Thursday, August 3, 2017

The problems and future of social media

Facebook brings so many wonderful things to the world: connection to long-unseen acquaintances; community organizing; updates from friends and family. Facebook is catholic, so to speak.

The cost, of course, is placing our thoughts, ideas, memories, pictures, opinions and habits into a closed, for-profit ecosystem with dubious ethics and the tendency to meddle with the presentation of that content (and the content itself) like a scolding, self-serving parent. Their algorithm for content curation is opaque, and designed, at best, to maximize their own advertising revenue.

Attempts to remake Facebook as another website will fail. Logging into a website held on private servers, in order to see or share or participate, exactly replicates the issues that Facebook has (e.g. 'Ello), no matter how ethically its owners promise to behave. Control and presentation of your content, of your identity, of your opinion, is still in the hands of other people.

The only way to solve the problems of these closed gardens like Facebook is to give every individual total control over their own content, and over the content feed they see. I'm talking about a paradigm shift in social media. I'm not talking website, I'm talking protocol. The web, exactly as we have it now, with our websites and blogs and such; but we subscribe to them, and receive them when and how we want them.

So, my pitch is: Existing technologies such as RSS, open IDs and authentication, blogging software, etc, can, glued together with the right protocol TBD, will allow individuals to have more control over their own data and identity, while still allowing all of the good that Facebook and other social media actually bring to the world. Individuals host their own equivalent of the "Facebook wall" (or hire a host), and can subscribe to other "walls". Posting on your "wall" can have different levels of security - available to trusted audience or public, rather like Facebook is. Only, you own it. A free, open-source protocol that emphasizes interoperability and user control would allow devs to create any kind of client that suits them. Competing clients, and competing hosts, with competing revenue models, will lead to all kinds of UX solutions, not just the one handed to you by the hegemony. Those who hate scrolling such as yourself will create and gravitate towards clients that solve that.

This is obviously only a roughly sketched idea. I actually see this future - of a distributed social media - as rather inevitable, whether or not I work on it. The more that social media becomes essential to our lives, the less willing we will be to settle for our social networks and identities to be controlled by others.

Some related tech: