On December 10, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced the launch of a research team called Bluesky to help address the social media-enabled ills that have become so very evident to the public. Given the lack of internet regulation, many innovators and entrepreneurs created their own walled garden companies. But platforms such as Twitter are no longer fun and carefree — and neither are social media users. And it appears that Dorsey is tired of gardening.
Clearly, something had to give. Social media platforms have faced intense criticism related to everything from false political ads to privacy abuses and are overrun with harmful and hateful content. In this sense, Twitter is no longer a walled garden — it’s a dangerous jungle. It comes as no surprise that new media elites are beginning to seek a pivot where they can abandon managing and hosting user content in order to maintain their newfound power while avoiding responsibility.
It comes as no surprise that new media elites are beginning to seek a pivot in order to maintain their newfound power while avoiding responsibility.
Dorsey’s proposal sounds like a good idea in theory, and uses all the right socially responsible keywords like open, transparency and decentralized. But unfortunately, social media platforms so far seem to lack the motivation to be good corporate citizens. We must be careful not to interpret Dorsey’s friendly and logical rhetoric to mean that Twitter is going to change its tune. It’s merely a signal that major players understand that business is not as usual and the public is getting wise to the threat of unchecked social media and its negative impact on society.
For one thing, new protocols can’t fix unethical businesses. Dorsey’s idea suggests that social media failures can be attributed to flawed technology, not leadership. But a new protocol is not going to fix the issue of Twitter, Facebook and likeminded companies’ flawed ethics and business models.
It is concerning that Dorsey appears to see recommendation systems as somehow easier than content hosting and moderation. But algorithms too require great care and present challenges with companies such as Google and Facebook coming under fire for how their algorithms work.
Without effective regulation, and sound ethics and corporate responsibility, new protocols and proposals are destined to benefit companies and would likely become a jungle by another name.
Then there’s the question of how to manage and effectively regulate companies and innovation — and how much. A solution is clearly needed as the internet and social media are so obviously broken that even the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is working on a fix. But we must be cautious and move carefully. Lawmakers are already behind and struggling to keep pace with the speed of technological advance; new protocols will require new rules. And when officials finally pass laws it’s often contentious.
When California introduced its privacy act this year, Google decided to create a new protocol to comply with how they track users on websites, while Facebook decided to fight it. In theory, companies could keep creating new technologies that are outside the scope of existing regulations as a means of skirting oversight. So it’s important to make sure that innovation is not used as an exit for companies to run through as regulators catch up.
Dorsey references blockchain technology as inspiration, but this is also an underregulated space and poses significant risks. It also inspired Facebook’s entrance into cryptocurrency with the launch of the Libra, which was designed to appear as a non-threatening association, but just might destabilize the global financial system — if it’s ever launched.
Media, and those who control it, have tremendous amounts of power given that communications tools and platforms are used to steer public opinion. Mass communications industries, including social media, need special oversight given their impact on everything from elections to the law.
What is needed even more than a new technology solution is regulatory innovation — let’s call it a regulatory protocol (RP). If a new medium, platform, system, technology, protocol etc. is created, it will be subject to applicable regulations that exist, and if regulations are insufficient, the launch of the new innovation will be delayed.
We need to make sure that corporations aren’t able to simply build an internet by another name, much like how Facebook’s Watch resembles television, but with less regulatory oversight.
For example, if advertising is sold in a new system, then advertising sales will be subject to existing best practices such as disclosing who paid for them and fraudulent ads would be banned (e.g., selling real estate on the moon). New products could also seek approval from regulators like we saw with Facebook’s Libra project.
There is often the argument that innovation will be stifled, but the speed at which technology is being introduced requires us to slow down. It’s time to get serious and to prevent companies like Twitter from finding exits by creating new doors — new protocols — to escape through. We need to make sure that corporations aren’t able to simply build an internet by another name, much like how Facebook’s Watch resembles television, but with less regulatory oversight.
If corporations such as Twitter are able to continue to avoid regulation by glamouring the public with fancy words like “protocol” then we will continue to have grey skies ahead of us. My hope is that people around the world have not only grown wise to the harms of unchecked social media and corporate power, but that they are now able to cut through jargon, and wand-waving, and demand that regulators write the rules instead of corporations.