Thursday, November 09, 2023

From Freedom of Speech and Reach to Freedom of Expression and Impression

Pinned feature (2/14/23)

This Tech Policy Press piece distills ideas for reforming how we manage online speech: 

From Freedom of Speech and Reach to Freedom of Expression and Impression.

A shorter spin at CIGIonline: 
We Can Protect Freedom of Thought by Deciding What We Feed Our Brains

+Newest itemThe Supreme Court Can Help Fix Social Media Governance With NetChoice Ruling (Tech Policy Press, 2/9/23)

+Other work at Tech Policy Press.

A New, Broader, More Fundamental Case for Social Media Agent "Middleware" (Revised)

(Discussion draft post and deck, restructured, expanded 1/7/24, as noted below.)

Despite the efforts of business, government, and academia, there seems to be no adequate solution to the dilemma of managing any-to-any online media at global-scale. Too much central control by platforms or governments is a "loaded weapon on the table" ripe for authoritarian abuse, but media anarchy pollutes the public (and private) sphere -- and there are no bright lines. This is creating a deepening crisis not only in the world's political health, but in all aspects of public health: social, mental, and physical. 

How can we maintain freedom of thought while limiting harm from antisocial speech? Democracy is in crisis over who controls what is expressed online -- and what is impressed upon each of us in online feeds and recommendations. What are the legitimate roles of online platforms, government, communities, and individuals in such controls, and how does that depend on community and contextThere are numerous efforts and proposals, many with significant support, but each has serious limitations. 

It recently struck me that three key solution elements that I have been advocating for many years have an importantly synergistic effect. I have become all too familiar with the objections for each element that have limited uptake -- and now see that the way to counter those concerns is to clarify and build on how these pillars work in combination – to reinforce one another and serve as a foundation for the full suite of remedies.

I offer this as a significant broadening of common thinking about "middleware" services (intermediaries between users and platforms) -- in a way that makes it far more powerful and important to civil discourse, and counters various concerns that have hindered its acceptance as a way to preserve democracy in the online era.

Middleware can support three essential pillars of discourse that synergize with each other to restore the human context that platforms have collapsed:
       1. Individual agency 
(the current focus)
       2. A social mediation ecosystem (now seen apart, fragmentary, even conflicting)
       3. Reputation and trust (now considered only in basic form).

Here are some brief notes -- followed by an embedded deck that serves as a working outline with more depth on my suggestions

Three pillars

The three pillars that synergize to restore human context as a foundation for managing online discourse are:

  1. Individual choice and agency, over how we each use online media – this creates speaker/listener context. This gained significant recognition after Francis Fukuyama and his group at Stanford proposed it be enabled via “middleware” that sits between users and the platforms, as a democratic way to limit how platform power threatens democracy. The idea is to return power to users to steer our online “bicycles for our minds” for ourselves.

  2. A social mediation ecosystem, which cooperatively applies collective intelligence, wisdom, judgment, and values, to serve users, as networked into social groups – this mediates context collectively. We have failed to directly integrate the traditional roles of more or less organized social groups into social media. The idea is for social media to leverage our social associations to promote “bridging” of the divides that social media now seem to highlight and reinforce – by rebuilding our processes for creating "social trust." Many have proposed aspects of this, but I take this much farther than I have seen suggested anywhere else (as explained further in the update below, and more deeply in the deck).

  3. Reputation and trust, both in individuals and in what they say – to evaluate speaker/mediator context and trustworthiness both individually and collectively. This is less widely advocated, and most proposals for this are relatively basic, but some have seen that much more powerful reputation and trust systems are possible -- much like how Google has applied reputation and trust to web search. The idea is to apply the kind of rich combination of individual and social judgements of reputation that guided traditional (pre-online) discourse.

I now see user agent "middleware" as underlying all of the three pillars, enabling them to work together to restore the context that is essential to effective discourse. Most consideration of middleware seems to focus almost entirely on just the first of these pillars (important as it is), thus understating its true potential and raising concerns that the other pillars can reduce.

My primary focus here is “social” media – in its broadest sense. That also applies to hybrids of human and artificial intelligence (AI), as touched on briefly.

Context collapse

A key reason why online discourse is so problematic is that global any-to-any networks generally collapse the subjective mutual understanding of context -- who is speaking to what intended audience in what way. This has been understood as “context collapse.” These three pillars work together, through middleware, to restore this lost matrix of context, thus making the particular and subjective nuance of online discourse more understandable to both humans and algorithms. I suggest that can counter the feared pitfalls of each alone.

The broader need for middleware

As a long-time advocate for user agent middleware, I have seen it gain support with a primary focus on restoring the pillar of user choice and agency, but generally in ways that are narrowly centered on that, and open to important concerns. I now see the need to emphasize the synergy of each pillar with the other two more clearly – and to make the case that user agent middleware can and must support all three pillars as they work in concert - individual agency, social mediation, and reputation. The hope is that will provide a far more powerful benefit, and counter the common objections arising from narrower framings. 

That might lead to much broader uptake of this important strategy for reestablishing human context that I believe can provide a strong foundation for cutting through current dilemmas, using these and other supplementary strategies to enable online discourse of all kinds to have a far more positive influence on society, and sustain democracy -- for both individual and collective welfare. 

The fundamental synergy is the dialectic of a flexibly optimized blend of human freedom gently balanced by a degree of social nudging toward responsibility. Underlying  that synergy is the collective wisdom that humans embed in reputation. Middleware is the technology that supports this traditional human context in the online world of computer-mediated discourse. Think of it as contextware.

Working notes on this thesis -- a slide deck

As I have begun socializing this strategy, in preparation for a more formal presentation --and to draw in others who might join in developing these ideas -- I am sharing this working version of a deck. It explains these elements in more detail, including how they work together, and how all three are facilitated by middleware as the underlying connector -- and so can together counter objections commonly raised in response to each when considered individually.

(The deck can be viewed on Google Slides without a Google account here.)

Feedback on this is invited (intertwingled [at] teleshuttle [dot] com).

Major update 1/7/24:

Drawing on comments from many experts (acknowledged below), this post has been revised and the slide deck has been expanded and reorganized. The deck adds new sidebars, and section breaks to facilitate easy scanning:

  • Summary
  • Overview
  • Synergies
  • Thought as a Social Process
  • Middleware as Foundation
  • Sidebar: The App Store Analogy (new) 
    Analogy suggesting how transformative a middleware ecosystem can be. 
  • Conclusion
  • Sidebar: Fear of Middleware (new)
    Addressing the fears, especially fragmentation and partisan sorting. 

Added Sidebar:
Migrating our traditional social mediation ecosystem into social media 

Part of the fear that middleware might increase social fragmentation derives from the narrow way that social media middleware is generally understood -- as apart from the broader social mediation ecosystem and its historically central role. Consider this broadened perspective:

What we've got here is failure to re-integrateThe idea of a social mediation ecosystem integrating with social media feeds is a re-visioning of how things used to work. Context collapse is not a problem internal to online social media, but a broader failure to migrate our existing social mediation ecosystem -- our processes for "social trust" -- into the digital domain.  We seem to have forgotten how society has been building on such ecosystems for millennia. 

  • The groups that comprise the social mediation ecosystem have historically served as a public square, or public sphere, ranging from informal gathering places like coffee shops and taverns, social & civic associations, the press, academia, churches, unions, workplaces, and other communities of interest. 
  • Such associations develop norms and contexts for discourse. Our participation in them shapes what we see and hear of the world. That nudges us to speak "freely," but with sensitivity to those norms and values, so others will choose to listen to us. 
  • Online media technology can enable restoration of that mediating role through enterprise-class affordances that support community operation (including integration with CRM systems) and let users interact both within and across communities. 
  • Middleware can facilitate and enrich user-community interactions, and enable us to steer our feeds to blend content favored by whatever mix of communities we choose to include at a given time -- depending on our tastes, objectives, tasks, and moods. 
  • For example, current curators of news could become attention agent services. Users might select a set of them to compose, with different relative weights in ranking. Eg: NY Times, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, The Atlantic, People (and other categories, such as civic, political, church, and special interest associations). Content ranking inputs could be from the community’s expert curators/editors and/or crowdsourced from the population that follows those curators.
  • Importantly, as it was historically, this ecosystem must be open and diverse, and users must be able to draw on combinations of many mediation sources to maintain an open and balanced understanding of the world. 
  • Many fear that middleware might increase fragmentation and partisan sorting. That will be a concern while there are just one or a few mediators, but being able to selectively combine exposure to many loosely connected communities is how open societies have always limited that ever-present risk. 
  • (While there has been little attention to reintegrating this ecosystem into online social media, it has figured in many of my prior writings, as listed here, and dates back to my 2001-3 design for a richly distributed social media system that anticipated current and forward-looking ideas like multi-level, multi-homing federation, user-chosen middleware, and reputation-based attention agents -- as highlighted here. My inspiration for this perspective was from my work with the emerging open market in financial market data analytics around 1990, and from my work on the evolution of "intergroupware" around 1997.)


Acknowledgements (apologies for any omissions):

Thanks to those who have provided stimulating feedback on these ideas, including Chris Riley, Luke Thorburn, Aviv Ovadya, Daphne Keller, Francis Fukuyama, Zoelle Egner, Ethan Zuckerman, Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, Zach Graves, Luke Hogg, Harold Feld, Pri Bengani, Gabe Nicholas, Renée DiResta, Justin Hendrix, Richard Whitt, Ellen Goodman.

(Updated 2/3/24)