Governments have been playing catch up with technology for as long as I can remember, the statute book taking more time to write to than a 3.5″ floppy disk. But they are catching up and after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Brexit, and Trump in the Whitehouse legislators are keen to ensure that social media companies come to heel and start exercising some control of the information being spread through their platforms.
A huge percentage of people get their daily news from social media and this makes them extremely vulnerable to misinformation. The social media networks have proven themselves not only to be technological incapable of policing content on their platforms but are broadly opposed to doing so. They tread a dangerous line – exercise too much editorial control and they become publishers, with all the responsibilities that go with that title. However, by taking a “hands-off” approach, they risk a worse fate – being legislated and regulated out of existence.
Jack Dorsey thinks he might have the answer, a “decentralised social network” in which you get to choose what you see on social media by picking out your favourite recommendation algorithm, rather than relying on a single controlling company to get it exactly right.
In Dorsey’s vision, a marketplace exists where consumers choose the functionality and algorithms they want and these then run on the vast “data soup” of social media.
This seems like smart thinking to me – it frees the platforms from the responsibility of being deemed “publishers” without them relinquishing control of their algorithms to regulators. By creating a marketplace of features, Twitter would no longer be in the hot seat for what its users see – users would choose what they see and, assuming that each different algorithm in the marketplace would have its own approach to advertising or monetisation, Twitter could simply sit quietly in the background and takes a percentage cut (app store style) from every transaction that happens on its platform. Social networks tend to have a shelf-life as well; as the user base ages, younger users are less likely to join the platform (just look at Instagram and TikTok). By allowing users more control over how the platform works for them, Twitter reduces the risk of being marginalised by a new network – instead, they provide the platform for the new network to be built and retain, on some level, control of the users and their data.
It’s a move stolen, in some ways, from Amazon – they built a store and then allowed others to sell in it. They had the customers, the platform, and the logistics – other people just brought the goods. Twitter is considering doing exactly the same thing; they have the users, the data, and the infrastructure. The most logical thing to do now is to pivot from being the provider to being the facilitator – and let others take the heat when regulators don’t like what people see.