Last week’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol will live in infamy. Twitter suspends Trump and Facebook and YouTube follow in suit. It may serve as one of the most historic moments the history of the web.
A few thoughts on how we got here and where we may be headed. This first appeared in the 33 charts newsletter. You can subscribe here to get stuff like this directly in your inbox.
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube created the mess that we witnessed last week
At every turn in the media we find simple, reactive solutions that we’re told would have prevented the Capital disaster. The only culpability with Facebook and Twitter, it seems, is with the idea that they didn’t cancel the President’s accounts sooner.
But I hold the major social networks complicit on some level. And not because of their failure to quiet the president or ‘moderate’ better, but in the model of that they’ve created.
These platforms are designed to prioritize and commodify our attention for emotional reaction. The Capital crisis was the result of deliberate filtering and targeted concentration of perverse conspiracy thinking among a population positioned to believe all of it. And all amplified through a tribal mindset where authority is earned through sensationalism and raw emotion. Discord and division by design drives the attention that keeps us buoyed up and engaged. It’s this perverse model that fueled the miscreants who raided the Capitol last week.
Tristan Harris in MIT Tech Review this week on how these platforms manipulate the average user:
YouTube’s recommendation algorithms, which determine 70% of daily watch time for billions of people, “suggest” what are meant to be similar videos but actually drive viewers to more extreme, more negative, or more conspiratorial content because that’s what keeps them on their screens longer. For years, YouTube recommended “thinspiration”—anorexia-promoting videos—to teen girls who watched videos about “dieting.” And when people watched science videos of NASA’s moon landing, YouTube recommended videos about the flat-Earth conspiracy theory. It did this hundreds of millions of times. News feeds and recommendation systems like this have created a downward spiral of negativity and paranoia, slowly decoupling billions of people’s perception of reality from reality itself.
Harris’ solutions for information reform get to the point that these platforms can and should do more than see our attention as behavioral surplus for harvest.
While we want to blame Big Social for the assault on our attention, we need to look at ourselves and how we spend our moments and exert our bandwidth. Part of this is our problem. Too many of us have chosen to live and breath and attach our souls to these platforms. We have empowered them with our attention and our livelihoods. And the degree to which we have all slouched towards these networks makes us all, in some small way, a part of the Capital mess.
Impeaching Trump wouldn’t have prevented the mess
Some of the smartest folks in the room have suggested that culpability here is not with Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey but rather with the U.S. Congress and their failure to impeach the President earlier. But his impeachment months ago would have done nothing to prevent the fungal growth of anti-government conspiracies that fueled the Capital attack. Removal of the President would not have stopped the incentivized sharing of misinformation among folks who don’t know when or even how to question what they read. And the belief that some half-baked moderation algorithm will solve social’s deeper problems is magical thinking.
A fundamental law of social media physics: You can’t control the conversation. And in this case the conspiracies are hard to contain.
Twitter suspends Trump – Social networks have incredible power
If nothing else this affair has shown just how really powerful Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg really are. As noted by Kevin Roose in the New York Timesthis week:
Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Zuckerberg’s names have never appeared on a ballot. But they have a kind of authority that no elected official on earth can claim. This power appears mostly in subtle and unspoken ways — like the eerily calm, hostage-like video Mr. Trump filmed on Thursday, hours after Twitter and Facebook threatened to delete his accounts…
These companies, corporate autocracies masquerading as mini-democracies, often portray their moderation decisions as the results of a kind of formulaic due process, as if “don’t incite an insurrectionist mob” had been in the community guidelines all along. But high-stakes calls like these typically come down to gut decisions made under extreme duress. In this case, Mr. Dorsey and Mr. Zuckerberg considered the evidence, consulted their teams, weighed the trade-offs and risks of inaction — including the threat of a worker revolt that could damage their ability to attract top talent — and decided that they’d seen enough.
As evidence of this power, we’ve become dependent on networks like Twitter and Facebook to gather and share information. They have become the framework on which we connect with the world and one another. Because of this, 21st century citizens are faced with the illegitimate choice of participating or being left out of the public discourse. Our human agency has become the cost of social participation.
Let that sink in.
It’s been suggested on a bunch of media outlets this week that Twitter functions as a utility and we all have every right to its use. But despite what any pundit wants you to believe, these private platforms are within their right to restrict what we say and how we say it. And while we were busy tweeting we allowed the public commons to be controlled by a limited number of centralized entities.
The unsustainability of a centralized web
The short-term strategy of beefing up moderation by Facebook and Twitter will play well to the media and users. It’s one way to control what’s getting out of control. But in the long run I’m not sure about the sustainability of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey independently policing the global conversation.
And this isn’t just my idea.
Tim Berners-Lee who unleashed the World Wide Web sees what’s happening. His answer to the problem is technology that gives individuals more power. He is partnering in the founding of Inrupt, a Boston-based startup that envisions personal online data stores where each person could control his or her own data on a sliver of server space.
Mr. Berners-Lee’s vision of personal data sovereignty stands in sharp contrast to the harvest-and-hoard model of the big tech companies. But it has some echoes of the original web formula — a set of technology standards that developers can use to write programs and that entrepreneurs and companies can use to build businesses.
As he says, the goal is to move toward the web that I originally wanted. And check out their work with the NHS — it may offer a new model for interoperability and the realization of a true personal health record.
Ben Thompson (the smartest guy in the room) in Stratechery describes Internet 3.0 as an escape back to our roots from the closed and centralized Internet 2.0:
…if the priority for an increasing number of citizens, companies, and countries is to escape centralization, then the answer will not be competing centralized entities, but rather a return to open protocols. This is the only way to match and perhaps surpass the R&D advantages enjoyed by centralized tech companies; open technologies can be worked on collectively, and forked individually, gaining both the benefits of scale and inevitability of sovereignty and self-determination.
This process will take years; I would expect governments in Europe in particular to initially try and build their own centralized alternatives. Those efforts, though, will founder for a lack of R&D capabilities, and be outstripped by open alternatives that are perhaps not as full-featured and easy-to-use as big tech offerings, at least in the short to medium-term, but possess the killer feature of not having a San Francisco kill-switch.
The signals are talking.
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