Better Social Networks

We’ve been seeing regulators around the world taking a strong stance against Big Tech. From China blocking one of the world’s largest IPOs to the anti-trust moves against Facebook and Google in Europe and the US, this is very new.

This opens up a whole new range of possibilities, some of which I’d like to explore below.

Even if it maybe has been a long time coming, for decades the tech industry could do just about whatever it wanted — first by being too small and agile to be regulated, but then later, when regulation would have been due, by the market power they’d amassed through network effects.

So I’m wondering: What if Facebook is broken up? That would be an obviously good thing to happen on all kinds of grounds, but even to just diminish its stranglehold on social media would be worth it in my opinion. Their flavor of social networking is decidedly old school, and their grip on that market too strong. They’re holding the whole field back.

The evolution of social media from a version 1 to a version 2

Ben Thompson has smart things to say about this:

the key characteristic of v1 digital products is that they simply copy what already exists offline. (…)
What truly makes a category is v2: products that are only possible because of the unique properties of digital.

Facebook largely remains a v1.

Identities are always in flux, and online even more so

More importantly, Facebook with its insistence on hosting our One True Identity feels reductive. Again, Thompson has good thoughts on identities online:

having one identity is a core principle for Facebook, which is great for advertising if nothing else, but at odds with the desire of many to be different parts of themselves to different people in different contexts.

One identity is, as Thompson says, good for selling ads. It’s not a contemporary approach to how we interact online. It’s very 2008. Online, how we identify — and how much of ourselves we share — depends completely on context. (There’s plenty of research that explores this, like danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.)

To stay in the current state of things, my professional identity lives primarily on my company website and LinkedIn, my banter on Twitter, and various social groups and interests across messenger services like Signal and Whatsapp. There are many more aspects, and they vary from person to person. Sometimes these aspects of identities are just preferences, at other times lives and livelihoods might depend on them.

A better social networking world is possible

Today, we’re talking break-up and regulation of Big Tech platforms. Even if it shouldn’t come to a break-up, I’m confident that the mere threat of it will shake things up considerably. This is especially true since that push seems to have widespread support across the political spectrum and around the world.

So what opportunities await us?

What if Social Network v2 is not, in fact, a new product or service. What if v2 doesn’t simply replace v1 but rather redefine what the term even means? What if this field, to stay in the lingo of tech land, is truly disrupted?

What if rather than a new product, v2 is a protocol for distributed social networking, identity, and messaging?

What if in that new protocol, users had a full representation of their identity under their own control (or that of an entity they trust and choose) and then just grant access to various aspects of that identity to other products and services?

What if that protocol was back up by regulatory requirements to build to that protocol?

Here, this is me, please populate this social networking service (New FB) or messenger (WhatsApp) with these hobbies and aspects of my ID and hook it up to this client on my end (Signal) through this distributed network (InterChat)?

And while we’re at it, why not add privacy and data controls that are granular? What if users could subscribe to privacy/data sharing rules used by trusted experts? Something like Subscribe me to Cory Doctorow’s data sharing rules, please.

It seems to me that once we break FB’s grip on social networking and large parts of messaging — and in the process, hopefully also their grip on advertising — a whole new world of more humane, less toxic social networking opens up.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

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