It's OK Not to Like Social Networks

Seriously, why do you still use them?

Content filtering is a necessity.

You can’t live in 2020 and not filter the incoming information — there’s just too much of it. You can’t consume all the information out there, not even one percent of it, so you need to choose. You need to choose what to read, what to watch, what to listen to, and you want to choose wisely. You don’t want to spend precious time on the information that is misleading, irrelevant, false, or otherwise bad for you; time is too expensive, and you only have a limited supply — at least as of 2020.

The problem is, it’s not easy to assess a piece of information without consuming it first. How do you know an article is worth your time before you read it? How do you know a YouTube video is good before you spend time watching it? There are only two ways: inference and delegation. I’ve read Tim Urban’s articles in the past, and I know they’re good, so when he publishes a new article I can infer that reading it will be my time well spent. My father’s taste in books is quite close to mine, so when he tells me a book by some author I’ve never heard of is worth a read, I add that book to my waiting list — thus delegating my decision whether to read that book to my father whom I trust. Of course, inference and delegation work both ways and can be adjusted over time. If a videoblogger I’m subscribed to starts systematically posting videos I don’t enjoy, I unsubscribe. If a friend recommends a movie that I and my wife don’t like, when that friend recommends a movie next time, we’ll actually avoid watching it and choose something else.

Delegation and inference are often intertwined. I like a blog, I think the author is good at thinking and analyzing information, so when she speaks highly of a movie, I decide to give it a watch. A friend recommends a blog, and in that blog, the first post I read recommends a video, so I end up watching it. And then there are the weights of how much you trust one source over the other, and the whole system gets pretty complex but works well enough.

The emergence of Web 2.0 with all the user-generated data took the combination of inference and delegation to a whole new level. A shining example to me was Last.FM back in the day: “people that listen to those three bands you seem to be enjoying are also listening to a lot of that band from Sweden, you may want to check it out” — I discovered a lot of good music that way. And the social networks took it all even further with the algorithmic feeds, showing you the content based on what you liked, and who you’re friends with, and what your friends like, and what people “like you” seem to enjoy, etc., etc.

There are two issues, though. The first one is the fact that unless you have full access to the data and algorithms of the social network in question (which you usually don’t), you have no way of making sure that algorithmic feed is being generated for your benefit. And it usually isn’t. Instead, it is generated so that you spend more time scrolling through it (and see more ads to make more money for the owners of the social network), and it’s usually speculated that the feed can also be tweaked a little bit so as to influence your thoughts and decisions on what to buy, who to vote for, and so on, and so forth. In other words, the social network’s objective is the well-being of the social network, and not you (“you’re the product, not a customer”), which should be taken into account when you delegate your decisions on information consumption to the social network.

The other issue is the fact that once the social network starts making decisions on which pieces of information you consume and which ones you don’t (as opposed to your trusty RSS reader that is a mere carrier of the information you’ve chosen), all the “safe harbour” concepts stop being applicable altogether. The social network can no longer pretend to be just a carrier when it’s actively curating the information, which leads to the usual suspects appearing on the scene. Those who want to push some agenda.

First, governments. Some are better, some are worse, but most think they are entitled to control — at least to some extent — which information their subjects are allowed to consume and share. Executing control upon every individual subject and what they write or say is quite a hassle technically (and dissidents still manage to slip through the cracks), it’s much easier with a big centralized silo where all the pieces of information are. And governments do have some leverage over the commercial entities the social networks are, with fines, taxes, and threats of total bans China-style…

Then, there are vocal groups of concerned activists. These may not have the legal leverage the governments have, but in the modern economy, where public expectations about you matter orders of magnitude more than what you actually do or are able to do, these groups are easily capable of bullying businesses and public figures into compliance with their agenda.

So, the social network has to balance complying with governments’ demands, keeping activists satisfied, making money, and still keeping most of the users at least somewhat satisfied. Because the users that don’t feel like they are getting enough value from the social network — these users eventually quit, and without the userbase, the social network is worth nothing to anyone. Yet the big social networks of the day seem to be doing quite all right, so don’t feel too much sorry for them.

By the way, that’s exactly the leverage you have over the social networks. If you don’t think you’re getting enough value for what you have to sacrifice (things like time, privacy, control over the life choices you make, etc.) — just quit. Or don’t even join in the first place. Resort to that trusty RSS reader that only shows you what you explicitly asked for.

You’ll have to make your own decisions about what information to consume, though.