Thursday, November 09, 2023

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

Despite the efforts of government, academia, and business, there seems to be no adequate solution to the dilemma of managing any-to-any online media at global-scale. This is creating a deepening crisis not only in our political health, but in all aspects of our 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 that have limited uptake for each -- 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 (now considered only in basic form).

In preparation for a more formal exposition of this strategy, here are some brief notes and a deck that outlines what I suggest.

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. Many have proposed aspects of this. I go farther, to propose support 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.

  3. Reputation and trust, both in individuals and in what they say – to evaluate speaker/mediator context 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 systems are possible -- much like how Google has applied reputation 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 power and raising concerns that the other pillars can reduce.

My primary focus here is “social” media – in its broadest sense. But this also applies to hybrids of human and artificial intelligence (AI).

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 deck

As I begin to socialize this strategy, in preparation for a more formal presentation, I am sharing this working version of a deck to explain 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).

(Updated 11/30/23)


*How does a social mediation ecosystem work in social media? 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, and our participation in them shapes what we see and hear of the world. 

  • Online media technology can enable restoration of that role through affordances that support community operation and let users interact both within and across communities. 
  • Middleware can facilitate and enrich such 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.