May 29, 2022   

What I Want Social Media to Be

Sudhir Venkatesh, the sociologist who wrote Gang Leader for a Day, has a podcast series about social media. He had an opportunity to work at Facebook for a while. It gave me a good sense of what the decision-makers there are thinking. Content moderation is a huge problem for them, and it appears that Venkatesh left because he felt hopeless.

The problems he discusses are familiar to us, but curiously lacking is the vision of what social media should be. There was only one person, among many Venkatesh interviewed, who offered it. He said it should be like a public park where people from many different walks of life interact civilly. Venkatesh seems to agree with it. But this begs the question: Why do we need to recreate public parks online?

We often blame social media for creating bubbles. We create them by avoiding what makes us uncomfortable. Social media is indeed optimized for it. The algorithms feed us what we want to hear.

Public parks are where we can exchange pleasantries with neighbors we don’t really care about. It’s like a mutual safari park where every group of people is looking at other groups from the safety of their own bus.

I like social media because I can see their inner lives. Before the Internet, this was not possible. I could only see the superficial masks they wear to maintain social order. Unfortunately, Facebook is actively trying to recreate the same inauthentic environment.

“Authenticity” is arguably the most sought-after quality today, yet nobody actually wants to be authentic because it’s ugly, messy, uncomfortable, and painful. As social media algorithms repress aggravating, insulting, and offensive ideas, we will inevitably long for authenticity even more. Our intuitions know better; we love and hate comfort because we know it stunts our growth.

The Internet has increased the productivity of business and academia, but life is not all about conforming to societal norms to be productive. If social media is just another place for pleasantries, authentic human expressions will be confined to therapist offices for those who can afford it.

I’d argue that social media should be messy and chaotic because that’s who we are.