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Surveying the last few years, it might seem like a bad time to get involved in social media. Twitter and Facebook are behemoths of American business, but their reputations are in ruins, humbled by whistleblowers and other scandals. Regulation seems likely, perhaps even anti-trust action, as the models that drive their growth have increasingly acquired the reputation of being morally obtuse, if not bankrupt. The simple fact is that fewer and fewer want their data sucked up by Facebook anymore, and no smart entrepreneur wants to get caught up in a risky and potentially harmful business strategy. Better, one might think, to steer clear of social media altogether, let the dust settle, and see what opportunities arise from the wreckage.
But, as Winston Churchill advises, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”, and the current upheavals in social media have generated a range of opportunities for those with a keen eye. It’s far too early to write Zuckerberg off, but it’s also time to consider brighter opportunities on the horizon. People are fed up, standing up and seeking better ways to connect, socialize, collaborate and share experiences — a frontier has opened with unprecedented paths for entrepreneurs to embrace and innovate social technologies and who are poised to bootstrap Web 3.0.
But how to best use your skills and values to create a space that respects the privacy, dignity and creativity of the people who visit it?
1. Champion the rights of creators and consumers
It was reported this spring in Ars Technica that an astonishing “96% of U.S. users opt out of app tracking in iOS 14.5”. This means, in part, that social media companies of the future won’t (and cannot) monetize personal data. Instead, smart entrepreneurs should anticipate a future where organic engagement through reciprocal, value-added services and shared experiences replaces “targeting” and “tracking” — where users are community members rather than exploitable assets. In other words, it will be no longer necessary to choose between making a profit and treating people as human beings. In the new era of humane social technologies, businesses and organizations that champion the rights of content creators and consumers are poised to be the most vigorous.
This next generation of entrepreneurs should also resist asymmetries of power and knowledge. Knowing more about creators and consumers than they know about you or themselves is a recipe for distrust and abuse, and forcing customer engagement by holding their data hostage or psychologically manipulating their attention and behavior is neither ethical nor a sound long-term strategy.
Finally, practice the golden rule. You’ve heard of execs who admit that they won’t let their own children use the addictive, exploitative products they’re slinging. Don’t be those people: Treat your customers the way you would have them treat your own family.
Your business needs unity, structure and efficient decision-making, but that doesn’t mean you need to centralize all the decisions and all the power in your organization. The history of social media over the last two decades has revealed the dangers of centralization: globally scaled technologies subjecting billions of people to the profit motives of a few Silicon Valley sovereigns. More than a buzzword, decentralization will help you make good on a promise to champion the rights of consumers and creators. For starters, content creators should own the material they publish on social technology platforms, and earn compensation when it’s profitable.
In this spirit, companies are emerging like Steem, a social blockchain that grows communities and rewards users for sharing content. Then there’s Zion, “The Social Network Built on Bitcoin”, which is taking decentralization a step further by compensating consumers as well as creators of content. Why not? If our eyeballs and attention are so lucrative for Zuckerberg & Co., shouldn’t we reap the fruits of our own time and experience? Even if you’re skeptical or far removed from the blockchain world, all entrepreneurs will benefit from considering ways to decentralize and thereby empower their creative consumers.
3. Keep it simple
In 2018, Facebook gave up its chronological News Feed, replacing it with a mysterious algorithm that stresses “meaningful social interactions” — which is code for “clickbait”, “outrage” and “anger”. In her testimony before Congress, whistleblower Frances Haugen made a low-tech suggestion for fixing Facebook: return to the chronological feed. “I’m a big proponent of chronological ranking,” she offered on Capitol Hill.
Because, negative emotions might drive user engagement, but they don’t improve the user experience. As one Instagram user complained, “I follow 705 people on Instagram and I swear I only see the same 5 people scrolling. I have no ‘close friends’ or special lists set up. So stupid. Give us back chronological posting.”
To be sure, switching to a chronological News Feed wouldn’t fix all of Facebook’s problems, but it would send a powerful signal about the company’s priorities — that it was no longer pursuing growth at all costs, but actually paying attention to the quality of user experiences. This would give people more control. Facebook’s algorithm is a black box: no one knows how or why certain posts get prioritized, while others disappear. On a chronological feed, content would rise and fall naturally. People would understand how the site works again, and they’d own their experience.
4. Opting in instead of out
People must understand how your service works, and should be empowered to shape their experience of it for themselves. Tricking someone into agreeing to something they haven’t fully understood is shortsighted, and a good way to find yourself testifying before Congress. Respecting people’s intelligence and autonomy isn’t just right, it’s also good business.
So, give people the power to consent: to opt in, instead of opting out. On Facebook, everything you post is public unless you specify otherwise; the burden falls on you to limit who sees and who monetizes your stuff. And consider Spotify’s “public by default” settings, which require you to relocate and re-select “Private Session” every time you open the app, as if your values and preferences change from one hour to the next. The next generation of social technology companies ought to let users define their experience and online communities.
Some thoughts don’t need to reach the whole multiverse, just your close family and friends. For instance, we created Biograph, a next-generation social technology platform, to be private by default. You can use it as a journal, or invite select co-authors to collaborate in telling stories from your lives — and you have the power, though not the obligation, to publish on the public feed. Knowing the audience of everything you create empowers you to grow a community on your own terms; it wards off trolls and hackers, and encourages more meaningful and rewarding relationships. Whether you’re in the social tech space or selling athleisure, enabling people to opt in to your services and marketing, instead of making them opt out, will help build an enduring business animated by meaningful connections.
5. Cultivate community
Why do people come to social media in the first place? No one wants to argue with their uncle about whether the election was stolen or if vaccines are safe. They came for a basic human reason: to connect. Instead, they find bitterness and division.
Next-generation social technology platforms should design around human values to create the conditions for real communities to thrive. On Biograph, for example, in place of “likes” or “shares”, people engage by adding their voices to advance a conversation. Instead of knee-jerk reactions that trigger the whims of an obscure algorithm, the app promotes meaningful interaction between friends and strangers alike. This naturally controls the spread of misinformation without heavy-handed censorship: after all, information should travel no faster than its sharers can grasp it for themselves. Virality is for viruses. Twitter now requires that you open a link before sharing it. That’s a good start (you can’t just spread a conspiracy theory without at least looking at it first), but it’s not enough. Smart entrepreneurs need to develop smarter metrics, and smarter contracts, for social technologies.
For instance, we should develop an algorithmic bill of rights — a simple document (not a million-page user agreement full of deceptive legalese) that clearly outlines rights and responsibilities. It could require, as some have suggested, that companies disclose when AI influences their decision making, which is a serious concern, since AI is often trained on discriminatory datasets. At least for now, the details matter less than the existence of such a document, the first draft of which will signal the arrival of a new era of humane social technology. Instead of being “targeted” and “tracked” by companies, creators and consumers will become whole, empowered community members with clear rights and responsibilities.
This is an uncertain time for social tech entrepreneurs: the giants who dominated the field may be falling. Opportunities abound for emerging startups to claim market share and build a better Internet, one in which new business and organizational minds truly help connect people in positive, sustainable and enduring ways.