The Good Social Internet

Social media often sucks. The social internet is a magical place full of rich relationships, new connections, intriguing ideas, and true community.

What do I mean when I say the social internet? It is all of the internet designed for sharing, connecting, and engaging with other people. This may include social media, but it also includes personal blogs, forums, discord servers, random IRC channels. In short, places where people congregate around shared interests.

I have already conceded that social media can be an interesting part of that, so it is easy to wonder why it was separated out. The simple reason is that the dynamics of most social media are very different from the dynamics of other social internet applications. For one there seems to be a fundamental push vs pull difference in the way that you normally come to view the content.

Social media has a habit of pushing content on to you. This may be literally in the form of push notifications or more subtly via the magic of algorithmic infinite newsfeeds. You get to see more and more content, much of which you never would have chosen, all pushed on you. This does offer the opportunity for fortuitous discovery, but it also fundamentally changes our relationship with the internet.

In the old social internet you pulled the information you desired, rather than having content you may want pushed on you. If I wanted to see someone's recent thoughts I would navigate to their blog. If I wanted to discuss a topic with people I would go to that forum. If I wanted to stay in touch with people I would have to remember to reach out to them or drop in a channel or server where I knew they could be reached. The internet was on demand, instead of demanding.

Now perhaps you reject my premise that the internet is no longer on demand. Before you do so I want you to install RescueTime or a similar program on every computer you use, and combine the time from that with the Screen Time from your phone and add in the number of hours you spend watching Netflix or Hulu. Likely you will find that the majority of your waking hours are spent staring at a glowing rectangle. If you truly feel that each and every time you wanted that content, then you are the exception that proves the rule. Most will find that they have without realizing it found that vast portions of their life, sometimes more than they spend sleeping, have been frittered away.

The simple objection here is to my usage of the word fritter. Perhaps you feel your life is substantively enhanced by this time spent with the glowing rectangles rather than a harm. However, before you jump to that conclusion spend a minute thinking on the opportunity cost. Remember that every minute you spend using one of these devices is a minute you cannot spend doing something else. If you still feel this has been a net benefit for you then are in a fantastic place. If however you find that there are other things you wish you spent your time on then I recommend you read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. I also think it is time for us to start challenging the status quo and acting to take back the social internet.

There are some initiatives that are already working on this concept. The first that comes to my mind is the awesome IndieWeb movement. They advocate simply for people publishing their content on their own website and then syndicating it elsewhere if they desire. This gives people the power over their own voice again, and even if they are deplatformed or demonetized or obsoleted they still maintain control of the original content and are free to move it to new platforms with greater ease. Considering examples like this I was left thinking about what the ideal platform for syndication could look like that will still empower people to have this same kind of control over their content. The idea I keep coming back to is somewhere between a classic forum, Reddit, and Medium.

Imagine a stripped down Medium allowing only text, images, and hyperlinks, that retains the syndication abilities that Medium has. Except instead of the articles being organized into a publication or on your personal profile they are instead organized around debates/discussions. Posts would surface to the top based on some mix of voting and maybe some version of the old forum 'reputation'. No one will be able to see their reputation because it will be compromised of several things including: you will have a general site rep which will lightly affect your postings in all categories and topics, a category rep which will more significantly affect your postings in topics in that category, and a topic rep that will significantly affect your visibility on that topic.

Now how topics and categories will be formed has been a little bit more difficult for me to figure out. I have gone back and forth on whether or not it should be community created or if there would need to be more stringent proofing by the company. What I think I have settled on is the company creates the broad categories, then new topics are launched in each category daily. What topic will be launched next in each category is decided by voting. Seems to be the simplest solution.

Now we come to the trickiest problem:moderation. We have partially eliminated some of the most dangerous effects of deplatforming by ensuring that people still have access to their content (would be allowed to download archive even if they get banned from posting), but now must figure out how to handle issues. The upvoting and downvoting and reputation systems partially alleviate this problem by burying posts that are undesirable. This combined with automated screening for certain offenses, spamming among them can help also. However, you do still need humans who are moderating and looking for certain content. Child pornography cannot be allowed. Doxing cannot be allowed. Unfortunately, this means we will need humans watching our site for the most dangerous of content, but much of the objectionable and distasteful content needs to be allowed to stand in order for the site to truly be about discussions and debates.

Finally, I do not know whether or not a system like this could ever actually work. It is just an idea that has intrigued me for a long time.

Original post: https://bennettftomlin.com/2019/06/11/the-good-social-internet/