Social Media is broken, let's do better!

Hi, I’m Christian Buggedei, and I was one of the last remaining Google+ users. I joined when I still believed in Googles “Don’t be Evil” motto. For years, I used it as my primary method for social communications. I shared pictures, thoughts, had intense debates about copyright, democracy, and changing economies with authors, publishers, end users, and activists alike, and used it as a resource for my hobbies.

Over this, I got to know a number of good and interesting people, and would still say that my life was generally richer. But I also saw the nym-wars (when Google forced everyone to use their real name, driving away a lot of people), the rise of spambots, online harassment, intransparent moderation policies, and so on.

When they announced that G+ would shut down, I sighed and looked around for alternatives. I even made a spreadsheet to check the featuresets of the various commercial and open source offerings. And found them all lacking in one way or the other: Some are pretty but miss out on important features, some can do it all but have an actively hostile user interface, some look neat but then come unmoderated or have no safeguards against harassment, and so on. And I don’t even want to go into the mess that is every ad-driven business model (I worked in the online advertising space for three years, trust me, it IS a mess.)

So, I’ve now gathered a merry band of misfits to create something better. Darcy is supposed to become a human-centric, decentralized, privacy-friendly but open, safe, open source online civic space. It’s a long and rocky road, but I think it’ll be worth it.

We can’t solve all the problems, but some are doable.

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Hi, and welcome to Edgeryders! I share your passion for better platforms, though my thinking is often geared towards how it can help people collaborate and make decisions together, as well as share their lives and thoughts.

I applaud the effort and intention! I’ll be sure to keep an eye on this. I checked out your spreadsheet and it helped me understand where you’re seeing an opportunity. A lot of the time, I find myself choosing the tech because of some single angle that is the most important one for the particular case. For The Borderland, we use Loomio because we make quite a few decisions in large groups and their features for that are second to none. So do Kiezburn in Berlin, by the way. Being 10x better than the competition at one thing can make up for being a bit worse at other things, but just being 2x better at everything is often to expensive for people to make the switch. If Darcy had such a 10x improvement, what would it be?

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Ease of use and the online civic space. The first thing should be self-explanatory, the latter is not exactly an improvement but an evolutionary step. Social Media encompasses a range of different communication and community models. I call that the bedroom-to-broadcast scale.

The problem is that most if not all social media platforms treat all these spaces basically the same, giving us the same toolsets. And that doesn’t work. Moderation and policy guidelines that are supposed to make a nice and kid-friendly TV broadcast cannot apply to that sort-of-but-not-quite-private conversation at the pub.

What we set out to do is to give people an idea of what kind of space they are talking in, and give them tools to cope when a conversation is suddenly exposed to a more public space than initially intended. On top of that, we make every effort to include an as diverse as possible range of people and their different threat models. If you have a stalker, you need to lock down your online presence in a different way than if you are an LGTBQ* person living in an oppressive regime.

The result should hopefully be a true global civic space, where people can reach out to humans everywhere, but also have the local communities. Darcy will complement but not supersede collaboration tools like Loomio.

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Nice to meet you, Christian!

This looks like a social conventions problem, rather than a technical problem. What I mean is: exactly the same road can be made much less dangerous if everyone agrees to drive on the right side. I have so far inhabited mostly mainstream social networks, but assuming no privacy and thus exercising self-censorship. I assume I am in the digital equivalent of a crowded restaurant: people will normally ignore me, but they can easily eavesdrop, and if I start acting crazy I will attract attention. For example, I don’t swear online.

Is Darcy trying to solve those problems by throwing code at them? How do you envision it?

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Code isn’t the solution, so we’ll be throwing people at the problems. Well, people and policies, and a bit of code.

  • The UX will be optimized so that users understand what they’re about to do or post
  • We will add in self-help features, so that people who get mobbed online can mute, report, block, lock down, and have other functions that enable them to get safe
  • Darcy will offer moderation as a service. So if you run a Darcy instance (the whole thing will be decentralized), you can subscribe to that service instead of relying on volunteers. We offer this, because doing so properly is not easy and needs training and support.

The other thing is that platforms that rely on algorithmic feeds are much more susceptible to things like dogpiling for example. We set up the interaction models in a way that will hopefully at least not excarbate conflict as some of the current platforms do.

that is very similar to what I do too. And it works, along a few other things I do or don’t do online. (I do swear occasionally, but I know when and where :wink: ) I think that a good civic space lets people know, through the UX, what to expect and how to behave in order to get the most out of it. That is part of what we want to achieve.

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Oh, I agree. But specifics differ, depending on who you ask. An important question is what we mean by “letting people know”. For example, Edgeryders has a well thought-through netiquette page. It was re-written several times, and ultimately decided upon by @johncoate, the world’s first-ever online community manager (at The Well, pre-Internet). It is accessible through a menu printed on top of every page. Have we let people know? How many people here are aware of that page? Not many, I’d wager.

In Edgeryders, this is not a big problem, because we model humans online as thinking adults. They own their words. They have a responsibility to be aware of what is considered excellent/good/acceptable/unacceptable behavior. The netiquette page is just there as a reference. We don’t care if people have read it or not, they are still held to the same standards.

Many people disagree with us. It seems to me that the Ix/Ux tradition, for example, was developed in a commercial context. Commercial companies model humans online rather as desire machines (thinking adults are tricky customers) and aim to gratify them. Though designers have amazing useful skills, I tend to be weary of the culture that spawned them. Paradoxically, this has come to influence my aesthetics: the abrasive, no-nonsense look of the Mother### website inspires trust in me, whereas I instinctively mistrust anything too sleek.

I guess what I am trying to say is “social media is broken, let’s be better!”. But even that would be naive, since technological affordances definitely influence social outcomes (though they do not determine them).

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I view this in a more optimistic light. Computers and the Internet are complex systems, and not everyone needs to nor wants to understand all the intricacies of them. Sure, we could format our reports and letters via LaTeX, but frankly, any word processing software that wraps the functionality into a few easy to understand buttons does the trick too for most of us.

Online platforms that allow people to communicate within a wide range of models (1:1, 1:many, many:many, private, open, open to friends-of-friends, and so on) need to give users feedback and information on the fly so they know which mode and setting is active, and if it is appropriate.

If the platform caters to just one type of audience, and centers around a specific interest or topic, that informs the audience directly on how to behave. And people can lurk before participating, so they follow the existing examples.

With an open and global platform, it is a lot harder to set these existing examples, because one does not know, with which subset the new member will interact first, nor with which topic.

Good UX guides them, informs the newbies about the presets and their reasoning, and so on. Imagine you see someone else post racist hate speech. Depending on which options and how visible these are, you might just put that person on an “ignore” list and move on. Or you actively block the racist. Or maybe report the content to moderators, but leave the person unblocked, because doing both requires too much effort through the interface.

UX can make or break how people interact with each other as a community, and especially with open source projects it is often enough added as an afterthought. (Which is not meant to diss open source.)

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Interesting with Darcy! Regarding social media I think it’s important to ask, since everyone becomes sort of a publishing platform, if the press ethics should apply to each user? Such as in Sweden where each public database or newspaper needs a “responsible publisher” which is responsible and can be reported to the police for its publications - I’m not sure the level of thinking and responsibility is educated and raised enough for social media? Maybe the legislation is way too obsolete for today but it historically created an etiquette which could work online as a “netiquette” without filtering speech.

Also, for your overview, have you seen https://www.openbook.social/en/home ?

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I have - I’m actually in the betatest after throwing some money at their Indiegogo campaign :).

The spreadsheet is outdated by about half a year, I probably should update it, but haven’t found the time for that yet.

OpenBook has a few good things going, but their “have an app first” approach doesn’t quite do things for me. It makes access cumbersome to people like me who don’t use the phone for primary access. Also, it limits the content to small bites of text plus pictures - or rather: Pictures with small bites of text. Which isn’t quite what I am looking for in social media.

I can sympathize with that!

There is a lot that Facebook gets right with their UI. Pleasant looking, good uploading tools, decent screen organization, easy scrolling interface as a few examples. So I would not throw out things they do get right.

And then there are things like using the back button to see something you just looked at and oops, you are let off on the side of some road in another part of town so to speak. Or an inability to just “dial down” seeing a friend’s comments rather than having to shut them off completely if you are tired of seeing the same rants too often. Those are just a couple of a set of manipulations that add up to why millions of us use it and hate it at the same time.

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a lot of those UI “quirks” on Facebook are done with purpose - they encourage reloading the stream and foster FOMO (fear of missing out). It is good if your business model needs those interactions in order to sell more ads. It’s bad for humans though, generally.

The question we have to ponder is: How much of these UI quirks are needed to encourage people to interact with each other, and when should we stop.

Image a dinner party, where the host gently prompts conversation and then gets gracefully out of the way once this happens, versus another host that constantly brings up party games and keeps nudging everyone to talk up.

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I think the real idea is you should be able to decide how you want it rather than them deciding for you.

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Mostly, this is true. But a platform could come with sane and helpful presets, and as one cannot make all functions and buttons equally available, the decisions of which functions and settings are front and center has quite a few ramifications.

I agree. Sane and helpful presets is a good way to say it. And of course a user can never completely control the interfaces they use.

I guess in some ways it comes back to that phrase ‘you aren’t the customer you are the product.’ Kind of a cliche at this point but it is a basic truth. You listen to your customers and you control your product.

Edit - FB just got dropped from an investment list of “socially responsible companies”…


Remember, FB didn’t really come into being to become what it became! It reminds me of Windows - a hairball which billions was constantly thrown at to morph into what it needed to be to stay relevant.
I think those of us who dislike many aspects of it…but still attend, are there for a simple reason. The same reason one may go to London or NYC…it’s where the people are.
It’s not set up as a discussion or information or curation medium, although for many it functions as one.
Putting it another way, they don’t really know what they are doing in terms of a long term plan…because, if they did, they wouldn’t have kept building on top of a platform not designed for change. They are always behind the 8-ball as opposed to in front of it, as evidenced by their attempts to now gain some control (moderation) of things. Those with community experience could have predicted all of this long ago - as a Street Cop said about Chicago in a book I just read “Let them (societies less civil members) have their way and soon the city will be nothing but sticks and huts”. One can think of the Cop as a Moderator.
Perhaps the future is back to the smaller sites and forum communities. Meetup, for example, works in some good ways. Nextdoor is a pretty cool idea and, so far, I haven’t seem much acting out there. Both are largely based local…and on “time frame” events. That leaves a lot of room for forums and communities which are much less so, like how to fix my 1967 Boston Whaler Boat (yep, there is a forum for that!).
We pioneers have to chuckle and yet cry…remembering when the word “monetize” didn’t exist. No “exit plans”. But rather “brain dumps” so that what you know becomes what I know.

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At the community call yesterday, I’ve been asked about how Darcy would monetize the moderation.

This is a service that instance owners can subscribe to. They’d be billed a monthly fee based on how many users they have. As a result, Darcy moderators would react to reports coming from this instance.

The challenge here is that we have different instances federating with each other. So we have instances that are full of adults, some that are aimed at kids, some that don’t want any outside interference, some are Darcy subscribers, others aren’t.

The end result is that while anyone can try to federate with Darcy subscribing instances, instances that don’t effectively self-regulate according to a global minimum standard will be cut off from the Darcy side of the federation. Yes, this splinters the Fediverse, but that is happening with or without Darcy anyway. This way it’ll be at least in tune with transparent and documented guidelines.

Hey,
I had a quick look at the original post but not all the discussion yet.
I had a sit-down with a couple of profs and students in Stanford on a somewhat related point a few months ago.
To make a long story very, very short: My flavor is more the issue/subject matter driven social network, which I see as somewhat different from the shall we say “Dunbar” driven really social (and social hierarchy e.g. linkedin) network(s).
Three relevant names in that context: Pamela Hinds, Elisa Matterelli (probably the most interesting here), Noshir Contractor (perhaps the most lively curiosity based on a snapshot interaction). They all come with et alii of course - who might be the better points of contact. Well and of course Dunbar himself is also still alive and kicking (also in the digital space).

My hypothesis is that digital social networks are tools for specific ends. These are generally different between to network operators and the network clients. Aligning them (where you want this) will require a close look at incentives, rights, and funding. Transparency is IMO a very critical issue.
Second, clients have different goal sets in different circumstances. There are different levels of granularity you can break these down to (and also they aren’t likely very rational).

As a first stab starting from the bottom up I would say that I want to have my tool perform 3 primary functions for me (when I focus on the issue driven networks, which most of the time take the lead for me personally):

  1. Exploration (find out more about my environment and how I can manipulate it to my ends)
  2. Monitoring (optimize for cost/benefit of attention, i.e. I don’t want to miss important but rapid developments in my environment, nor do I want to miss tectonic shifts - both of this with a optimal signal to noise ratio)
  3. Getting shit done (the interface needs to support curation, 3rd party curation, curation of the curation. It needs to strike the right balance of staying abreast of work amplification technologies for cognitive, possibly manual, and particularly communication type work - from Gutenberg over PGP, to audio, video conf, dropbox, to onshape CAD, to snapchat, etc.).

Simple, I know.
Also: Bravo for your effort!

This is a very good point @JollyOrc! How are you currently going about developing such a UX? And how would you feel about trying to use collective intelligence as edgeryder is providing to work on it? Maybe you could share some examples and ideas to discuss and ask others here concretely to do the same, or, what I think could be even more interesting you could formulate a call for intuitive social UX proposals or a workshop. I am happy to help if you want. We could start with a post with some concrete questions based on what you already found out and maybe a short story for flavour and some examples. People could contribute examples and proposals, (there are certainly quite a few community members with interesting research and ideas in that direction) and we could bring it all together in a webinar or community call in which we intentionally steer into the direction of a workshop atmosphere, and if there is a lot of interest, maybe we can even pop it up to a real world event at some point. How do you feel about this?

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