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Would We Be Better Off If We Didn't Rely On 1 Social Network?


Some technology experts are asking what it would mean to create an alternative to Facebook. The social network has had a rough couple of years. It faces criticism for the way it shared users' data and the way it was used during the presidential campaign. It faces a movement to quit Facebook. But, of course, the question is, quit Facebook in favor of what? If the people you know are all on Facebook, quitting it would be like quitting the power grid - possible, but not so easy - for now. NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: When Mark Zuckerberg was grilled last month on Capitol Hill, Senator Lindsey Graham asked him a question a lot of people are asking in one way or another.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: If I buy a Ford, and it doesn't work well and I don't like it, I can buy a Chevy. If I'm upset with Facebook, what's the equivalent product that I can go sign up for?

WAMSLEY: Zuckerberg said, well, there are a lot of companies that do some form of some part of what Facebook does. But the short answer to the question of - what's a Facebook that's not Facebook? - is, there isn't one. Two-thirds of American adults use Facebook, and three-quarters of those use it every day. I'm one of them, even though I'm uncomfortable with how much the company knows about me and how I'm targeted with advertising based on that data. But I use Facebook for my job, and I also don't want to miss out on party invites from my friends. So despite my misgivings, it's hard to think of quitting the platform for good. But Facebook is only 14 years old, and knowing what we know now about the flaws in its design, how might we go about creating the next social network, one that doesn't have those same problems?

CATHY O'NEIL: I really think Facebook is destructive.

WAMSLEY: That's Cathy O'Neil. She's a mathematician and the author of a book about the potentially dangerous consequences of algorithms. She says she imagines the next social network as having the best parts of Facebook without the worst parts of Facebook.

O'NEIL: Basically, a town square where people can interact, they can keep up with each other but without the sort of commercial, predatory aspect.

WAMSLEY: Her envisioned social network would have a moderator curating the conversation, and it would be a nonprofit. But she doesn't really want the government to run the system either because then they'd probably collect too much data about all of us. Another person thinking about building a better social network as Ethan Zuckerman. He's director of the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab. He thinks it's a problem that Facebook is so big.

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Facebook has an awful lot of power by virtue of the fact that you have a single company making decisions for about 2 billion people.

WAMSLEY: He says the next iteration of social networks could be decentralized instead of run by one company. A good example of this is a network that already exists, an open-source software called Mastodon.

ZUCKERMAN: You can install it, put it up on a Web server. At that point, you're running a Mastodon node.

WAMSLEY: It's a sort of replacement Twitter where anyone can create their own community with their own rules. Another problem that he'd fix...

ZUCKERMAN: We don't really have control over the algorithms that sort our information and choose what we see or don't see.

WAMSLEY: Zuckerman and his MIT colleagues have built an experimental platform called Gobo, which allows you to tinker with the algorithms on your Facebook and Twitter feeds as you see fit.

ZUCKERMAN: So you can say things like, I'd like to hear from more women. Mute all the men. I'd like less rude content and more civil content.

WAMSLEY: It's both fun and tricky to think about what a better social network looks like. Should it be bounded by geography so it's easier to meet your neighbors, or is it a place to meet far-flung kindred spirits? Is it a space to share news articles and funny videos, or is it politics- and meme-free? Do you use your real name, or do you keep personal data out of it? Maybe you pay to use it, or maybe it pays you to use it. Zuckerman says we might be better off if we didn't rely on one social network to do everything.

ZUCKERMAN: We might choose to have a bunch of different networks and figure out how to link them together. It's a bit crazy that we have one social network that tries to do everything.

WAMSLEY: It can be hard for a new social network to take off because of something called the network effect, which says we tend to go where our friends already are. And when innovative social networks have threatened Facebook's dominance, it's simply bought them, as it did with Instagram and WhatsApp.

ZUCKERMAN: The trick is right now, Facebook has a quite effective monopoly, so one possibility on this could be to try to constrain Facebook from swallowing other competitors.

WAMSLEY: And that network effect can cut both ways. So if my friends started leaving Facebook, it'd be easier for me to leave, too. I asked Cathy O'Neil if she could imagine a scenario in which a real alternative to Facebook emerges, and she said yes, including one where people simply lose interest.

O'NEIL: It was kind of a temporary insanity that we all went through where we wanted to do this in the first place.

WAMSLEY: And in that future, perhaps we'll look up from our phones, walk outside and hang out together in real life.


Laurel Wamsley reporting here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.