10.16.2014

Our social networks are broken. Here's how to fix them.

1.


You can't really blame us for building Facebook the way we have. By “we” I mean we billion-plus Facebook users, because of course we are the ones who built Facebook. Zuckerberg Inc. might take all the credit (and profit) from Facebook's success, but all the content and contacts on Facebook-- you know, the part of the service we users actually find valuable-- was produced, curated, and distributed by us: by you and me and our vast network of friends. So you can’t blame us for how things turned out.  We really had no idea what we were doing when we built this thing. None of us had ever built a network this big and important before. The digital age is still mostly uncharted territory.


To be fair, we've done a genuinely impressive job given what we had to work with. Facebook is already the digital home to a significant fraction of the global human population. Whatever you think of the service, its size is nothing to scoff at. The population of Facebook users today is about the same as the global human population just 200 years ago. Human communities of this scale are more than just rare: they are historically unprecedented. We have accomplished something truly amazing. Good work, people. We have every right to be proud of ourselves.


But pride shouldn't prevent us from being honest about these things we build--it shouldn’t make us complacent, or turn us blind to the flaws in our creation. Our digital social networks are broken. They don't work the way we had hoped they would; they don't work for us. This problem isn't unique to Facebook, so throwing stones at only the biggest of silicon giants won’t solve it. The problem is with the way we are thinking about the task of social networking itself. To use a very American analogy, our existing social networking tools suffer from the equivalence of a transmission failure: we can get the engine running, but we are struggling to put that power to work.  We see the potential of the internet, but we're at a loss as to how we can direct all this activity into a genuinely positive social change. What little social organization the internet has made possible is fleeting and unreliable, more likely to raise money for potato salad than it is to confront (much less solve) any serious social problem. Arguably, our biggest coordinated online success to date has been the Ice Bucket Challenge; even if we grant the meme has had a positive impact, what change to the social order has come with it? What new infrastructure or social conscience was left in its wake? In terms of social utility, the IBC was like a twitching finger from an otherwise comatose patient: it may give us some hope, but who knows what else.


Of course, many opportunists have found clever ways to capitalize on the existing network structure, and a few have made a lot of money in the process. The economy is certainly not blind to the latent power of the internet. But as a rule, these digital opportunities are leveraged for purely private gain. The best the public can hope for is that successful digital businesses will turn out cheap services that we can shackle ourselves to like domesticated animals. There have been enough major successes of this model that in the year 2014 we’ve come to accept our fate as unpaid digital domestic labor. There is no longer any hope of using the internet to reorganize the people from post-capitalist consumers into fully empowered digital citizens, because it has become clear that our digital tools have simply been used to standardize the post-capitalist consumer lifestyle on a global scale.


We need to realize that a half a million human bodies walking down a street with cell phones and hand written signs still have more political power than 10+ million strong Facebook groups or Twitter streams. We still live in an age where an afternoon walk with a few like-minded people can outrun the social influence of a digital collective an order of magnitude larger. You might have expected a digital population to overwhelm our naked ancestors, but if anything the opposite has proven true. When TwitchPlaysPokemon rallied 1.16 million people to beat Pokemon in 16 days, everyone who participated recognized that we accomplished an amazing thing. But we also had to acknowledge, without any cognitive dissonance, that each of us could beat the game ourselves in about a day and a half.


Okay, okay, so our social networks are broken, and we haven’t even begun to count the ways. There are niche digital communities accomplishing amazing feats of cooperation, but all of us with all our gadgets are not yet as strong as some of us plain old boring people, doing the things we've been doing for centuries like voting and assembling. Why not?




Our social networks were originally designed to function like an interactive digital rolodex: a system for managing and engaging a list of social and professional contacts. To someone thinking about life in the digital age around the turn of the century, the idea made a lot of sense: how else would we find our friends in a place as wild and disorganized as the internet without a book of contacts?  Social networks today vary only slightly from this original design.  Some networks emphasize interpersonal relationships and others emphasize content engagement, but the differences in networking tools ultimately have little to do with the liveliness of the communities they serve. Users are willing to put up with a lot of UI nonsense in order to engage with the communities they care about. A passionate community might thrive on a poorly designed network, and a high-end design might fail to attract any community at all. From the user’s point of view, these communities are attractive for two reasons: its members and their interests. Who is on this network, and what are they talking about?


So if we’re being honest with ourselves then this is the unflinching truth: the growth of social networking happened despite the tools we’ve built, not because of them. We are social creatures; we want to share ourselves with each other. In the age of industry and capital, satisfying this need to share had become almost impossible. When our digital tools offered the promise of overcoming our alienation and reconnecting with each other we jumped at the opportunity. We became refugees fleeing failed states on wifi. As digital immigrants we have suffered through the privacy violations, UI disasters, and the untold hells of political irrelevance that are common to all immigrant stories. And we’ve done it for nothing more than for than the promise to connect with each other, if only to share a picture of our pets.The idea that any one company or service would take credit for the epic digital migration we’ve collectively accomplished over the last decade is ludicrous; we’re the species who figured out how to communicate through tin cans and string. The growth of social networking is what happens when you give the internet to enough huddled masses yearning to breathe free.


But it turns out that we don’t use our social networks like an interactive rolodex. In fact, the relationships we used to have with the people in our rolodex tend to be one-dimensional and alienating in exactly the way we we came to these digital spaces to avoid. Instead of a list-management tool, people’s online behavior appears to require something more like a living room, or (depending on where and how you live) your porch or kitchen table or stoop: a space to visit with each other; where we can showcase our triumphs, complain about our problems, share our hopes, gossip about our friends, and discuss the happenings of the day; where the atmosphere is jovial and hospitable and supportive. In short, we are trying to build a home, in the midst of a community of homes, together with the people we want in our lives. In some homes you can talk about politics or religion, in others you can’t; in some you’ll be subject to hundreds of photos of vacations and babies and pets, and in others you’ll find the accumulated markings and detritus of a real life lived. A relationship planner with multimedia messaging is nice, but what we really want are digital living spaces where we can be together as a community.


It shouldn’t surprise anyone that we’d approach the task of community-building in this way: by carving out spaces for ourselves and our friends around focal objects. This is how we humans have always developed our communities: not by managing lists of people through which to channel our communication, but by organizing spaces that can accommodate all of our activity. Communication is but a tool in service of that cooperation. I’m not just talking about a “digital commons”, in the sense of a public space for cooperating beyond the purview of one’s home. We don’t even have our own spaces managed right; we are still shackled to these monolithic centralized services that own and manage our relationships according to their grand designs. In such an atmosphere we have trouble motivating even our friends and family to action, much less something as quixotic and ethereal as “the public”. Expecting these digital communities to engage seriously in politics is like expecting toddlers to engage seriously in politics.


So let’s be concrete. Now that we’ve all gathered around the digital hearth and can hear each other speak, let’s think again about what is missing from this generation of social networking tools, and what we need to see in the next.  


3.


Today’s social networks are centralized. Our homes are decentralized.


The kind of activity and commotion that’s common in one person’s home might be intolerable in another’s. That’s fine; we’re different people entertaining different communities, and we build our homes to accommodate our specific community needs. Any social network must be as sensitive to these variations as we are. A network under central management is forced to ignore the differences between us and homogenize our interactions to maintain order at large scales. This leveling of variation is a necessary feature of any centrally-managed network, and it can have a number of unfortunate consequences for the communities we can form on them. Some standardization is good, even healthy. But the details matter, and the wrong standards can destroy a community. The larger the network, the more likely any central management will simply be insensitive to community-level needs.


Putting our data in the hands of a central network authority also makes it all the more likely that the information will be released without our consent, either deliberately or accidentally, and this alone can be a deciding factor in whether and to what extent a person will participate in a network. But the problem with centralized network management is even more fundamental than privacy. When we share something with a friend on a centralized network, we’re also implicating the central management in that exchange. It is because central management plays a role in every network exchange that they are in a position to violate our privacy in the first place. This ubiquitous presence can become a dominant influence on our interaction, making our relationship develop according to the needs and interests of the network managers, which may diverge arbitrarily from our own. The effect is a little like trying to manage your home with a state official looking over your shoulder and archiving all your activities, filtering not just for legality but also for targeted advertising. As digital immigrants we’ve come to accept that we’re being overseen, but we should also realize that these are not the conditions under which do our best work. When unknown third parties with unknown interests are not only present in our interactions, but can radically disrupt the structure of those relationships without notice, then we’re not very likely to devote serious time and effort to cultivating digital spaces to meet our cooperative needs. As a result, our networks remain flimsy, makeshift, liable to blow away at any second--these are no conditions in which to build a home that we can do anything meaningful in.


Building a community of homes means building spaces that can self-organize in response to the needs of our various overlapping communities without oversight and central control. There is no center to our vast network of friends; there is no vantage point from which to micromanage our relationships but our own. The point is not that our networks cannot be managed; the point is that we need to be the management. We need a network where our data remains ours, and where the terms and conditions of our social lives are set exclusively by us.


With today’s networks, my identity is an option in a pull-down menu. In our homes, we develop who we are through what we do and who we do it with.


A rolodex is a centralized leveling tool: a person’s critical details are made to fit on a small standardized card in a roll of functionally identical cards. It is left to the user to construct the network from these details: to evaluate the strength of the relationship, the relative importance they might have for our projects, and they way they fit into the larger fabric of our social lives. Today’s social network continues the tradition of encouraging people to fit cookie-cutter identities to maximize advertising revenue. No consideration is paid to how these constraints on identity formation might impact our ability to form and sustain a vibrant community. This helps to explain why people mostly use online social networking to manage relationships they began offline, where they have more direct control over their identity and reputation. Exclusively online-only relationships typically take much longer to develop familiarity and trust, simply because we are witness to substantively less activity from the other. Talking to grandma online is easy enough because who we are and what we mean has already been established elsewhere. The same familiarity isn’t available generally: a random internet person could be anyone and want anything. This cannot be the basis for social cooperation.


Functional social networks develop through the construction of differentiated reputations. We each have different strengths and weaknesses, and by working together we learn how we each fit into all our overlapping projects. By forcing us into pre-fab identities, we lose the ability to track how we might best cooperate, or how our identities evolve as a result of what we’ve done together. Instead, we’re left to cobble together a pale imitation of reputation from what little data we have access to, in terms of likes, shares, and followers (or their equivalents), as if the quality and utility of our work depended only on the number of people who saw it. There’s nothing wrong with followers and likes per se, but when these are our only resources for organizing we end up with bizarre distortions of a healthy community. In such an environment we tend overvalue the activity of celebrities and become suspicious of everyone else, simply because we have no other common resources for making finer distinctions. None of these tools reveal how our networks might be put towards our various social ends, because ultimately it is not our ends these networks serve.


Building a community of homes requires building identities with reputations we control through the work we do and the communities we engage with. When we control our identities, and when the feedback we receive reflects the value of the work that we do, then we will we finally feel the responsibility and commitment that only a functional community can generate. We need a social network that can provide the tools for managing our reputations across the many diverse communities we engage with, that understands how these reputations change with context, and how our collective strengths can be stitched together to compose a much greater whole.


Today, a successful social networking campaign achieves virality. A successful home achieves a successful life.


We have no other tools for judging the success of our activity online except in terms of raw audience size. In this degenerate capacity we can conceive of no other strategic goals but virality: spreading a message quickly and widely. The goal of virality admits up front we are powerless to effect change ourselves. Instead, the best we can hope is that prolific exposure through synchronized spamming will bring the message to the feet of the people with the resources to do something about it. As digital immigrants our own voices do not carry far enough, and we are in no position to do anything about the cries of our neighbors. So instead, we’ve relegated ourselves to being the messenger in our own social networks, delivering notes between the already-powerful and pretending to live in the same communities as them.


In a functioning community, the strength of the signal tends to correlate with the urgency of the message. The messages that spread the fastest are usually the biggest emergencies requiring the most immediate attention. The messages that spread the widest tend to be the information people need for coordinating their activities across great distances. But most of our cooperation is local and not terribly urgent, and therefore doesn’t depend on raw signal strength. Viral appeals to our collective attention cannot be the only tool in our kit for getting our messages across.


Although our attention is among the most precious of our limited resources, we nevertheless produce it continuously and nearly without effort. We eagerly give it away to the things we find interesting and worthwhile without expecting anything in return. It is by paying attention that we imbue our world with structure and meaning; this is ultimately what we are all here to do. Our collective attention is distributed across an enormous variety of projects and communities, and that distribution reflects our self-organized division of labor and value: what we consider worthwhile enough to spend our time doing. We use that distribution to decide where we will spend our attention next, and through this collective management of attention we are capable of organizing all of our productive social systems. So when we engage each other on existing social networks, when we each like and share according to our own interests and tastes, we expect that the resulting community will reflect some consensus of our participation-- that the network will be “better”, according to the standards of “better” as indicated by our contributions.


Existing social networks don’t function that way at all: our engagement is harvested for advertisers, and whatever feedback it generates is lost in the noise of the greater economy. There’s no reason whatsoever to hope that our networks will develop in response to our activity and values, because we know that they are responding to other values and using our activity for other purposes. They’ve hijacked the spaces we’ve selected for our homes and they are exploiting us for all we’re willing to give. Meanwhile, all the attention we pay goes to waste, utterly failing to secure the expected return on investment, having been traded away for dollar of ad space. We still dismiss hashtag campaigns as slacktivism, as if our impotence were a character flaw. The truth is we’re doing the best with the tools we’re given, and ultimately these social networks were never built to work.


Building a community of homes, one that really works for all of us, requires a whole new approach to the economy of attention, one that understands how the organization of the system emerges from the activity of its many distinct parts. We need new tools for networking, not just to make connections but to hook the right communities up in the right way so that we can all accomplish what none of us could alone. The digital homes described above do not yet exist; we have yet to build them. As digital immigrants we’ve been tossed between halfway homes for years, so the significance of this challenge might not have fully registered. Partial solutions exist, but only piecemeal and scattershot across the available networks; no solution has met these problems with the elegance and comprehension necessary to bring social networking into a new era.

But that’s about to change. 

People are obviously thinking about the next generation of social networking, and for the last few weeks I’ve been working with a team of developers on a distributed networking service built on the block chain, one that bakes security, reputation, and community management directly into the basic feature set. We’re set to announce within the next few days, when I hope to tell you much more about the details of the project. Until then I hope the comments here give some insight into our philosophical approach to the design. 

If you've made it this far, I hope you stay tuned to hear more. 


You can engage a public GDocs version of this essay here.