Stephen Peters discusses social media, its influence over our consumption of ‘news’, and what the future holds for its predominance over our lives, and its shot at redemption.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” ― Abraham Lincoln

The big news in social media last week was Facebook’s announcement that they are changing their algorithm to favour personal content over news and brands.

Firstly, several commentators have suggested this change is good for influencers. And that might be the case, but I suspect we will see an influx of money towards influencers, and that more money will see them become more akin to corporate lobbyists, and less like ‘independent’ influencers.

Secondly, this change will narrow the range of news and opinions you’ll see in your feed. If you get the majority of your ‘news’ from Facebook’s feed, this change might have the dual effect of amplifying opinions you’ve already internalised, and removing alternate perspectives from your feed.

In his new book, ‘How to Fix the Future‘, author Andrew Keen uses the ominous term “surveillance capitalism” (first used and popularised by Shoshana Zuboff) to describe the business model of Facebook, Twitter and other social media giants. Keen likens the Facebook changes to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” and predicts a coming social backlash.

Darker angels

The effects of social media have been laid bare in the last few years. We’ve seen the large-scale automated manipulation of feeds by paid agents of influence and trolls. Pages that open pushing racist, hate-filled and divisive viewpoints, not to mention the ‘fake news’ stories. It seems the social media giants turned a blind eye to these activities while they generated revenue and attention.

At the macro level, this activity was all designed to create chaos and confusion. At the individual or micro level, social media seems to feed and give a voice to some of the darker angels of our nature.

For most of human history, if a person was judged to be pushing unpopular or crazy ideas, they were usually pushed to the fringe of society – shamed and ignored, and sometimes worse. Harsh treatment was sometimes also meted out to those holding inherently good ideas (think Galileo or Copernicus) if they differed or challenged the perceived wisdom or authority of the group.

Internet dog, used according to fair use. Source: Wikipedia.

Source: Wikipedia.

But the internet lacks those social signalling mechanics. People easily disguise their true identity. Automated bots can be programmed to post anything as though it were from a human. People’s attention is easily manipulated with psychological tricks.

Identity is probably the most significant missing protocol layer missing from the web. The good news is that many people are working on solutions. The bad news is that it will take some years to deliver.

However, attention shouldn’t be free because it cannot be trusted. Society is full of cues and signals that prevent us asking for advice from those who are not experts. You do not ask a bus driver for medical advice. You do not ask a hairdresser for advice on how to rewire your house. And if we happen to receive such unsolicited advice, we have enough social clues to be able to reject it, or otherwise treat it with suspicion.

So what does this mean for social media?

I think the social media platforms need a system where the costs of posting and engaging are directly attributable and apportioned to the poster, as judged by the community or audience.

That means stronger identity controls. No more bots. Anonymous accounts can be allowed as long as they are flagged as such. But more importantly, it means that your social media reputation can be used as a signal to virtue or otherwise of your posting, as judged by the broader community. If you are posting highly valued content that’s appreciated by the community, then your reputation should be rewarded. If you’re posting content or making contributions that are judged negatively by the community, then your digital reputation should reflect that.

If we take such an ‘identity and reputation marketplace solution’ a step further, we could add direct pricing costs to such a system. That means that the incremental costs to publish content not acceptable to the broader community gets gradually more expensive, and it will eventually get priced out. In fact, there are several sites where elements of such systems are already in place:

  • SteemIt has a system where users can upvote and downvote articles and posts, and this is paid as credits or debits of Steem, a crypto coin traded on several crypto exchanges.
  • @tipprbot works on Twitter and Reddit and allows people to provide BTC or BCH ‘tips’ to others if they like a post.
  • Augur is another decentralised prediction market that rewards the performance of predictions based on the reports of other community members. Successful predictions are paid in augur coins.
  • Medium encourages click ‘applause’ as a way of signifying appreciation.

Social media giants Facebook and Twitter, in particular, have lost public trust in the wake of the scandals of the last few years. A lot of these new marketplace solutions are built around the concept of decentralised organisations, with no single controlling entity. Blockchain offers a possible implementation path. Can the social media giants reform themselves sufficiently before trust is destroyed?

Similarly, marketplace solutions will spring up around your personal data. As the saying goes: if the product is free, then you are the product. You are not customers. You are not users. You are the product. Not enough people are consciously understanding this important fact. But that’s for another post.

What do you think? Is this all a pipe dream? Can marketplace solutions solve the problem? Will it restore the better angels of our nature? Jump into the conversation below!

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– This article is reproduced with kind permission. Some minor changes have been made to reflect BankNXT style considerations. Read more here. Image by ChristianChan, Shutterstock.com

About the author

Stephen Peters

Stephen Peters is director at Aluna Pte in Singapore, helping enterprises undertake payments innovation and transformation journeys. He is also VP business development at the ai Corporation. He believes the intersection of banking with AI, blockchain, cloud, data and mobile, coupled with worldwide regulatory initiatives to introduce faster payment schemes, will define the future of banking and financial services.

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