How to Build an Exploitation-proof Social Network

What Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to understand

he web is a beautiful place until it gets ugly. Which tends to be pretty fast these days.

With data scandals, nazis, and live-streamed attacks, Web 2.0 has quickly gone from being a place for creative expression and finding communities of like-minded people (Myspace, Reddit), to being a tool for corporate gain through advertising (Facebook, LinkedIn), to the point where in now stands — in a downward cycle of exploitation and manipulation leading to mass pushback from activists, politicians, and even founders and former executives.

But despite all the controversy, there’s no question that the web still needs a place for all around social networking. The need for expression and social validation is a critical use-case of online platforms like Facebook and one which will not go away. But taking into consideration recent events (recent now being more than three years of nonstop scandals), it’s clear that Facebook is not up to the task. Facebook executives so far have not made the decisions that they should, and we keep seeing the same problems arise: each time there’s a significant election, there are reports of bots and trolls trying to rig it with misinformation campaigns. Thus the only option is to move away from Facebook and elect a new social media “leader”. But that’s no easy task.

Much like online dating, social networks have been done and done to redundancy, but ultimately there is only one winner. This is because of network effects: whatever benefits there are to joining a new network is usually not more significant than the disadvantages of getting off the old one; i.e. we might as well stay where our friends are. That’s why the platform/company which manages to 1) get it right early, 2) implement a sustainable business model, and 3) scale prudently, gets the market share, and it will be very hard for any others to do so, even if they recreate that network, feature by feature, and even add some additional privacy measures, blockchains, etc etc.

But now we are in a transition phase. Given the current volatile state of social media in the spotlight as an enabler of global misinformation, people are ready for something new. They want a social platform that cannot be manipulated by politicians or people with an agenda — an exploitation-proof social network. That, in itself, might just be so appealing that it could actually chip away at Facebook’s market share.

So what new features can we add that would make a reliable social platform, and at the same not be too restrictive as to prevent people from getting that social validation they desire?

Let’s look at the root of the controversies: what has made Facebook so prone to exploitation? Cambridge Analytica helped get the US president elected by getting to know users political views and serving them content accordingly; Russian trolls purchased ads which were targeted to users who corresponded to a certain political party or leaning.

But how did Facebook get such accurate data to be able to pinpoint our political views? The answer is: NEWS. When we like and share news content, Facebook can interpret those actions (based on headlines, sources, and topics) to determine what our political views are, and then then present us with content which are tailored to those views — true or not. Therefore, a social network which does not support the sharing of news cannot gather that data, and thus cannot be used to share (mis)information as an ideological weapon by malicious actors, or by a presidential candidate.

Such a platform would include all the same features for sharing, commenting, liking, but JUST NO NEWS. The worst thing it could do is target you with a frying pan because it knows you like omelets.

But doesn’t that impede on our freedom of expression?

Not at all. Social platforms already ban certain types content. Take pornography for example. Why is it banned? Because it can be divisive and cause controversy due to people’s differing cultures, worldviews, and opinions on it, rather than any fundamental harm that it can cause. Wait… can’t the same exact thing be said about news? It’s not illegal and can be easily found elsewhere. This is just not the place for it.

Not to mention all the other positive side-effects of not having any news in your feed:

  • Less arguments and fallings-out with family and friends over political issues which otherwise would not have made any difference in our respective lives
  • Fewer instances of getting “triggered” by seeing some news about the latest speech by [insert controversial figure here] when you simply wanted to see what your friends are up to
  • Overall a more peaceful, less divisive, social media experience which centers around you and your immediate community (Facebook has even admitted this is a good thing)

What about just doing away with ads?

Ads are not inherently evil; it’s just that when they are combined with AI which knows our political beliefs, they can then be used for malicious purposes. Ads can be good: In fact, they are responsible for sustaining countless employees and small businesses across the US and other countries by connecting products with the people who need them.

It comes to follow that any social platform which hosts host ads, should not host news; and any social platform which does not host news, has no reason not to host ads.

But where does regulation play a role in all of this?

Government regulation in the tech industry in any way aside from anti-trust enforcement is BAD. Why? Because such regulations hurt newcomers — people who want to come into the industry with new solutions, who then have to go through the time-consuming and budget draining legal morass which was designed to regulate bigger firms with bigger budgets. A small startup could easily go bankrupt trying to adhere to all these new rules and regulations (see how GDPR has hurt the European startups). But those small startups are exactly what we need to revise our broken world wide web. We need new solutions, and we should be making it easier, not harder, for people to create them.

Nick Sukiennik is the founder of The Inflo Project, an initiative to revise the way we share and consume news online. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Trying and failing at not writing about politics. Also interested in travel and spirituality.