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There are a lot of issues with social giants and we are hearing about them daily, from Cambridge Analytica manipulating people through social media feeds, through silicon valley social companies censoring people, to algorithms that discriminate you and the content you see based on your friends or posts or likes.
It’s also a common question from the press to Silicon Valley social giants “what are you going to do about certain content on your private platform?” and those social giants keep incorrectly answering that question with “we will censor things on our closed platform based on an evolving policy.” But this is missing the larger more menacing point.
What most people want is rather simple:
Most people want to opt-in to what they want to follow, be that a news feed, a celebrity, a friend, or family. Most people do not want to be force-fed a constant stream of manipulated content to catch and keep their attention.
Most people want an ad-free experience but are willing to accept some contextual advertising or non-creepy advertising from opt-IN data shared. Most people do not want everything they have ever done and said and shared to be secretly recorded permanently in exchange for using a service online.
Most people want to retain their privacy and freedom and most people are concerned about their digital footprint. Most people do not want to be tracked all the time from all devices.
Every social network tends to have a timeline. The original idea behind a timeline makes sense–aggregate all of the posts from people in your network and present them in a chronological view. Because so many social networks are funded by ads, however, that quickly changes into posts from your friends as well as overt ads and promoted posts pushed to the top of your feed.
This leads to the next complaint about timelines: hiding chronological order. Ad-driven social networks are in a constant struggle to determine what’s “relevant” to you. They do this not just by collecting raw data about you and your social network, but by tracking you and training their own systems based on how you view posts. This is one reason why social networks try to hide chronological sorting and force you to view posts based on relevance. By tracking which posts you view versus which posts you scroll past, they train their own systems and figure out which ads you’d most like to see.
The ironic result is that your timeline ends up being full of things you don’t want to see, dictated by a central authority instead of you.
This problem is most prevalent with ad-funded proprietary social networks but it also shows up in decentralized federated social networks like Mastodon. This is a side-effect of what’s otherwise a beneficial feature: local and federated timelines. Local timelines show you a live feed of posts that are happening on the local social network (say social.librem.one) and federated timelines show a feed across Mastodon networks. This can be great because it shows you people on the network you haven’t explicitly followed and posts that your social network haven’t yet promoted so in that steady stream of new posts there’s a chance you might find something you like.
The downside to local and federated timelines is that there are also a bunch of posts you aren’t interested in from people you don’t want to follow. You don’t opt in to that feed so when it gets content that you particularly find offensive, distasteful, or not aligned with your views there’s little recourse unless your opinion of undesirable content happens to match those of the central moderators.
There are plenty of social networks that are trying the traditional opt-out approach. We are trying something completely different at Librem Social: disabling timelines altogether. That way you only see content you have explicitly opted into (posts from people you follow). We are also working on additional features to give you even more control over how you view and filter content in a decentralized way instead of relying on a central authority to dictate what should and shouldn’t show up in your feed. In addition to blocking users, Librem Social will offer flagging of content for DMCA copyright violations, spamming, harassment, and illegal activity.
In our view, the advantage of full opt-in control over your feed outweighs the downside of not being able to discover some content you like (signal) in the public feed amongst all the content you don’t (noise). Popular content can still spread through the network via organic boosts from people you already follow instead of artificial boosts from relevance algorithms or advertisers.
Combining no ads, no tracking, and opt-in is the trifecta of what most people want, because it offers a different approach to how social media functions:
Adding in decentralized (like email) accounts, based on the popular ActivityPub standard, would allow everybody on the Internet to control and follow anybody they’re interested in without a centralized Silicon Valley company controlling the entire user-base.
This Opt-in, No Ads, No Tracking, Decentralized, No Timeline social platform is not a complicated idea, but it seems like it will take a social-purpose-driven corporation that isn’t funded by advertising and data collection to do it.