I've been thinking a lot the past few weeks about the kind of media I consume on a daily basis, and how that consumption affects my overall outlook on life. Just like people should pay close attention to what they eat to avoid unhealthy habits, taking stock of one's media diet is also a worthwhile exercise, as what goes into your brain is just as important as what goes into your body. After a good deal of reflection, I think the current way of consuming media online has some significant dangers and drawbacks, and a new system is needed to encourage authentic communication and to promote positive mental health.
With the news that Twitter may soon be bought up by another media giant, things are not looking good for the corporate concentration of media. When our media is trusted to just one or two large companies, we're far from an ideal media environment. And this is not only for issues of fairness and corporate censorship, even though those issues are obviously important.
A corporate-controlled medium is a centralized medium. As opposed to true social communication, which is much more of a peer-to-peer nature, centralized communication occurs in one (physical) place, on one set of servers or data centers, under that corporation's control and purview. This isn't a bad thing in and of itself, until you realize the fact that you are entrusting something as essential as your communication to just one company. If said company one day decided to halt its service and go out of business, to be bought up by another company and make radical changes, or even to make such radical changes out of a need to improve revenue, that can create important complications to a medium that should not itself be the focus of your communication. Imagine if air was controlled by a corporation that decided to restrict how you used its main product (Oxygen™) to be able to speak.
So you aren't using a free method of communication, you're using a product. Such a model often tends to stifle innovation and free agency. The corporation wants you to see its ads so it can make money, and it will do everything it can to prevent you from hiding these ads. It will reorganize your feed on a whim, because it's a more conducive way for selling you things.
Should any of this really be a factor in how we communicate?
A Crisis of Sanity
With the advancement of the Internet our daily lives have become more and more dominated by the constant flow of information. The introduction of each new type of information into this flow has often been accompanied by a stubborn refusal to consider how such introduction will affect the wellbeing of the people that will be consuming it. Newspapers have been around for a very long time, after all, often broadcasting the grim news that occurs in the world, but how long have those newspapers been beamed into our eyes at almost constant frequency throughout the day?
Twitter brought us the development of a ubiquitous and monolithic news feed, a place where we can get a free flow of information at all times, that gives us information about our friend's lives and activities as well as about politics and other atrocities happening all over the world. It seems to be an odd juxtaposition but such things are inseparable these days. Even on Facebook, we're subjected to the awful political opinions of our relatives. Peculiar, because aren't they the same ones that told us to not talk about politics at the dinner table?
The merging of endless news and political information with our natural, constant social communication has been highly damaging for how many people interact with the world. Far from breaking down barriers of isolation and communitarianism, this merging has only reinforced partisan mania in many, dangerous misanthropy and nihilism in others. And while some might argue that such constant awareness of news and political information has created a more generally "progressive" populace, most real evidence that exists today suggests that people have become only more amenable to globalized neoliberalism, albeit with a more socially-acceptable face.
Being confronted with this merging of information streams on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis has not necessarily made us better people to each other. It's peculiarly difficult to be a woman online, for example, and if you have any semblance of a high profile then the amount of bizarre hate directed towards you can be almost maddening. The tools provided by companies like Twitter to counter and eliminate such abuse are often woefully inadequate, but is that because of corporate indifference or rather because of the structurally deficient form of the medium itself? And the problem doesn't just lie with right-wing trolls; the same question should be asked of so-called "sensible" people that spend so much of their time publicly shaming and berating political columnists for cozying up with fascism (as is their wont). I'm a leftist and anti-fascist, I believe dangerous ideas should be confronted, sure; but there is a significant mental impact to seeing a news feed constantly filled with such hostility.
Imagining an Alternative
About six months ago I made a very positive decision for my personal sanity: I added a filter in Tweetbot that blocked all tweets that mentioned the word "Trump". And, for about four months, I was in heaven. My feed was much cleaner of vitriol and anger, both from proponents and opponents; a place where it was easier to get information about my friends and hobbies that I was actually looking for. Now it didn't work forever — maybe if I filtered out "Clinton" also, or just "election" altogether, it would have remained more effective. But the point is this: I don't go online to get angry about things and to enter a spiral of depression and nihilism. I go online to connect with friends and family, and learn more about the world on my own terms.
A free and independent media must put an emphasis on health and safety. Imagine a network that spends its time organically fostering an encouraging, empowering, and overall "zen" atmosphere for communication, rather than counting the costs and figuring out how best to monetize our attention. That's the kind of network I want to be a member of.
Therefore, a free and independent media must give people the right to ignore. Put more politely, it gives people the right to filter what they want to see. Just as you wouldn't give the time of day to a crazed preacher shouting at you that you're going to hell on a downtown street corner, why should you be forced to interact with things you know will only upset you and make you less capable of dealing with the world when you actually need to do so?
Imagine a stream of information with posts that are easily classified by category and desired audience, and where such classification is a requirement. Now imagine the following situations:
- "I've had a very stressful week, and just can't stand to hear about the latest crazy thing X political candidate has said. Maybe I should mute the #politics category for the rest of the week."
- "I'm just getting over the death of someone that was dear to me. I'd rather keep my mind on more positive things. Maybe I should mute the #war or #mass-shooting categories for awhile."
- "I want to share something my boyfriend said to me, but my family is homophobic and doesn't know I'm gay. I will only share this with my followers marked as #friends."
In such a network, the right to criticize must be protected, but harassment and threats must be dealt with. A decentralized system using a common communication protocol gives a substantial amount of freedom to users to choose the environment they want to be in. It also gives the power to network operators to act on abuse, which could be far more responsive and understanding than a corporation. And whether this power remains in the hands of network administrators, or is given to a group of volunteers (elected or appointed) on that particular network, communities can be empowered to keep their own spaces of communication free from the types of content they don't wish to see.
In such a network, a holistic, people-centered design and user experience takes center stage instead of endless messy attempts at monetization and advertisement. A clean experience that enforces safety for its users, while respecting users enough to let them customize their environment as they see fit.
So, where is it?
Social networks like Diaspora make selective sharing very easy. Twitter and Facebook have slowly started to embrace tag-based filtering. No medium that I'm aware of have both concepts working together in a firm yet effortless way. And all three have had their challenges when it comes to handling abuse and harmful content. In short, nothing that exists today is perfect, either from an organizational or a technical standpoint.
A few months ago I started a conversation with a few friends about what a new sort of communication protocol would look like. Many of us were inspired a few years back about the promise of Tent, a versatile system of communication that allowed for many (nearly)-serverless types of applications to be built on it, providing one backend for sharing a wide variety of content. I'm still inspired by the promise of this kind of platform. Maybe it's time to bring back a similar system. Or maybe it's time to just push forward and create a less complicated but just as powerful framework. I'm not sure yet.
But I do know that we desperately need a new way of communication, free from corporate influence and oppressive toxicity. Will you help me build it?