Is it time to end free-to-use social media? Social and political discourse has taken a significant turn over the last 10 years. People are forced into extreme, one-sided positions to make themselves heard, while nuanced and balanced debates are increasingly hard to achieve. Every philosophical and social movement is immediately met with an even bigger backlash, as a wide chasm opens up in people’s perception of the world and its big an even bigger backlash, as a wide chasm opens up in people’s perception of the world and its big questions.
The biggest reason for this shift in the nature of discourse is social media. Rather than the open paradigm of free expression it pretends to be, social media offers the average user information, opinion and current affairs determined by constantly evolving algorithms which prioritise traffic and response over truth and integrity.
There is no sense in blaming Facebook, Twitter and Google for employing these algorithms, the problem lies with a much more ingrained idealism, which many people fail to recognise as the harmful, problematic cause of a vortex of problems today.
Back in the sunny heyday of the internet, the 1980s and 90s, software entrepreneurs saw the democratic nature of the world wide web as an opportunity to provide a free and limitless platform to educate, connect and improve humanity as a whole.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, it became clear that the burgeoning tech-giants led by these entrepreneurs had to survive and grow while at the same time providing a democratic and free service — the one key principle of the internet utopia.
The best and quickest way to solve this conundrum was to adopt the advertising model, which empowered companies to grow economically without having to abandon their mission to provide a universally accessible product, free for everyone to use.
This initially innocuous business model, providing general ad opportunities akin to those seen on television, grew in complexity as silicon valley software experts created algorithms to target ads on an individual basis. This was necessary, as general ad exposure is almost worthless if it isn’t hyper-targeted and tailored individually, making it more attractive for businesses to advertise.
Giant tech companies have become data-traders, selling their users’ information for profit. This creates a variety of problems for users, not least the fact that every single person loses control over their own information and is extremely vulnerable to manipulation by the algorithms, which are now employed for user-generated content, as well as advertising.
As a Facebook user, you don’t see everything your contacts have posted, but a carefully curated collection of impressions which are targeted to you specifically. In effect, you receive very specific information without choosing to or knowing why. As silicon valley veteran and tech-philosopher silicon valley veteran and tech philosopher Jaron Lanier puts it, ‘The current incentive structure is that any time two people have any contact, it’s financed by a third person who believes they can manipulate the first two.’
The sort of echo-chamber culture which makes a balanced debate impossible is created by impenetrable algorithms which provide users with a one-sided view of society, confirming their biggest fears and fuelling their anger towards people or movements they disagree with.
This quasi-curation of opinion creates the opportunity for fake profiles, hackers and trolls to abuse the engagement-based algorithms and fuel certain political movements based on simple and easily digestible messages, as can clearly be seen through the election of Donald Trump.
Lanier’s solution, although he is not alone in advocating this course of action, is to recognise the more and more division in our society. Taking very successful examples like Netflix, Spotify etc., the academic Zeynep Tufekci argued as early as 2015 for a move from an advertising model to a subscription-based model.
How much would this effectively cost the user? Facebook’s 2017 revenue of about 40 billion US dollars could be paid for by its approximately 2 billion users with a mere $20 in yearly subscription fees. This is very basic maths and does not take into account a number of variables (such as the number of real active user profiles), but it clearly wouldn’t take a lot of money out of users’ pockets.
Making Facebook, Twitter and Google subscription-based services would solve a number of problems. Firstly, their focus would shift from making their platform attractive to advertising, to creating the best possible product for the user. Secondly, and end to the algorithmic nature of content-management would create a more truthful reflection of real-life discourse.
Thirdly linking, the social media accounts to real identities negates the harmful influence of fake profiles, bots and trolls in manipulating popular opinion. Shifting to this business model would make social media a vehicle for meaningful solutions and conversations with real people. In the end, whether we feel it or not, we all pay a price for the services we use, but sometimes that price is much more significant than a few dollars or pounds every year.