Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2016

Could government-created social media work in Canada?

It’s time to consider what a public social network might look like

Navneet Alang@navalang

ThisMagazine50_coverLores-minFor our special 50th anniversary issue, Canada’s brightest, boldest, and most rebellious thinkers, doers, and creators share their best big ideas. Through ideas macro and micro, radical and everyday, we present 50 essays, think pieces, and calls to action. Picture: plans for sustainable food systems, radical legislation, revolutionary health care, a greener planet, Indigenous self-government, vibrant cities, safe spaces, peaceful collaboration, and more—we encouraged our writers to dream big, to hope, and to courageously share their ideas and wish lists for our collective better future. Here’s to another 50 years!

When it first arrived, social media felt electric. Perhaps it was sheer novelty, but the early years of Facebook, Twitter, and more felt like a crackling debate club, hyper TV channel, and a friend’s living room all rolled into one. Reality quickly set in. Now that it’s matured, it turns out social media is full of noise and acrimony, and finding the great stuff is increasingly hard.

If that weren’t enough, it’s become clear that the owners of the most popular social networks have their own agendas. This year alone we were reminded that Facebook’s algorithms always risk being biased. Meanwhile, Twitter may be struggling to deal with abuse and hate speech on the platform not because it doesn’t know how to, but because doing so might affect how quickly it grows, thus upsetting Wall Street. Perhaps social media’s problems all have the same root cause: networks are increasingly shaped by the need to make money.

It is tempting then to suggest that what is good about social networking was just an historical accident, now destroyed by the realities of economics. But social networking is no trinket; it is the evolution of the public sphere, the arena in which much of public discourse now takes place. Yet, in the past societies have recognized that such forums were too important to leave solely to the whims of profit-seeking companies: they should either be subject to some kind of regulation or, as is the case with institutions like the CBC or BBC, the state itself should be intimately involved. It’s time to consider what a public social network might look like—one that isn’t merely public by mistake, but actually publicly run or owned.

It is admittedly a difficult proposition. Questions abound: should the state itself produce its own version of a social network? How might it do so given the rapid pace of change and tendency of regulation to tamp down on creativity and innovation? And there is of course a looming elephant in the room: if a government were to create something like its own Twitter, how could it not be seen as anything but monumentally boring?

But perhaps “boring” might be the point. Think of a driver’s licence: it’s an entrance pass onto a network of roads on which, as long as you follow certain rules, you are free to do and go as you please. What if one of many social media options was a public network with an official identity on which public discourse could flourish—not a replacement for the ambivalent liveliness of Facebook or Twitter, but an amalgam of the two that took their structure and pace, while abandoning their emphasis on user growth and advertising revenue.

Yes, it would undoubtedly be initially derided as the social network for squares. The appeal, however, would be clear, and would become most obvious over time in contrast to private social media: there would be no ads; the network would prioritize user needs, allowing personalized control over what appears in one’s feed; and in relying on a single account, it would help mitigate some of the issues around abuse and hate speech. After all, a public social network would have to abide by the rules of the government that runs it, not the whims of, say, a libertarian-leaning American company.

We even have an existing model to use as inspiration: the @indigenousXca account on Twitter. Each week, a different Indigenous Twitter user in Canada takes control of the account and talks about whatever they want. It is not profit-oriented, nor is it done for clicks or likes. It is, rather, about injecting much-overlooked perspectives into the public sphere, and as such, it is democracy in the activist sense, not the capitalist one. It is the kind of project we as a society should strive for. After all: isn’t it time that our digital spaces reflected our values, rather than those of large corporations?

Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto.

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