Why we need a publicly funded social network
I almost got bored when I am starting to write about the problems with Facebook. Facebook’s revelations of privacy scandals, data breaches, hate speech and misinformation inducing violence have become so common in our news feeds that we’re almost used to its coverage.
It can be a symptom of how we’ve over-relied on Facebook and outsourced so much of our communication and community that we can ignore their recurring transgressions.
The ghosts of social media’s past may provide a glimmer of doubt or hope in Facebook’s continued dominance. After all, bygone platforms like MySpace, Friendster, and Flickr once ruled the internet.
It may come as a surprise to many that LinkedIn is actually older than Facebook and continues to be successful to this day, but not to the same level.
Various attempts at credible alternatives, such as Ello, Diaspora, NextDoor and WT.Social have met with mixed success, either finding niche audiences loyal to the service or suffering from scaling to a stable threshold and in benefiting from the network effect.
However, many alternatives remain commercial, and the profit alternative is often fueled by a harmful surveillance advertising model that plagues top performing social networks and creates unintended unintended consequences.
The reality is that Facebook’s “ public square ” is more like a private mall, trapping consumers in a frenzy of engagement that has resulted in distorted and polarized public discourse.
So maybe the problem is with the social networking business model that monitors its users and monetizes their attention.
By reinventing an alternative, we may need a model designed for the public good and to serve the interests of the community.
There are a small number of actors who have attempted public / non-profit community networks that were explicitly designed for the public good and they deserve to be considered.
The Vermont-based Front Porch Forum is essentially an actively moderated mailing list around local community issues and discussions.
It has been slowly and carefully managed over the past 20 years (eons in internet time) with very tightly managed rules of engagement and an actively controlled culture. To date, many residents use and enjoy the forum.
In Taiwan, Minister of Digital Audrey Tang drew inspiration from citizen hacktivists and placed online collaboration at the heart of its digital governance.
The official national online platform, called Join, has over four million participating citizens and is a central platform for discussing official government policy. It is used to collect citizen feedback and organize collaborative meetings where stakeholders are invited to find solutions to political and local issues.
There is also the vTaiwan (virtual Taiwan) platform focused on grassroots citizen engagement, with discussions on the platform influencing real-world politics like Uber’s legal status in the country. At a time when the public square is under threat in developed democracies, new democracies like Taiwan are leading the way in rethinking governance with a digital system within it, giving new forms of civic and public engagement.
It’s not just communities that have started to rely too much on Facebook, more and more government and utilities are using the infrastructure of big tech companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon to reach out to citizens and as governance platforms.
The desire for a secure and encrypted communication tool, only available to French government agents, led to the French messaging app called Tchap. Tchap is reserved for French officials but is built using open source code available to the public.
The Amsterdam-based Public Spaces Coalition is a network of public broadcasters, filmmakers and the Dutch branch of Wikimedia on an ambitious project to enable community discussion and engagement using open source technology with a public model . Their mission is to provide “an alternative software ecosystem that serves the common interest and does not seek profit”.
The coalition defines its contribution as a “component provider” – providing online functions like user accounts as an alternative to Google and Facebook logins, content classification systems and content management systems.
Majal is an Arab social network that has fulfilled the heady promise that Facebook and other platforms have claimed over the years – that is, that Majal has succeeded in connecting and empowering marginalized communities.
Based in the Middle East and Africa, Majal’s members include Kurdish civic groups, women, and the queer community.
In a highly guarded and persecuted region, Majal enables anonymity, security and a platform to connect and organize, focusing on “amplifying the voices of dissent” throughout the region.
Different organizations and public bodies around the world are opposing Facebook’s harmful surveillance model and have shown that there are better ways forward.
It’s time we started to reinvent our online public place and consider real alternatives to the harmful platforms that have usurped our public place, such as a publicly funded social network.
“The Public Square Project” is a new report from the Australian Institute’s Center for Responsible Technology.
Jordan Guiao is a researcher at the Center for Responsible Technology at the Australian Institute
You know more? Contact James Riley by email or signal.