Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Tech Policy Press: The Internet Beyond Social Media Thought-Robber Barons

  • It is now apparent that social media is dangerous for democracy, but few have recognized a simple twist that can put us back on track.  
  • A surgical restructuring -- to an open market strategy that shifts control over our feeds to the users they serve -- is the only practical way to limit the harms and enable the full benefits of social media 

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Updates, related items, and background notes are below 
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(This is an extensively updated and improved version of the discussion draft first posted on this blog in February, now integrating more proposals, addressing common objections, and drawing on feedback from a number of experts in the field -- and the very helpful editing of Justin Hendrix.)

I summarize and contrast these proposals:

  • Most prominently in Foreign Affairs and the Wall Street Journal by Francis Fukayama, Barak Richman, Ashish Goel, and others in the report of the Stanford Working Group on Platform Scale.
  • Independently by Stephen Wolfram, Mike Masnick, and me.
  • And with what might become important real-world traction in the exploratory Bluesky initiative by Jack Dorsey at Twitter.

The article covers new ground in presenting a concrete vision of what an open market in filtering services might enable -- how this can bring individual and social purpose back to social media, to not only protect, but systematically enhance democracy, and how that can augment human wisdom and social interaction more broadly. That vision should be of interest to thoughtful citizens as well as policy professionals.


I welcome your feedback and support for these proposals, and can be reached at intertwingled [at] teleshuttle [dot] com.

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Updates:

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To dig deeper:  see the Selected Items tab.

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Personal note: The roots of these ideas

This background might be useful to make it more clear where I am coming from...

These ideas have been brewing throughout my long career (bio), with a burst of activity very early on, then around 2002-3, and increasingly in the past decade. They are part of a rich network that intertwingles with my better-known work on FairPay and several of my patented inventions. Some background on these roots may be helpful.

I was first enthused by the potential of what we now call social media around 1970, when I had seen early hypertext systems (pre-cursors of the Web) by Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart, and then studied systems for collaborative “social” decision support by Murray Turoff and others, rolling into an independent study graduate school course on collaborative systems. All of this oriented me to the spirit of using computers for augmenting human intelligence (including social intelligence) -- not replacing it with artificial intelligence. 

My first proposals for an open market in media filtering were inspired by the financial industry parallels. An open market in filters for news and market data analytics was emerging when I worked for Standard & Poor's and Dow Jones around 1990. Filters and analytics would monitor raw news feeds and market data (price ticker) feeds, select, and analyze that raw information using algorithms and parameters chosen by the user, and work within any of a variety of trading platforms.

I drew on all of that when designing a social decision support system for large-scale open innovation and collaborative development of early-stage ideas around 2002. That design featured an open market for reputation-based ranking algorithms essentially as proposed here. Exposure to Google PageRank, which distilled human judgment and reputation for ranking Web search results, inspired me to broaden Google's design to distill the wisdom of the crowd as reflected in social media interactions, using a nuanced multi-level reputation system.

By 2012 it was becoming apparent that the Internet was seriously disrupting the marketplace of ideas, and Cass Sunstein’s observations about surprising validators inspired me to adapt my methods to social media. I became active in groups that were addressing those concerns and more fully recast my earlier designs to focus on social media, and to address regulatory issues. My other work on innovative business models for digital services also gave me a unique perspective on alternatives to the perverse incentives of the ad model.

The Fukuyama article late last year was gratifying validation on the need for an open, competitive market for feed filtering services driven by users, and inspired me to refocus on that as the most direct point of leverage for structural remediation, as expanded on here.

My thanks to the many researchers and activists in this field I have had the privilege of interacting with and who have provided invaluable stimulation, feedback, suggestions, and support. And special thanks to Justin Hendrix for his very helpful editing, and to those who reviewed and commented on earlier versions of this article: Renee DiResta, Yael Eisenstat, Gene Kimmelman, Ellen Goodman, Molly Land, and Sam Lessin.


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