Counterfactuals about Social Media

by Zvi Don't Worry About the Vase5 min read22nd Apr 201923 comments


Response To (Marginal Revolution): Counterfactuals about Social Media

See also: Against FacebookAgainst Facebook: Comparison to Alternatives and Call to Action

The idea that the primary problem with such programs is ‘they make political fights weird’ or that ‘they enable censorship’ is to miss the bigger problem. Social media is ruining our lives. Directly.

They also degenerate our politics. That’s mostly a side effect.

Social media succeeds largely because of network effects. One uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or the others mostly because others you want to interact with are using them.

Many people know social media to be terrible for them and for their lives. Many people know Facebook is terrible, in particular (whether or not the photo-based Snapchat and Instagram, which my circles never used, are even worse, as I suspect they are). Many of those would love a better alternative.

But coordination is hard. By the time many people figured this out, it was too late.

Shifting the equilibrium by force is a reasonable response.

Even if it wasn’t too late, it’s not clear many or even a majority of people knowing it is a trap are enough to stop the trap. If Facebook is where the discussions are, and Facebook is where your friends are, that is where you will be unless you are willing to pay a heavy price. The default outcome is for Facebook to continue optimizing for its usage and revenue in ways that make our lives worse, until most people are worse off than without social media and know it, but think they are better off than if everyone else was on social media without them.

I did manage to get a bunch of my friends and readers off of Facebook, such that the equilibrium shifted to a better one. It can be done. But it is damn hard.

These companies also are engaging in a bunch of profit-maximizing and power-maximizing actions, like not letting users have control over what they see, that force users to learn to do what Facebook wants and be who Facebook wants them to be, addicts constantly producing free content. All communication between friends becomes optimized to reinforce the platform. The system rewards and shows all communication based on its anticipated reinforcement of user addictive behavior. This declares war for coalition politics and playing popularity and social games, and war against truth or any attempt to accurately map or model the world. 

And yes, at some point (if they haven’t already) they will increasingly inevitably use that power more explicitly. To favor people and ideas and information they like over others they don’t. In ways far less nice than censoring ‘hate groups’ and ‘obscenity.’ To directly guide us and tell us what to think.

I don’t know what ‘censorship’ means in a world where a self-reinforcing algorithm determines whether or not anyone sees your post, ever, if it doesn’t mean what we already have.

Unless it is the distinction between ‘no one sees your post’ and ‘no one sees your post and the system punishes you for posting it, and we’re not just talking about making all your posts less visible.’ Which is, for now, an important difference, but less important and less sharp than one might think.

Where everyone is forced to look at a constant stream of low-bandwidth clay tablets chosen by a company with a profit motive, because the only way anyone sees anything is to look at the clay tablets, and we have the technology to use pen and paper and address letters, but you can’t because no one checks their mailbox, then yes you should go after the companies making the clay tablets. You definitely should not ‘equip yourself to win the hearts and minds of the people using the tactics of clay tablets.’

What we should infer about the intellectual vigor of a society that does so is that they recognize that the organizational forms of information matter and are worth fighting for.

What we should infer about the intellectual vigor of a society that chooses instead to fight with clay tablets is that they care about winning hearts and minds. Good. But they do not look at the big picture, and they can’t coordinate.

Suppose television was as bad as its earlier critics said it was. That it rots brains, turns people passive, eats their lives, makes them less happy over time. This does not seem like an unlikely hypothesis. Do you like it when you see your kids watching? Should we have done something about it when we had the chance? Were the regulations we did put on it, to require actions in the public service and prevent obscene and inappropriate content, bad for the people? Should we have just let whoever first thought to run stations run wild? Should we have done far more?

Do past examples show that such technologies can’t be improved, in their impact on us, by smart intervention? That we shouldn’t try?

So, what is to be done?

You, yes you, should abandon Facebook and its ilk to the extent feasible in your life. Encourage others to do the same and provide real incentives and reasons. Be willing to pay a real price for all this. See my previous articles on the subject.

But what is to be done as a society? With our collective action and enforcement mechanisms?

At a minimum, we should require that users have full control over the form with which they interact with major social media platforms.

They should be required to use open protocols that allow third parties to see all information the user has access to. Organize it in the way the user wants. Combine it with information from other sources and platforms. Sort and present it in chronological order, threaded order, specified priority order, a chosen machine learning algorithm with goals the user shares, or anything else the user desires. It must also allow users to post back to the platforms, including comments and reactions and everything else one can in theory do on a platform. It must be impossible for others to know which one you are using.

People could try RSS feeds, emails, email digests, custom apps and websites and programs. They could be as exact or as broad as desired. Over very little time, many free, open and very good alternatives would arise. So would a few paid ones, up to and including ‘have someone else whose job it is to read all this and curate it for me and their other clients.’

We should also ban especially vicious brain-hacking techniques like the ‘snap streak’ that reward periodic repetition of behavior to build habits. Anything that makes people feel like they have to log in constantly.

Tumblr’s requirement that each comment quote the entire post, the impossibility of reasonable sorting, and its relative ease of using photographs and videos versus text, lead to one type of social group and interaction. Facebook’s system does a second. Twitter’s does a third. Blogging does a fourth, Instagram a fifth, email a sixth, and so on. All are very different from each other. The details of the platform we use to communicate have profound impacts on how we talk, how our social groups function and how our lives work. We have a choice. We need to care, and choose wisely, how we put ‘all our ideas out there.’ 

Social media lives on network effects. Thus, we can impose rules on it. Hopefully we use that power to make the services compatible with life, and not for censorship. So far, it seems we only use that power for censorship.

The counterargument is that between different requirements, rules and jurisdictions, all we would do is impose increasingly onerous and contradictory requirements (see European privacy regulation) that would keep out challengers and reinforce the current monopoly. That’s what regulation does by default. So we should keep a light touch as much as possible, if only to discourage other actions in the future.

What would happen if we outright banned Facebook and other major incumbents?

My guess is social disruption on the order of a week, net improvement on the order of months as groups use more healthy mechanisms and the successor states are forced to fight for users.

If all we did was clear out current incumbents, we probably end up back where we started as clones rise up as the natural coordination points. People want what they’re comfortable with, so Facebook clones fight to be the new Facebook, Snapchat/Instagram clones fight to be the new that, and so on. We already see some of that with Tumblr. There would still be shifts towards healthier platforms, such as blogs and email, that survived the purge, and those effects would persist long term.

If we alter what is permitted in ways that effectively ban similar replacements, there will be an innovation race to find what is still allowed. In the meantime, the things that survived – presumably email, blogs, message boards and RSS, at a minimum – would have a window to regain coordination power and have the edge of being refined versions. People’s lives would be destroyed much less.

I don’t see how the threat of censorship gets worse by taking out the people doing the censorship.

I do think that we mostly can shut them down, and we might. Social media lives on network effects. It can’t do its job underground. Depending on what exactly we ban, and what we allow, it could be a great boon. But it would come at the cost of the precedent, the growth in government power and the resulting decay of our basic freedoms. Let us stay as much a nation of laws, not men, as we can.

There’s also risk that we end up doing what most regulations actually do, which is favor those with money and power and the ear of the legislature, and we end up even more captured by monopoly. That the law tries to dictate what comes next, imposes a bunch of terrible rules, and everything gets far worse. I don’t want to make the mistake of asking for something to be done, and accepting the something that emerges, merely because I saw a something worth doing.

So I’m not there yet. But I understand. Oh boy, do I understand.