A Modest Proposal for a New Social Media

For many observers and commentators of the recent Facebook data scandal, now is the time to bask in smugness. Smugness, in one regard, because it is Silicon Valley (or at least a major member of it) finally receiving what some might consider to be comeuppance, but also because many will claim to have seen such a scandal coming. The logic behind the latter consideration is simple; with so much data, and so many users, eventually something would go wrong. Popularity, or perhaps frequency, breeds inevitability — a notion that we will return to.

The response to such a scandal, too, has thus far been quite typical of the current digital age, with hashtag movements seeming to galvanise the popular, if sometimes discreet, zeitgeist rejecting social media (irony, of course, pervades, namely, a hashtag campaign to rally against Facebook membership). Meanwhile, governments, who, in more ways than simply potential election irregularities, have felt marginalised by social media, embrace the opportunity to assert some legislative position, even if ultimately nothing transpires from these witch hunts (the use of the phrase ‘witch hunts,’ is not done with some hyperbolic tone as might be conceived; such investigations are supported, and the phrase has been used for lack of a better word).

It is valuable, and indeed necessary, in my opinion, that we begin to examine the role of a) social media, b) digital enterprise more widely and c) big data within the frame of the democratic and social contract. Such examination, I believe, was necessary even before the several high profile examples of dubious social media exploits that have brought these questions to the fore; whilst one should be sad that said scandals have occurred, one must be grateful of any progress given the unrelenting ferocity with which some imagined, ‘future,’ seems intent on imposing itself on society (again, I fear the negative undertones in my words; to be sure, whilst sceptical, it is poetic license, and not the entrenchment of a position, that should be identified from my choice of phrasing). Be it some calls for the public ownership of big data, or the application of anti-trust laws in the face of Silicon Valley behemoths, solutions, be them effective or fanciful, are valuable if only in acknowledging that there is a problem.

Yet, despite the themes alluded to thus far, a precise picture of what has and is happening does not appear clear. It is argued here, to an extent, this is because nothing fundamentally has changed in the way Facebook and its users operate. I think it is a helpful to begin by considering the impending crisis in social media (which, I would suggest, is not necessarily a crisis solely within social media, but also within big data regulation and anti-trust laws around tech companies) to that of the 2008 financial crisis. The parallels, though superficial at times, do, I believe, provide a reasonable basis of thought with which to proceed.

In terms that are far too simplified, the 2008 financial crisis was a failure from regulators, from government, and from individuals, in moderating the behaviour of massive financial institutions as they placed a vast number of moral hazard trades. Such hazardous morality was (and is, to an extent) found in their size and importance to society at the time. The collapse of the banking system challenged not only the financial dominance of the Western world, but also the civil authority of governments — certainly their political authority. Genuine fears of the loss of deposits (even if the threat of such lost deposits was not genuine, the fears certainly were), of home repossession and so on highlighted the importance, yet simultaneous fragility, of the financial system as a social institution. Whilst profit-motive was certainly a driving factor from the perspective of bankers, from the perspective of customers, their motive was to receive some fantastic benefit — say, a home — from the perceived progress and innovation within the financial system. They were sold an idea.

I suggest similar, all be it less apocalyptic, parallels can be drawn between the 2008 financial crisis and Facebook (amongst others) today.

Social media and the social contract

It is foolish to ignore the integral social role Facebook, Twitter and Google play in our society, even if the actual purpose or value generated by these companies within an individual mindset is limited or even possibly negative. The value of these sites is not in the services they provide per se; rather, value is derived from the ubiquity of their services. It is quite impossible to tell if Facebook is the best social media company, or Google the best search engine; but we are quite certain that a plethora of friends may be found on Facebook, and a sufficient quantity of relevant information found on Google. This is the tenet of big data — precision may be forgone, provided a large enough sample is available (precision is oft the word used when discussing big data — it is perhaps more appropriate to say personality when discussing Facebook or Google, amongst others). Equally, quality may be forgone, provided what remains is sufficient given present demands. This phenomenon, rather than traditional mechanisms of establishing monopoly, is how these sites have become embedded in our society. They do just enough, and those few that would like more, or at least different, are just that — few.

It is the popular premise that big data, harnessed via social media’s complex algorithms, can provide a social networking experience that offers genuine benefits to the user; an augmentation of a user’s social interactions with others for the better. Yet it seems unreasonable to allow a company whose business is the augmentation of societal interactions to exist outside of the social contract that governs all other social interactions, especially when the natural barriers of reality are blurred and belittled by digitised substitutes (it might be cute and amusing to see a company’s sassy Twitter response to a customer, but one should not forget that each retweet is also advertising, for example).

By engaging in this industry, one must accept their social responsibilities, and the moral hazards that are also brought forth, and act in such a way as to not defile the former and exploit the latter. Further, and in what will be discussed in more detail below, it is an insufficient argument to suggest that the lack of obvious equitable exchange between a social media platform and its users constitutes a means of invalidating the social contact; quite the opposite, I suggest: data is not currency, and as such, any exchange involving it must embed the tenets of trust and consent that follow a great many other interactions governed by the social contract.

If one still remains unconvinced that social media holds a social contract with us, or more generally that the movement of activities from reality to the online space serves to invalid any formerly present social contract, one need only ask oneself would they divulge the same amount of personal information given online to real world strangers? Would they post a photo of themselves in the middle of the town, knowing that photo is not just liable to be seen, but also stolen and exploited, by those one neither knows nor trusts? Perhaps, if all one’s friends had also participated, but then we must ask the question of who is validating the action? Surely a social contract still exists; not between oneself and the entire town, but between oneself and one’s friends, whereby faith in their judgement is levied against any other consequences. However, such an argument seems dumb — the fury at any und to ord consequences is surely to be levied at the person who steals the photo or hijacks the information, not the colleagues who advocate the advertisement of such things in the first place. And surely, by extension, the existence of any fury demonstrates a violation of something borne between oneself and this mystery villain — a social contract.

And thus, even if you would be willing to give tremendous amounts of personal information to a stranger, be it for apparent benefit, or via a friend’s recommendation, or both, one might only deny the presence of a social contract if an undesired — yet possibly permitted — use of that information does not invoke outrage, fury or despair. Given the furore presently surrounding social media, and what I would contend is a perceived undercurrent of distain for social media more generally — though, of course, I offer no evidence for this conviction — I believe my argument is sufficiently valid, at least insofar as this piece is concerned, to take that as evidence of the presence, and recent violation of, a social contract between social media and society at large.

Accepting that a social contract does exist between social media and its users demands, thus, that we consider how this relationship manifests currently, which is to say how are these companies presently embedded within society?

Where Twitter has enabled the public broadcast of a stray thought as would previously be limited to a conversation in a coffee shop or bar, Google has enabled the modern construction of Alexander’s library. Facebook has perhaps been even bolder, combining all which might be called media into a self-curated space — what I have previously likened to the invention of the soul. These companies challenge our notions of institutions, public and private, by leveraging promises of efficiency that what might be called terrestrial institutions could never possibly achieve. The impetus of such efficiency is, of course, data; and it is to data we now turn (it is not beyond me that the transformative nature of social media makes the former comparison between social media and the stranger on the street dubious, as social media may redefine what a stranger is and indeed force us to question where, or at least how long and wide, the street is. Yet I feel the comparison still serves a relevant purpose, if only insofar as it makes a complex digital landscape more rational for non-digital entities — namely humans — to understand).

To understand what role social media plays in society, we must consider how we and it interact, and — in what might be an economist’s unavoidable habit — perform something akin to a cost-benefit analysis. I first propose a simple idea: that the exchange of data, insofar as it might act like currency, for greater efficiency through the medium of customisation, is as equitable a trade as the exchange of dollars for bread. Supposing this notion is true, then it is not the case, as some might suggest, that the act of exchanging data is inherently bad. Instead, it is an act that is concerned with choice and trust. Returning to the financial crisis, the act of taking out a mortgage was not in itself malignant; yet the act of irresponsible lending — where choice was manufactured and falsified, and trust manipulated — produced a crisis.

In a sense, one might accuse the transgressions during the financial crisis of consisting of an irresponsible leveraging of social equity, leading to dramatic consequences when such an account was ultimately balanced. Similar, I propose, has occurred with Facebook. In utilising personal data to achieve desired efficiencies such as targeted advertising, the leveraging of social equity has occurred, and it has been disastrous. In part, I feel, because the recent exploitation of private data was done with intent and purpose, rather than simple neglect, damaging the sanctity of trust between user and site.

But in part also because data is not currency. The value of data is not in the collective belief in its value, as currency might be said to function, but rather in its specificity to an individual. In that sense, we cannot compare the risking of deposits on risky mortgage products with the careless utilisation of data for questionable ends as the bank notes — regardless of one’s depository claims — bare no intrinsic relation to the depositor in the process of utilisation, whilst the data always does. The attitude of treating data like capital which might be utilised to achieve profit ignores the fundamental characteristic of data, and as such perpetuates its misuse. This serves to demonstrate the apathy of choice; that any utilisation of personal data demands that we choose to have our data utilised that way, and in absence of that conscious choice we feel betrayed. Such a betrayal may not intimately be felt when our deposits are gambled by banks, as we choose to deposit a specific amount of money, not a specific type of money (which is to say, we do not care if the bank notes we receive on withdrawal are the exact same notes we deposit, only that the value of the withdrawal meets the value desired).

Thus, in considering how social media is currently embedded in society, I suggest the answer is immediately prevalent. It is the process by which social interactions are used to derive and ultimately combined with those that might seek to interlope on such interactions — advertisers, special interests, punditry perhaps — which forms the odd amalgamation that is social media, and thus that leaves us wanting. The exploitation of personal data on an industrial scale on the one hand serves to atomise the individual’s relevance and degrades concepts of choice and trust attached to their data (for remember, data is not currency; unlike the bank deposit that can be spent as the bank wishes, for their only obligation is to return the deposit upon request, personal data is only ‘deposited,’ in the context of the need expressed by the company, and as such any further use of the data, serves to violate the data in the context of the social contract).

If we are to fix social media, or at least address some of the issues and concerns that are coming to the fore, it seems necessary as part of a partial solution to improve a user’s perception of their choice when using social media, and to improve the trust relationship between platform and user. These things are, of course, only part of the solution, though additional problems, most notably the widespread use of misinformation online, receive significantly more coverage than the problems of choice and trust. Whilst this piece does not seek to belittle the need to solve the problems of fake news and clickbait (to give them their accurate titles), these problems may be implicitly tackled by improving the choice and trust in social media. Choice, in that rather than algorithms identifying those potentially more susceptible to misinformation (and any targeted information, for that matter) it is the user whose conscious actions consent to their viewing that information. And trust, for whilst any misinformation online is undesired generally, a user will feel more aggrieved at, say, Facebook, if they believe either through intention or negligence they are receiving false information and that they can’t trust the site to respect their data and/or their intellect.

A Modest Proposal

Multiple ways of embedding choice and trust surely exist, and are accessible to those minds more inspired than I; I offer here a single conceptualisation. It is an inescapable fact that those who use social media must be subjected to advertising, and thus it seems logical to target this element of social media beyond all else. My idea is rather simple at the heart of it: allow users to choose what advertising they see, and show them nothing they have not elected to see. Of course, we must then ask the question: why would anyone elect to see advertising? The answer I propose is because it is part of a fair, equitable exchange.

Here is the crux of my proposal. Social media should implement a reward based system for users, allowing users to generate some sort of token currency, perhaps even a cryptocurrency (yet, at this early stage of conception, this seems to create more problems than solutions), from their regular activity online. This currency could then be taken to an online marketplace where users could purchase benefits from innocuous cosmetic items to perhaps real-world discount coupons (in lieu of cryptocurrency once more, such a platform seems odiously suitable for a product such as crypto-kitties). In purchasing these coupons, users would consent to these companies advertising to them on the site, and thus an equitable exchange of sorts may be seen to have been established (again, and with emphasis on the infancy of this idea, such currency might be used to pay for online news subscriptions, adding a barrier to entry for dubious sites to get onto social media feeds, and imbuing in readers an expectation of quality news given they’ve laid out their hard earned, shall we call them, clicks?).

Several problems present themselves, most notably, how might such a system be created such that it is not rife for exploitation and does not degrade the meaning of a like or a share. Additionally, how might the financial relationship be structured such that a click (see above), which seems to have even less inherent value than real world fiat money, translates into a pound or a dollar?

On the latter note, my initial estimation would be that the spending commitment generated by the selling of a discount coupon is greater than the revenue generated from even well targeted advertising. Of course, without such a system in place to test such a hypothesis, we are left to pontificate. On the former, I would task the hypothetical computer scientists and mathematicians to resolve this problem. Exploitation of the laws of diminishing returns built into complex and tightly guarded algorithms with currency sinks (see cosmetic items) to regulate this new currency market seem like one answer, yet again, such a system seems difficult to judge purely theoretically.

I am not beyond the slippery slope. The slow but promising rise of Sesame credit in the East seems wholly comparable to the click system proposed here, and must certainly raise the question of where would it end. To regulate a secondary market in coupons, for example, a unique user code tied to each social media account may be necessary — how long before this becomes an online identification code?

Further, would such a system suck any soul out of social media, turning the process of socialising into a financial grind? Would a like become meaningless; a status update literally a means of earning the daily bread? For some, surely these things are already reality; yet who am I to subject others (potentially) to such a reality?

Finally, there is of course the problem of control. Those same algorithms and the computer sciences behind them would hold tremendous sway over a potentially enormous online institution. Any changes, and all judgement calls, would not just impact a person’s convenience, but also their financials. This is serious enough in itself; but when combined with the copious amounts of data also held by these gatekeepers, be it age or gender or race, the risk of implicit bias built into a system which, in its present state and for better or worse, is rather equal in this regard, seems not without concern. However, though not to diminish these issue, we should acknowledge that such faceless discretion is held by social media giants presently and must, as anyone in the regulatory and policy world will tell you, be held by someone no matter how the system is assembled. This is not to excuse this concern as one without solution; instead, I only wish to suggest any solution will likely not being wholly or even mostly satisfying.

I bring up these issues because they are inescapable whilst borne out in theory, and it is incumbent as part of good authorship to acknowledge them, even if solutions are not forthcoming. As part of any criticism that might surround this piece, surely these weaknesses must form an integral part. Whether one accepts the proposal given here as panacea, or rejects this proposal as a menacing nail in an imagined coffin, the key to any development, and certainly any online development, is time and consideration. Though hardly the sexiest of messages for Silicon Valley, if this piece has any point it is to highlight that social media cannot ignore its social responsibility, and thus, if any solution is to be proposed, it seems prudent to address the issues openly, as a means of forestalling negligence.

We cannot escape social media, and in the spirit of the internet — indeed, by the means which social media functions so effectively, it is difficult to rationalise an application of anti-trust laws as was seen with the robber barons. That is not to say these laws are irrelevant, but additional tools and nuanced ideas, of which it is hoped this piece has contributed towards, might sure to provide more effective solutions to the problems of social media.

Please see here for the original posting of this essay.

Behavioural Science Fellow at the LSE. Personal Blog. twitter.com/stuart_mmills

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