Baker can't even dream that when a customer eats one of his cakes, all the other cakes instantly become tastier! Imagine where he would be if his business worked that way!
Because of the scale, Meeper became very important in the lives of many, many people all other the world. Politicians, celebrities, businesses, ayatollahs... everybody and their mom's cat are on Meeper now.
It serves as a giant news agency. It connects people and helps them find business partners and friends. It helps share art and ideas. It provokes discussions. Draws attention to important issues. It is truly a global phenomenon like never before in human history!
But Mr Morsy has changed. And the world around him has changed, mostly because of the sheer scale of Meeper. And Mr Morsy is now under pressure to react to various demands – or sometimes his whims – and reject service to some people, ostracizing them from an enormous portion of society.
With the click of a button he now has the power to ruin businesses, influence elections, censor news and ideas, take away your online friends, silence community leaders, as high as the president of the United States himself; who, many were told, is the most powerful man in the world! Well, not anymore.
But this ain't right, is it? Mr Morsy is not elected and is not accountable, because “it's his private company”. But does he really own it? Did he post all those meeps over the years? Was he in all those troubled places, taking pictures and sharing them with people to spread the truth? Did he report on all the SpaceX launches and what Ariana Grande had for breakfast? Did he personally photograph every single cat on the planet?
Besides, if right from the start, Mr Morsy advertised his new site a bit differently: “Hey, come post on my site so it can grow big, make me rich, and then I will be able to destroy your online community and delete all your content whenever I feel like it!”, would it have grown to the size it is right now?
When people initially signed up, they had several implicit assumptions about the service: that the owner will play nice, that if they share their content and help him build the site, he, in return, will have their best interests in mind. That he will be a servant of the platform, of the people, not a tyrant who can do whatever he wants “because it's my private company”.
It would have never become a company worth talking about if it weren't for all the people. Imagine that every single user today decides to quit. What will be the value of all those servers and programmers? Does it have a value without people?
If nobody bought Mr Baker's cakes, they would still be attractive. A foreigner might visit, buy one and enjoy it, even though nobody else buys those cakes anymore because of Mr Baker's bigotry.
But if there are no people on Meeper, would a foreigner (in this case he gotta be from Mars) find it attractive?
There is a fundamental difference between Mr Baker's and Mr Morsy's businesses.
That's why any site built with the help of the people and where people provide all the value, must be run like a government, with accountability to those people.