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On Social Media and Its Discontents

Split Reactions

As someone who has publicly criticized the major social media platforms for years, I’ve become familiar with the common arguments surrounding this topic.

One of the more interesting trends I’ve observed about this conversation is the split reaction to social media I used to hear from the political left before the 2016 election scrambled everything.

This split was defined largely by age.

Younger progressives were fiercely in favor of social media and were often appalled that people like me might say something negative about these services.

I remember one particularly lively radio debate, held on the Canadian equivalent of NPR, in which one of the other guests fought my suggestion that users should perform a personal cost/benefit analysis for these tools by arguing that even discussing this strategy was problematic as it might trick people into not using social media — a self-evident tragedy.

Older progressives, by contrast, were more skeptical of these platforms. This was especially true of tech-savvy activists like Jaron Lanier or Douglas Rushkoff who were connected to earlier techno-utopian movements.

On closer analysis, this gap seemed to stem from how these different cohorts understood social media’s relationship to the internet.

Two Visions of The Internet

The young progressives grew up in a time when platform monopolies like Facebook were so dominant that they seemed inextricably intertwined into the fabric of the internet. To criticize social media, therefore, was to criticize the internet’s general ability to do useful things like connect people, spread information, and support activism and expression.

The older progressives, however, remember the internet before the platform monopolies. They were concerned to observe a small number of companies attempt to consolidate much of the internet into their for-profit, walled gardens.

To them, social media is not the internet. It was instead a force that was co-opting the internet — including the powerful capabilities listed above — in ways that would almost certainly lead to trouble. (See Tim Wu’s The Master Switch for an interesting take on this inevitable “cycle.”)

I’m introducing this split because I think the older progressives largely had it right. There’s a distinction between the social internet and social media.

The social internet describes the general ways in which the global communication network and open protocols known as “the internet” enable good things like connecting people, spreading information, and supporting expression and activism.

Social media, by contrast, describes the attempt to privatize these capabilities by large companies within the newly emerged algorithmic attention economy, a particularly virulent strain of the attention sector that leverages personal data and sophisticated algorithms to ruthlessly siphon users’ cognitive capital.

I support the social internet. I’m incredibly wary of social media.

Understanding the difference between these two statements is crucial if we’re going to make progress on the issues surrounding social media that have, during the last year, finally entered our mainstream cultural conversation.

If we fail to distinguish the social internet from social media, we’ll proceed by attempting to reform social media through better self-regulation and legislative controls — an approach I believe to be insufficient on its own.

On the other hand, if we recognize that the benefits of the social internet can exist outside the increasingly authoritarian confines of the algorithmic attention economy, we can explore attempts to replace social media with better alternatives.

In my opinion, any vision of a better future for the internet must include this latter conversation.

One Possible Solution: Social Protocols

The tricky question, of course, is how exactly one enables a useful social internet in the absence of the network effects and economic resources provided by the algorithmic attention economy.

One intriguing answer is the idea of augmenting the basic infrastructure of the internet with social protocols.

In short, these protocols would enable the following two functions:

  • A way for individuals to create and own a digital identity that no one else can manipulate or forge.
  • A way for two digital identities to agree to establish a descriptive social link in such a way that outside observers can validate that both identities did in fact agree to form that link.

There are few serious technical obstacles to implementing these protocols, which require only standard asymmetric cryptography primitives. But their impact could be significant.

As proponents of this approach have pointed out, social protocols hold the potential to revolutionize the social internet.

In more detail, these protocols could enable a version of the internet that includes a vast and descriptive social graph that’s owned by the users themselves, instead of existing in the private database of a single monopolistic company.

In this ecosystem, many different applications can leverage this distributed social graph to offer useful features to users. By eliminating the need for each such social application to create a network from scratch, a vibrant competitive marketplace can emerge.

Crucially, this marketplace could then offer useful alternatives to the increasing number of people fed up with the excesses of the algorithmic attention economy.

People like Facebook. But if you could offer them a similar alternative that stripped away the most unsavory elements of Zuckerberg’s empire (perhaps funded by a Wikipedia-style nonprofit collective, or a modest subscription fee), many would happily jump ship.

This discussion of social protocols, of course, elides many important details. For an interesting take that fills in some of this missing information, check out Steven Johnson’s recent New York Times Magazine article.*

In Conclusion

My point with this essay is not to present detailed technical proposals. I’m interested instead in providing a flavor of the types of options that emerge once we begin to realize that the social internet and social media are not the same thing, and that this reality gives us more options than we might have first imagined for improving our digital lives.


* While reading the Johnson article, keep in mind that I don’t necessarily share its conviction that blockchain technology is somehow fundamental to implementing these social protocol visions. As a computer scientist who specializes in the theory of distributed systems, I’ve become increasingly wary of the  arguments that lead blockchain enthusiasts to believe that “trust” requires the disintermediation of any formal organization or institution in the design of a distributed system. But this is a different conversation for a different time…

67 thoughts on “On Social Media and Its Discontents”

    • I absolutely agree with the observation that those who grew up with web behemoths (like facebook) see those almost as the embodiment of the internet. Take that away from them and many would have no idea what to even do with this modern marvel. The cumulative knowledge of our species has been made available to them, and they only know how to post angry rants and put cartoon dog ears on their photos.

  1. sorry for going off topic but what do you think about people who are using shortcuts/quick fixes to get good at what they do in terms of being a top performer?
    for example instead of doing deliberate practice and study theory in music some people transcribe a lot there is a lot of people who seem to avoid the difficult things and try to find an easier way and avoid music theory at all cost if possible

    would you say thats a possible way to become good or would you say there is no other way than doing the hard things like deep work, deliberate practice etc

    • Hey Bjarke,
      This is a really interesting point, and something I’m grappling with myself right now.
      I’ve been toying with a Psychology qualification for some time. This is purely for educational purposes – I’ve no desire to be a practising clinical psychologist.
      However, for my use case, I’m leaning towards a “do-it-yourself” approach.
      I.e. that because the major reason for taking the Masters degree, a certification, is not applicable to me, and I can gain the knowledge outside of it through disciplined reading and study.
      So you raise a very important discussion.
      I think it is possible to “shortcut” things slightly when it comes to academic qualifications, but in order to gain mastery there will still be a lot of deep work and discipline required.

  2. Quite aside from the risibly self-flattering term “progressive,” dithering about the medium just obscures the real issue which is the quality of the content that passes through it. I have a great camera; it takes great pictures – of what? I spend two minutes per month on Facebook because the content doesn’t interest me. With respect, I refuse to let my attention be diverted and my volition deflated and my emotions embroiled by your latest cute political GIF or the minutiae of your day. I have a computer; it lets me talk to people and look stuff up and edit photos, yay.

  3. Once I heard about the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Controversy, I immediately thought of this blog. I came over to find this post.

  4. Interesting that you posted this today, with Alan Jacobs’s post on RSS feeds and his essay at The Hedgehog Review discussing similar issues. Jacobs encourages his readers to think outside of the “everyone should learn to code” box, and instead, support a digital commons where everyone knows some basics about building (even a generic) platform with skills like buying a domain, getting a host, knowing some HTML/CSS, etc.

    This is also some of what the “Domain of One’s Own” movement seems to be attempting to do as well. There are obvious drawbacks, given that it’s more difficult to see what friends and family are doing, and not everyone is going to be interested in this kind of setup. However, I think it could dramatically improve our relationship to technology, move our attention to more important things, and help us to focus more deeply on what matters.

    • We have dipped our toes in that water before with geocities (and to a lesser extebt, Myspace).

      While we pretend that most people use facebook “to keep in touch with distant friends & family”, the truth is that the most ardent users are there to interact with strangers. Mostly for political purposes. They want reinforcement from strangers who share their views, and to clash with strangers who do not. These people seem to think that leaving social media is surrendering it to “the enemy”. Leaving it would give political opposites more influence.

  5. Love this, Cal. I’ve been looking for information on the kinds of technological innovations we’d need to solve these structural problems. I want to hear more.

  6. Very well said Mr. Newport.

    Perhaps the very act of me reading your thoughtful long-form post and then commenting here is an example of a healthy use of the social internet.

  7. People choose to use one social media option over another based on the user experience. It would seem to me that only private enterprises would have the capital and organizational incentives to invest in creating the superior user experiences would be able to obtain the user volume necessary to leverage network effects and other postive feedback loops. Aside from regulation or social conscious, what would drive people to abandon private social networks for open protocols?

    • “What would drive people to abandon private social networks for open protocols?”

      Confidence that their private data will not be monetized for any purpose.

    • I disagree. Many people use Facebook because that is where their friends/family are. I would quit completely if there were a way to keep up with their lives other than going back to letters in email. Facebook offers a passive way to keep up with people who you just don’t talk to that often, but who you want to stay in touch with. You could argue that if you don’t talk to them often there is no need to stay in touch, but humans rae ultimately social creatures. We need community, and with the growth in cities, our noses in our phones and the decline of organized religion, social media has filled that gap. Until nontechnical people see a viable alternative or nearly everyone is technologically literate, I’m not sure what alternatives there are.

      • Rue, does that bring value to your life? Passively following people who you don’t deem worth the effort to reach out to? For a long time, I was convinced that I needed Facebook – but it was really just a one-way ticket to loneliness and FOMO.

    • I think no one is saying private companies shouldn’t be involved in providing best the end user experience, just that the basic technology should be open. In the same way that private companies provide excellent GPS software, using the open technology of GPS, or Chrome/Firefox provide excellent user experiences for web browsing, based on the open technology of hyper-text transfer, perhaps the social *network* should be open, but the technologies we use to interface with that network should be a competitive market.

  8. Cal,

    Thoughtful post- thanks.

    Your suggestions re a social internet vs social media are timely given the Cambridge Analytica saga.

    My only wariness is is how to safely establish a personal secure identity without devolving to a big brother system.

    China now has a social score system now where an individuals behavior online and in real life is scored. This then affects future employment, social welfare benefits etc.

    In Western democracies we all assume that our government is benign and acting in our interests always but the Snowden revelations have shown the ever increasing reach of the state security tentacles.

    We need to reclaim the web as the pioneers intended but without yielding to the Stater, and whomever is running it.

    Thanks again for a good article

    • “We need to reclaim the web as the pioneers intended…”

      You mean the pioneers who worked for DARPA, the CIA, FBI, DOJ, etc.?
      You may want to check out the book Surveillance Valley by Yasha Levine to see if your theory holds.

      • Actually, in terms of pioneers I was thinking more Sir Tim Berniers Lee and colleagues. He and his CERN colleagues intent was an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries.

        The book you referenced appears an intriguing read. I have no doubt there are always agencies seeking to exploit any extent technology in the name of national security. The trick is keeping the balance.

    • 7. Your concerns bring to mind an excellent episode from “Black Mirror” – “Nosedive”. Charlie Brooker has a knack for pushing the reality into an immediate future that feels so close it’s uncanny. A social media nightmare where not only one’s life is implied to be transparent, but it reduces people to a grading system which they must fight for every day. Bear and grin through an Insta filter. A world that is the product of social media, not the social internet.

  9. I often wonder if the internet will somehow see a similar split to that of radio waves to AM and FM. Perhaps an underground Net that is voiced by a conservative (for lack of a better word) technologists and a more mainstream internet that facilitates social media platforms.

  10. Mark Zuckerberg and his social media cronies that own these platforms are well aware of your concerns. As billionaires, they certainly don’t need the money at this point. Perhaps it’s time for them to stand behind their progressive viewpoints and turn these platforms into an ESOP or some other type of company that transfers the power to the people.

  11. We had social protocols, that’s how it all started. From BBS’s to IRC, we were living in digital identities and almost total freedom. No big (or small) company was really controlling content in any way. You wanted to open a BBS? You just needed a computer and you could virtually do anything you wanted in it, even equivalents of social media existed. Same was with IRC servers, you just needed to install it somewhere. Honestly Cal, I think there is no going back. Too much money involved now.

  12. How would a new, reformed, social-Internet platform deal with business owners (small and large) that will want to join and market their services? What about politicians and their ardent supporters? Would they be “allowed” to participate? My point is that to redeem social platforms, and free them from contamination, one would have to censor speech and deny certain groups of people. Who makes these decisions?

    • Deny? I think the ideal word is Accept. We, the users would choose what we want to see and what to share. So if I wanted to see what a friend is doing they could welcome me to see it. An external influence would not be able to buy its way to my eyeballs. There would be nothing to prevent Extreme Political Action Committee from creating their own space there for people to watch, but people would be free to choose to watch or not. Obviously they would have to announce through other channels their presence there, but that problem is solvable, and how we are doing it now. Freedom of Speech also has an element of Freedom to Choose to Not Listen.

    • I feel like a business could have an identity much like a person and anyone who chooses to “connect” with that business would be able to do so using the same social contract that exists for individuals.

  13. “…I’ve become increasingly wary of the arguments that lead blockchain …”. Please provide your expert opinion. The Steven Johnson’s article is convincing and the whole blockchain technology seems very promising.

  14. Roger McNamee (early Facebook investor) was on the PBS NewsHour this week. He said that Facebook’s advertising business model helped them to rationalize and overlook warning signs. Facebook believed that they were a “platform” not a media company and therefore not responsible for what third parties did.

    Not an exact quote, but here’s the gist for all the Study Hacks aficionados: “The incentives created by an advertising business model are to essentially addict people psychologically to your product, and then to cause outrage cycles. You want to feed them stuff that either makes them afraid or angry, because when they’re excited by low level emotions like that, they share more stuff, they’re more active, they spend more time on the site, and see more ads, and they’re just more valuable to them. Facebook turned that into a fine art.”

  15. I’m by no means an expert, or I don’t feel confident enough to be one even after 15 years a systems administrator…

    I think we won’t see an independent user that is devoid of the need or has social media until one can create a website, platform of internet communication without the need of Web 2.0 tools, Infrastructure/Software/Platform as a Service, or solutions like AWS for infrastructure. Even with my skills, I’m not managing my own E-Mail server, website, blog, content. I have a family and a good number of children. These things take time and time to troubleshoot or do right. If we can decrease the learning curve and difficulty of such tasks then this would aid in freedom from social media.

  16. Another great insight. I’ve been following your work for close to 2 years now. You have been carefully choosing your words against these attention seeking a**holes. The truth will eventually come out. You can play offense now 🙂

  17. Just like in the late 1990s when the realization hit those that were blissfully unaware, that; “AOL is not the internet… The internet is not AOL”

    Humans have a great need to (over-)simplify, for ease of understanding, yet it is too often to the detriment of the desired.

  18. In terms of an alternative social network “that stripped away the most unsavory elements of Zuckerberg’s empire (perhaps funded by a Wikipedia-style nonprofit collective, or a modest subscription fee)”, I’d recommend looking at what Human Connection is building. They are based out of Germany and are committed to developing a nonprofit knowledge (Wikipedia-style) and action network that serves the users, not someone’s bank account. There are no profit-driven algorithms, and no ads. Instead it puts the user in control using functions developed with researchers at the INALCO, Sorbonne in Paris and the Stuttgart Media University in Germany.

    The platform is open source and will remain crowdfunded. Personal data is protected and never shared. Human Connection is currently in private alpha mode both in English and German (with more languages to follow). More here:

    Full disclosure: I’m supporting Human Connection with their outreach on the North American market.

  19. I have long believed that the world has lost it’s collective minds over digital technologies. I find that fact disgusting and it has made the world less real somehow. People have turned into screen zombies over their childish love of it and have become more enslaved and sou lost their privacy due to it. I for one was always against it principally from day one for one main reason…..I knew it would be used for mass big brother surveillance and control like the world has never seen. I actually believe we already are living in an Orwellian dystopia and it will become worse incrementally every day. The situation is beyond hopeless. We are hopeless. I’m frigging angry and glad I’m as old as I am and might be lucky enough to “get outa’ here” sooner than later

    • Not fair. I’m only 33, so I have to deal with this lunacy for many more decades! I was once a sheeple, a facebook lover, a selfie-obsessed, phone tapping zombie. I ‘woke up’ but it feels too late.

  20. news papers are nice i can read and re-read then either put them on bottom of bird cage or use for kindling for a fire when there is a snow storm and power is out, can not do that with an electronic devise or social media. also a book/newspaper does not watch me read and track my habits so it knows what kind of junk advertisement to send.

  21. I share your concerns about social media, and believe that some sort of reform is needed. I am not a technology person; therefore, I appreciate your insights on the technological aspects and possible resolutions. One of my concerns stems from the abuses of the “media” aspect of social media. Facebook, Twitter and Google are distributing news, thus, have become a news source. However, they aren’t willing to self-regulate, and argue that they should not be held to the stand same standards or government regulations as real news sources. This is disconcerting and needs to be addressed. For me, the media aspect is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other aspects of social media that are problematic.

  22. Do you know of anyone who is working on projects like the ones you mentioned? Namely:
    – A way for individuals to create and own a digital identity that no one else can manipulate or forge.
    – A way for two digital identities to agree to establish a descriptive social link in such a way that outside observers can validate that both identities did in fact agree to form that link.

    I’d love to get involved in these projects if they exist.

  23. I am not a facebook user and dislike what i feel are these very tightly manicured lanes of information it provides. Facebook is extremely user friendly which i sometimes identify as making it detrimentally easy for a user to make a few simple swipes and preferences, blocks and likes, and slip into a very fast stream of unproductive dopamine addiction.
    these social media platforms are self gratifying and lack an impetus for higher learning. you can find a ton of reinforcement but hardly quality enlightenment. i find that google street might offer more meaningful content than facebook.
    love the blog post. we need to revisit what we think is quality internet.

  24. I’ve grown up in the age of social media. Facebook was introduced when I was seven, so my memory of the internet mostly revolves around these social networks. I’ve tried them all: Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram. However, I don’t participate in any social networks at the moment and I don’t want to. It’s extremely discouraging to see many of my peers glued to their phones all day because I was once like that too. I currently only use messaging apps like Signal so I don’t become addicted to my phone through dopamine hits, and I maintain my privacy. I think with the accessibility of programming tutorials today, people could easily define their own presence on the web through building their own site. There’s no need to have a profile on LinkedIn or Facebook when you could just build your own website and put the information YOU want to be out there. This was a bit rambly, but in conclusion, social media really sucks ¯\_(?)_/¯.

  25. Thanks for your post. At first I was irritated that every referenced link was to a piece of information I had to pay to read. Then I realized my reluctance to pay for the hard work that went into the writing makes me a part of the problem.

  26. Thanks for making the distinction between “social internet” and “social media.” I’ve been thinking about that more lately and started a blog post related to it about “the good’ol days” of blogging before Facebook. My description of that kind of internet is “independent” and “open.” FWIW, I’m planning to delete my Facebook account soon. But, frankly, I’m less inclined to delete my Twitter account at this time. We’ll see what happens.

  27. I for one would be interested in hearing you elaborate why the blockchain is not fundamental to the program you propose. (I’m not disagreeing with you but just trying to get an appreciation of how important blockchain/cryptocurrencies truly are.) Thank you for the post.


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