December 9, 2019

Alternative Platforms: Could Public Social Media Be a Solution?

With all of the issues currently plaguing the largest, most popular social media networks, a public alternative could be the solution to a for-profit one.

The problem with “free”

Part of the reason why today’s most popular social platforms got to how big they are right now is that they are free to use. But because these platforms are more accountable to stakeholders and not necessarily users, it means the platforms are predominantly focused on:

  • Attention: The constant battle for our attention through algorithmically-driven content that favors our history and interests over our betterment means the potential to be served content that’s misleading or downright false.
  • Data-collection: Keeping us on a platform helps to build a profile of our behaviors with each interaction, valuable data that can be sold later.
  • Good/Bad Press: All engagement is good engagement, even if that engagement is toxic and influential at the same time.

Because there are specific dynamics for-profit platforms encourage with how they structure, moderate and monetize the experience, free to use doesn’t necessarily mean free of cost.

A public alternative

In an article for The New York Times, Mark Coatney, a former director of Tumblr, believes the solution to the ills of social media isn’t trying to wrestle those for-profit platforms into shape, but to instead provide public alternatives that serve the public good as media has in the past: “Public media came out of a recognition that the broadcasting spectrum is a finite resource. TV broadcasters given licenses to use the spectrum were expected to provide programming like news and educational shows in return,” Coatney explains.

But with the limited resource now being our attention, he says this context that’s optimized for the aforementioned engagement makes it easiest for “the loudest, scariest voices” to win. Coatney identifies two halves to a public social media solution:

  • The easy part: the experience would be better structured around sharing things of interest or that we love instead of trying to gain attention and rack up numbers. He personally would have such an alternative resemble Tumblr or Instagram.
  • The hard part: public social media platforms would be grounded in its local community, overseen by an entity similar to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). This would, in turn, be funded by a blend of government and foundation grants as well as member donations. The board would be held accountable over service to the public. 

The Takeaway

From radio to television and then to podcasts and streaming, public broadcasting has adapted to the introduction of different media throughout history (such as PBS expanding from TV to YouTube content and NPR, from radio to podcasts), but has curiously stopped short at social media. Is it the nature of the medium, or do we just need to find the right approach?

Enrique Dans, for one, believes a public model just might not be a good fit for social: where public TV and Radio are controlled, limited in scope and strictly unidirectional (audiences only consume), social is the opposite where the platform thrives on users producing content of their own unhindered. Achieving this balancing act while keeping commercial interests disguised as user content at bay means a public solution isn’t so straightforward.

That said, just because Facebook, Instagram and YouTube still command significant attention doesn’t mean that there isn’t demand for new social platforms, as the rise of TikTok would demonstrate. We previously talked about the IndieWeb, which includes independently-created social platforms that similarly provide an alternative more-regulated social media experience on a smaller scale.

Users including ourselves want a more positive experience of the Internet again — and not just for ourselves, but for the greater majority of users too. Whether independent or publically-funded platforms answer that call, options are always welcome.

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