Independent, distributed social media

I worry about social media. Anybody who reads this blog regularly will have encountered my rants against social media. I've railed against the various privacy issues at length, but I also dislike that they're closed-shop silos, controlled by corporate entities.

But perhaps the thing I worry about most is that many people rely solely on social media for information; the curated news feed from Facebook is how they digest the news. In a lot of cases this won't be a problem if you're following a feed from somewhere like the BBC, but problems arise when fake news — the real kind, not the Donald Trump kind — slips into a person's news feed.

We've probably all seen things go viral on social media only to turn out not to have a shred of truth behind them. We probably think we're smart enough to ignore or fact-check such things, but it's clear many millions of people are not.

It isn't that the fake news and conspiracy theories exist on the internet that's the core of the problem. The internet has always been a home to such things. It's that they're appearing on places many people feel are reliable sources, by which I mean Facebook, Twitter and the like.

If this sort of stuff was coming from a private website it would be more easily ignored, being one of millions of similar spaces, but the big social media sites centralise things and gain a faux respectability for doing so.

They are terrible at policing themselves too. Sure, we've all seen how they've banned Trump and started flagging some items of fake news. They've only done that under public pressure, though, and only in very few select cases. It's easy to see why they don't police things particularly well. The end mission of such sites is to make money. Content is largely irrelevant as long as it serves up eyes on adverts.

So what's the solution?

All I can tell you is what I'd like to see. I'd like to see social media built on open principles, kind of like RSS is. And it should be distributed so there's no one entity controlling it. Instead of posting something on Facebook, you would post something in response to, say, a BBC and article and then that would be pushed to subscribers on other sites, creating a sort of cross-site social media.

I know I'm short on technical details here, but the general idea is to decentralise the whole thing and expand it beyond a single entity.

Places like the IndieWeb have the right idea, and I believe Webmentions provide a good way to go about comments and pingbacks. Mastodon is going in the right direction too.

The problem is uptake, though. The big social media networks already have billions of users, and dragging people away from there to a more independent system — particularly one that has higher technical barriers to entry — is quite difficult. A lot of social media's success is based on simplicity and they do a good job of making it very easy for people to post.

The current corporate social media networks will eventually implode. Granted I may be waiting a while for that to happen, but it will happen. Maybe that'll be an opportunity to rethink things.