I don't need to tell you that something is wrong with social media.
You've probably experienced it yourself. Maybe it's the way you feel while scrolling through your Twitter feed — anxious, twitchy, a little world weary — or your unease when you see a child watching YouTube videos, knowing she's just a few algorithmic nudges away from a rabbit hole filled with lunatic conspiracies and gore. Or maybe it was this month's Facebook privacy scandal, which reminded you that you've entrusted the most intimate parts of your digital life to a profit-maximizing surveillance machine.
Our growing discomfort with our largest social platforms is reflected in polls. One recently conducted by Axios and SurveyMonkey found that all three of the major social media companies — Facebook, Twitter and Google, which shares a parent company with YouTube — are significantly less popular with Americans than they were five months ago. (And Americans might be the lucky ones. Outside the United States, social media is fueling real-world violence and empowering autocrats, often with much less oversight.)
More from the New York Times:
Facebook's Zuckerberg Said to Agree to Testify Before Congress Over Data Privacy
Covering Disasters With 2 Phones, in Case One Falls in the Mud
Zuckerberg Takes Steps to Calm Facebook Employees
But it would be a mistake to throw up our hands and assume that it has to be this way. The original dream of social media — producing healthy discussions, unlocking new forms of creativity, connecting people to others with similar interests — shouldn't be discarded because of the failures of the current market leaders. And lots of important things still happen on even the most flawed networks. The West Virginia teachers' strike and last weekend's March for Our Lives, for example, were largely organized on Facebook and Twitter.
The primary problem with today's social networks is that they're already too big, and are trapped inside a market-based system that forces them to keep growing. Facebook can't stop monetizing our personal data for the same reason that Starbucks can't stop selling coffee — it's the heart of the enterprise.
Many of the fixes being proposed involve regulation. The Honest Ads Act, a bill in the Senate, would require greater transparency for online political ads. The European Union's General Data Protection Regulation, which goes into effect in May, aims to give users greater control of their digital information trails.
But these efforts don't touch the underlying problems, and in fact could make it harder for start-ups to compete with the giants.
If we're really serious about changing how social networks operate, far more radical interventions are required. Here are three possible ways to rescue social media from the market-based pressures that got us here.