Monday, December 19, 2022

Can we move beyond social media's current destruction of civil society?

I strongly recommend that you read Ezra Klein's NYTimes essay on Twitter. He begins by noting that the metaphor of Twitter as a global town square is wrong on three levels. I pass on some clips:
First, there isn’t, can’t be and shouldn’t be a “global town square.” The world needs many town squares, not one. Public spaces are rooted in the communities and contexts in which they exist. This is true, too, for Twitter, which is less a singular entity than a digital multiverse. What Twitter is for activists in Zimbabwe is not what it is for gamers in Britain.
Second, town squares are public spaces, governed in some way by the public. That is what makes them a town square rather than a square in a town. They are not the playthings of whimsical billionaires. They do not exist, as Twitter did for so long, to provide returns to shareholders...A town square controlled by one man isn’t a town square. It’s a storefront, an art project or possibly a game preserve.
Third, what matters for a polity isn’t the mere existence of a town square but the condition the townspeople are in when they arrive. Town squares can host debates. They can host craft fairs. They can host brawls. They can host lynchings. Civilization does not depend on a place to gather. It depends on what happens when people gather.
Twitter has real strengths, many of which are the flip side of its weaknesses. It is as flat a medium as any that has existed. It is as fast a medium as has ever existed; that can be maddening, but it can also draw attention to something that is happening and has to change right now. It is an unusually confrontational medium, and that has permitted movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo to flower and for socialists to get a new hearing in American politics — and it has also, of course, given new succor and life to the racist right. Put simply, Twitter’s value is how easy it makes it to talk. Its cost is how hard it makes it to listen.
It is a failure of imagination to think that our choice is the social media platforms we have now or nothing. I keep thinking about something that Robin Sloan, a novelist and former Twitter employee, wrote this year: “There are so many ways people might relate to one another online, so many ways exchange and conviviality might be organized. Look at these screens, this wash of pixels, the liquid potential! What a colossal bummer that Twitter eked out a local maximum, that its network effect still (!) consumes the fuel for other possibilities, other explorations.”
What’s surprised me most as Twitter has convulsed in recent weeks is how threadbare the social media cupboard really is. So many are open to trying something new, but as of yet, there’s nothing that feels all that new to try. Everything feels like a take on Twitter. It may be faster or slower, more decentralized or more moderated, but they’re all variations on the same theme: experiments in how to capture attention rather than deepen it, platforms built to encourage us to speak rather than to help us listen or think.
We do not make our best decisions, as individuals or as a collective, when our minds are most active and fretful. And yet “active and fretful” is about as precise a description as I can imagine of the Twitter mind. And having put us in an active, fretful mental state, Twitter then encourages us to fire off declarative statements on the most divisive possible issues, always with one eye to how quickly they will rack up likes and retweets and thus viral power. It’s insane.
And it will get so much worse from here. OpenAI recently released ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence system that can be given requests in plain language and spit out remarkably passable results...What ChatGPT can do is a marvel. We are at the dawn of a new technological era. But it is easy to see how it could turn dark — and quickly. A.I. systems like this make the production and manipulation of text (and code and images and eventually audio and video) functionally costless. They will be deployed to produce whatever makes us most likely to click. But these systems do not and cannot know what they are producing. The cost of creating and optimizing content that grabs our attention is plummeting, but the cost of producing valuable and truthful work isn’t.
These are technologies that lend themselves to cacophony, not community. I fear a world in which the business models behind them run on our attention or profit off our anger. But other worlds and other models are possible.
In Taiwan, as described by Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s minister of digital affairs, key parts of digital infrastructure are managed at the level of what we sometimes call civil society — the layer of associations and organizations between the government and the market.. The PTT Bulletin Board System is still owned by the student group that started it. It was part of how Taiwan responded so early and so effectively to the coronavirus. “It has no shareholders,” Tang said. “No advertisers. It is entirely within the academic network. It’s entirely open source. It's entirely community governed. People can freely join it. It’s a public digital space.”
Wikipedia remains one of the most-visited sites on the web, and it is owned and managed by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation. It shows. Wikipedia has never tried to become more than it is. It never pivoted to video or remade itself around an algorithmic feed in order to harvest more of our attention. It is a commons but one that is governed so we may use it rather than so that it may use us. It gives so much more than it takes. It thrives, quietly and gently, as a reminder that a very different internet, governed in a very different way, intended for a very different purpose, is possible.
There are those who believe the social web is reaching its terminal point. I hope they’re right. Platform after platform was designed to make it easier and more addictive for us to share content with one another so the corporations behind them could sell ever more of our attention and data. In different ways, most of these platforms are now in decline.
What if the next turn of the media dial was measured not by how much attention we gave to a platform but by how much it gave to us? I am not sure what such a service would look like. But I am hungry for it, and I suspect a lot of other people are, too.

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