In an age where self-expression and acceptance are so highly prized, why do so many social media platforms promote individual censorship? No one signed up to Twitter or Facebook expecting them to shield us from the world. In fact, their ‘lawlessness’ was part of what made them fun at first: access to the previously inaccessible; the promise of authenticity.
What the hell happened?
Think back to the Arab Spring in 2009/10. For the first time, we saw how powerful social media could be as an agent for change. Twitter and Facebook did a great job of empowering users to share their individual stories and rally support. Fast forward to more recent political events — namely Brexit and Trump — where social media is coming under fire for doing exactly the same thing.
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Why? Because a lot of people have realized that they’re not getting a complete enough picture of what’s happening from the channels they’ve come to trust. We could argue that these platforms aren’t supposed to be credible news sources. But the real issue is that to make data smarter, they continue to serve us the information they think we’ll be most responsive to — forsaking the things that don’t match our ‘user preferences’.
That’s right, algorithms are blinding us to opinions that differ from our own
We’ve known for some time that digital (not just ‘social’) media works by making assumptions about who we are and the kinds of things we like. While there may be some positives in this, looking at the bigger picture, the digital silos we create are a problem — at least for those that truly value authenticity.
While user numbers suggest that the biggest platforms’ dominance is guaranteed for now, they’re going to stagnate if they don’t do something soon: as two-dimensional feeds that don’t evolve our knowledge beyond what we expect. They’ll become places where bias is ingrained in everything — from the way information is curated to the continued social currency of ‘likes’, retweets, and follower numbers; which ensure that only popular opinions rise to the top.
Anonymity vs. authenticity
Like old Foursquare (before it tried to become Yelp) social media should thrive on immediacy, context, and accessibility. It should fill the information gaps left open by conventional searches — allowing someone who has firsthand, real-time knowledge of a place or event to become the most valuable source to you. Someone who can tell you the mood of a particular place at a particular time. Someone you don’t necessarily know.
There have been a slew of apps lately that seem to understand this challenge in part, like Snap Maps (that might have been ‘copied’ by French app maker, Zenly) which allows users to see what’s happening around them. While Snap Maps seems to have ‘acknowledged’ that things like location and sentiment don’t always translate with words alone, it fails to understand that these systems are only as valuable as the conversations they drive.
Bring back trust
So, if we don’t need to know someone to have a meaningful exchange with them online, we need to trust the communication platform itself. This prevails with online marketplaces (eBay, Etsy, and Amazon – all going strong!) but we’ve lost this with social media — almost.
There are still some social platforms that establish trust through authenticity. Ad-free social network, Ello, for example, began with the aim of being free from commercial interference, but has now become a service for artists and creative types. Now, its niche is driving its authenticity. Twitter-owned Periscope can also be singled out for its use of live video feeds as a true reflection of what’s happening in the world.
For the big players to become trustworthy once again, they need to re-examine their revenue models in line with user needs and expectations. This means accepting that they’re now media outlets with an obligation to report (or at least curate) impartially — promoting honesty while ensuring that controversy has its place.
It might be a tough thing to admit, but that’s the only way they can reclaim some modicum of authenticity. People do believe what they read, and if what’s served to them has no opposing stance, they will never be able to see the whole picture.