The profit motive poisons the online public square by elevating those toxic voices that would be ignored in public.
Public Square Version
Imagine it’s a nice day on a weekend and you’ve gone out to the park. You are in a populated area, maybe around a fountain, perhaps there are permanent chess tables. There are plenty of benches. Some people are reading books. One woman softly plays the guitar, a small group gathered around her.
Conversations are happening all over the place, some are between friends others among strangers. Some of the interactions are flirtatious, some are deep philosophical discussions. A couple on a bench is having an argument that at times gets a little loud, but then they lower their voice when they start getting attention.
At one corner of the public space are two angry people with signs yelling at anyone who will listen, which is nobody. There is one weirdo that makes people feel uncomfortable. People tend to avoid them and try not to pay much attention lest they get the wrong idea and try to interact.
Social Media Version
Now, what if the scene from the public area functioned the way social media does? Social media has become the online public square, especially during Covid. People go to social media sites in order to have the kinds of interactions we used to have in public. Except, it’s not public. The overall point is not to give humans a place to interact. The purpose of social media is to generate profits.
There’s been much reporting on this, I doubt any reader will be surprised to learn: social media companies make money by keeping users on the site. In the public version you interact with people you feel attracted to and avoid people who repel you.
Online, the bias (bias is a much more appropriate term than algorithm) of social media sites interrupts the normal flow of human interaction by forcing you to pay attention to the crazy people you would have ignored in a public situation. They make it look like everybody in the park is the two or three weirdos. Every time you try to log off you find yourself in an argument you never would have gotten into in public.
It makes you wonder what happened to people? How did everyone get so crazy? They didn’t! It just seems that way because the social media site bias keeps causing you to interact in unhealthy ways that are addictive and keep you on the site. It’s the profit motive that’s the problem. As long as social media sites are private companies that are allowed to fashion their site bias anyway they choose, they will always choose ways that are destructive.
As our culture moves online we need online spaces where we can interact without profit-based interference. It is not reasonable to expect social media companies to be the public square. There should be an online public square. It is possible to create a blockchain social media platform, that would be one way to do it. It would be decentralized and could, if designed well, replace the current private companies. However, someone would have to design and implement it, which would be expensive and time-consuming.
The internet was developed almost exclusively with public funds. Giant telecom companies make massive profits off a system that they refused to help create. How about we just make a law that they have to provide profit-free online public spaces for people to interact? Much in the same way they used to have to provide public access channels on TV, we could require them to provide the online space we need.