Essays on Technology and Culture

The Failed Experiment of Open Social Media

It’s time we admit that the era of open-by-default social media is an experiment on the verge of failure. It’s not that people don’t want to have a public persona, but they want it to be a broadcast medium open to responses from selected friends. Nobody wants to be accessible to every jerk with an account and a grudge. Without a strong, active—and expensive—human moderation team, any digital space where people can directly contact anyone else is at risk of becoming an open sewer of abuse. And when the tools provided to end-users manage those communications are toothless, the situation can only get worse.

There are three major public and open-by-default social networks currently: Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. Of these three, Tumblr and Instagram two have some protections against abuse. Instagram is actively moderated, and has the advantage of being a visual medium, which makes abuse a bit harder to commit. Tumblr has had a handful of high-profile harassment and abuse cases, but is typically a safer, and more limited, space than Twitter. Twitter’s problems are numerous, and beyond the scope of this piece. For a sampling, just look at my last few essays and links. Or just read Randi Harper.

Considering that conflict, harassment, and abuse are par for the course on open-by-default networks, it’s not a surprise more people are moving towards closed networks. The geeks have their private Slack channels, the kids have Snapchat, and Facebook… is Facebook. Facebook is semi-public by default, but easy enough to lock your profile down so that your content can only be seen by friends. You won’t see anyone in your Facebook News Feed unless you friend them, or they’re a friend of a friend. This means you have significantly less risk of being attacked, spammed, or deal with any of the garbage that infests Twitter.

Open-by-default social networks operate under the assumption that all speech should be treated equally, and that equal access means a level playing field. All one needs to do is take a look at the people most likely to be the victims of abuse and harassment online to see that this is far from the case. Women, minorities, and LGBTQ people all face significantly more online harassment than the white men who make up the leadership and technical staff of most social networks. It’s been documented time and again that abuse leads to a chilling effect where victims of abuse lose their freedom of speech, because speech means they risk violence. When that’s the choice, who can blame someone for choosing a smaller, closed network of safe people.

The downside of closed-by-default networks is that they make positive network effects harder, if not impossible. In my personal experience, I have made some wonderful friends through Twitter that I doubt I would ever have made in a more private space. It’s a criticism that echoes the sentiment of a number of geeky types who live in private Slack channels. Still, unless the toxic elements of the open-by-default social network are brought under some semblance of control, many people are willing to give up the openness and connections for personal security. But doing so is expensive—financially, technologically, and emotionally.

Whatever way you want to look at it, it’s clear that the lack of controls and moderation of Twitter is proving to be a mistake. It seems obvious in retrospect, like so many other ideas. Perhaps in the brief days when Monthly Active Users were in the five-to-six digit range, it wasn’t a mistake, though Charlie Warzel’s reporting says otherwise. Perhaps we’re just not meant to have open, unfettered, unmoderated access to each other all the time. Twitter has been an interesting experiment in human nature, but like all experiments, its time has passed. The hypothesis has been proven false. Let’s take the lessons we’ve learned and build something better. Hopefully that better thing will come soon, before we all decamp back to App.Net.