What consumers are only beginning to realize is that creators of algorithms, intentionally or unintentionally, inject values and biases, often with great consequence. Algorithms are commonly thought to be objective tools, when they are not that at all. They are built to fulfill the creator’s intent.
It’s equally important to recognize the difference between human-scale and web-scale platforms -- and that, once a platform is no longer manageable at a human scale, the use of automation, algorithms and AI are implemented to help with moderation and user retention. This tech has shown that it needs more human guidance than it currently has, as we’ve seen with examples of social media aiding real-world data breaches, manipulation and genocide.
Some have argued that one solution would be to inject ethics into how algorithms are built, such as a universal Hippocratic oath of modeling for data scientists. In fact, The Data for Good Exchange began work on establishing such an oath in 2018 and one now exists through the National Academic Press. While good-intentioned, such an oath succeeding within an unregulated industry is slim to nil, as detailed in this Wiredpost.
Where does this leave the largest social platforms? There is evidence of usage time slipping and membership decline, but how long will it take for Facebook and Twitter to become artifacts?
In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Annalee Newitz describes the current state of affairs: “Facebook and Twitter lack an incentive to promote better relationships and a better understanding of the news 'because they make money through outrage and deception,' said Erika Hall, owner of San Francisco design firm Mule….'At a business model level, they are ad networks parasitic on human connection,' said Hall."
Because of the business incentive to keep up the addictiveness of these platforms, the question is really, “when will users wake up?” Generational shifts over time will help. Until then, algorithms will affect people’s everyday lives on a global scale.
Luckily, there is a both opportunity and a movement emerging.
The use of design ethics is an opportunity to take the high road with people’s time and data, and build consumer trust. The emerging movement encompasses more human-scale platforms, ones with trusted privacy and terms of service, and free from (or at least honest about) data collection and algorithms. In addition, content-specific platforms are on the rise, getting back to the community-based message board roots of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
As more consumers become aware of how manipulative social platforms are, they will reject them in favor of more private, secure, and content-specific networking options, especially for their children. You can see evidence of this already starting with talk of a decentralized Twitter and co-founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales’ new social network WT:Social that operates without advertising.
Facebook (more than any other company) is in tune with this movement and what it means for its bottom line. Ryan Holmes, founder/CEO of Hootsuite, explained how Facebook Groups evolved into an on-platform outlet to keep wary users on Facebook in a Forbes article.
Facebook validated the point further with a Super Bowl spot showcasing how groups connect you to people to motivate you to do things that “rock.” It’s interesting to note that none of the people in the Facebook ad were on their phone or computer.
The big opportunity is for progressive social platforms to work hand-in-hand with the marketing industry to lead consumers away from the addictive feeds they are growing tired of, toward authentic experiences they desire. The companies that understand this concept and embrace it will be rewarded with consumer loyalty and future success.