June 18, 2019

The Dawn of Indie Social Media

“In the summer of 2016, I gave a talk at a small tedx conference in northern Virginia. I began by admitting that I’ve never had a social-media account; I then outlined arguments for why other people should consider eliminating social media from their lives. The event organizers uploaded the video of my talk to YouTube, where it languished for a few months. Then, for unknowable reasons, it entered the viral slipstream. It was shared repeatedly on Facebook and Instagram and, eventually, viewed more than five million times. I was both pleased and chagrined by the irony of the fact that my anti-social-media talk had found such a large audience on social media.

I think of this episode as typical of the conflicted relationships many of us have with Facebook, Instagram, and other social-media platforms. On the one hand, we’ve grown wary of the so-called attention economy, which, in the name of corporate profits, exploits our psychological vulnerabilities in ways that corrode social life, diminish privacy, weaken civic cohesion, and make us vulnerable to manipulation. But we also benefit from social media and hesitate to disengage from it completely. Not long ago, I met a partner at a large law firm in Washington, D.C., who told me that she keeps Instagram on her phone because she misses her kids when she travels; browsing pictures of them makes her feel better. Meanwhile, because she also worries about her phone usage, she’s instituted a rule that requires her, before looking at Instagram, to read for at least thirty minutes. Last year, she read fifty-five books. Many of us have similar stories. Even as we dream of abandoning social media, we search for ways to redeem it.

In recent months, some of the biggest social-media companies have begun searching for this redemption, too. Facebook and Twitter, in particular, have promised various reforms. In March, Mark Zuckerberg announced a plan to move his platform toward private communication protected by end-to-end encryption; later that month, he proposed the establishment of a third-party group to set standards for acceptable content. Around the same time, Jack Dorsey brought one of Twitter’s head lawyers onto Joe Rogan’s podcast to better explain the platform’s evolving standards for banning users. Legislators are also getting involved. Elizabeth Warren shared a plan for breaking up tech giants like Facebook; others admire the European Union’s sweeping and byzantine General Data Protection Regulation, which deploys aggressive fines to coerce companies into better protecting user privacy.”

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