tl;dr: what if we could opt-in or -out of each individual feature within social media platforms? what are your favorite third-party tools for modding social media? here are some Chrome extensions I recommend checking out:
- Calm Twitter
- Social Fixer for Facebook
- Remove YouTube Recommended Videos
Social media platforms can arguably be considered natural quasi-monopolies given the network effect in which gaining more users makes a given platform more useful to all other users. For this reason, it may be preferable to focus on strengthening user choice within social media platforms, rather than between them (as is the usual remedy to monopolistic market failures).
All else being equal, I would personally much prefer everyone I might want to digitally interact with be in one place, so I didn’t have to futz around with downloading a different app for every fifth person I meet. One of the problems with monopolies, though, is that they can get by with treating stakeholders very badly, including very poorly satisfying their preferences, because there are no alternatives to choose between.
In general, you might like to break up monopolies to create competing alternatives which can offer more choice and thus better suit users’ preferences. But that would break up the network that fundamentally makes the platform useful to me. So if we can’t choose between, what about choosing within?
I would venture a guess that most people in the United States probably feel ill-served by their social media platforms in one way or another. The grievances run the gamut, but the scale of dissatisfaction is in any case pretty clear from the millions views The Social Dilemma racked up within days of release.
The reaction to this anxiety over the anxiety that our digital consumption is giving us anxiety about our lives which, because we’re so anxious, will never be as perfect and beautiful as those we see on our screens, has ranged from borderline-absurd new hardware promising personal tech nirvana to Mahāyāna-cyberpunk jeremiads in favor of remaining within our brave new digital samsara. That’s all well and good, and jolly fun to watch, but I would like to submit a proposal out of touch with the prevailing zeitgeist in being both modest and optimistic: most people’s preferences regarding their social media platforms might be quite well satisfied if they were only allowed to manœuvre freely within the space of minor modifications to existing platforms.
The most valuable part of The Social Dilemma, in my mind, played over the credits (relatedly, I was fairly disappointed with the movie overall). TURN OFF ALL NOTIFICATIONS! Yes, please do. Yes, all of them. Yes, really. Wait a day or so, and then selectively turn those back on which you actually need or which actually improve your life. This is a relatively minor modification to the functioning of social media apps, but with a massive salutary effect on the cost-benefit ratio of using them. Consuming social media when you choose to, rather than when the platform chooses for you, is just so much better — don’t take my word; try it for yourself. (Tangentially, this is also a point where a social media monoplatform would be more convenient than a plethora of platforms — only one thing to check!) Unfortunately, we don’t have very granular control over notifications besides ON/OFF, but I reckon OFF for almost everything is pretty close to optimal anyways.
But there’s a whole universe of other features and functions, small and large, which the user consumes as a bundle when signing on to any given platform. Let’s take Twitter for example. I would say the core function of Twitter is sending blocks of text of 280 characters or less to followers. That probably sounds totally obvious, but think about all the other, ancillary functions Twitter has that are not just that: likes, replies, retweeting, quote-tweeting, direct messages… None of these are core to the Twitter function, however deeply we may have become accustomed to them as components of Twitter, and even come to expect them as tropes within social media platforms in general. That’s to say nothing of the “trending topics”, recommendations of other accounts to follow, and so on, which are more obviously “stuff the platform does to suck more time out of your life”.
I do not like “trending topics”. I do not like them in a house; I do not like them with a mouse. Can I get rid of them? Maybe you don’t want to see quote tweets — too many sarcastic ripostes (on the other hand, I guess we’re stuck with subtweets for better or for worse). And do we really need every single item of content on some of the most-trafficked internetz in the world to be a literal popularity contest? I don’t know, but I think it would be nice to at least have a choice. More ambitiously, we might also imagine a world in which users can control the parameters of the algorithms that serve them content. I like to be recommended things I wouldn’t otherwise find, but if the cost is maybe getting sucked into a delusional deathcult cesspool of conspiracy theory quicksand, I might refrain from ordering that dish.
So, the eternal question: what is to be done? Is regulation the answer? I expect not, but to the extent people are already thinking of fairly intrusive regulation of tech platforms, maybe it’s worth looking into demanding built-in modularity.
Third party tools do exist already — perhaps promoting a culture of using them, valuing them, and experimenting with them to hack our platforms into more docile shapes is all we need. Unfortunately, for the most part they work only for web versions, which I suspect is a less addictive format than smartphone apps to begin with. They also mostly give me a vague impression of jankiness, for lack of a better term, which seems out of proportion with the value they might bring if fully developed and wisely utilized. Maybe philanthropists might consider bolstering the bourses of their developers? Perhaps with more demand, quality will improve as well.