Social media is broken

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Even the man who helped invent it now thinks it has gone very wrong.

"I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place. I was wrong about that."

This nugget of hard-won wisdom came from Evan Williams, the Silicon Valley enfant terrible who invented Blogger, was a founder/investor in Twitter and recently launched Medium, the resolutely unprofitable long-form writing platform.

Williams, talking to The New York Times in May, was forced to acknowledge that the social media revolution he’d helped give birth to is "broken".

Facebook Live is being used to broadcast crimes in real time, Twitter is commonly used for trolling and bullying (a recent Pew Research Center survey revealed that four out of ten adult internet users had been harassed online) and fake news is running riot.

You don’t have to be a scriptwriter for Silicon Valley (Rotten Tomatoes top critics rating: 100%) to know that social media is now a total shitshow, to use a technical term.

Things have got so bad that Twitter sometimes resembles a platform that is designed for bullying. It’s not just a bug; it is the platform’s leading feature. Increasingly, bullying is what Twitter is for.

Anyone who has worked in content knows that if you give people what they say they want, you end up in ever-decreasing circles.

One problem is that while algorithms are great at recommending which type of battery you might like to buy, they are terrible when applied to what content to read. The reason, Williams explained, is they reward extremes.

Imagine you’re driving down the road and you see a car crash. Of course you look – everyone does. But the internet takes this behaviour to mean everyone wants to see car crashes – so it looks to deliver more of them. The next thing you know, your news feed is filled with ever-more bonkers assertions, graphic images and car crashes.

Anyone who has worked in content knows that if you give people what they say they want, you end up in ever-decreasing circles. But this is the model of internet content. By throwing out the old guardians of content, Silicon Valley has thrown out the filters too.

The end result? Donald Trump celebrates the fact that Twitter put him in the White House. If he is right, Silicon Valley is now recoiling from the policies of a president it helped install. No wonder the libertarians of tech now realise something must be done.

But what? Their answer is disappointingly old-school: bring the gatekeepers back. Facebook is hiring thousands of screeners to monitor Facebook Live, The New York Times reports. Google has announced changes to make it easier to flag low-quality results, so that asking "Did the Holocaust happen?" no longer brings up a white supremacist site.

And what about Williams? At his recent commencement address for students at his alma mater University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Williams said he had been humbled. "The internet is not a silver bullet. It’s a tool that reflects us. It’s just as good or as bad as we are," he said. He did not mention that, good or bad, social media hyper-distributes that reflection to millions, whether they truly need to see it or not.

The consequences have been calamitous. How much worse must things get before we admit social media is broken? It’s going to need more than a tweak. 

Andy Pemberton is the director at Furthr
@andypemberton