After watching the much-lauded doucmentary, The Social Dilemma, I was left feeling disappointed. As a social media curmudgeon, my hopes were high that our problems would be accurately diagnosed, but aside from a handul of good observations that had already been made by others, they completely missed the mark.
The primary problem we have with social media is not dastardly advertisers doing too good of a job selling coffee mugs and yoga lessons; it's not "algorithms" or the engineers-with-messiah-complexes behind them; and it's certainly not capitalism-gone-awry. It's the premise: the world will be a utopia if only we can connect everyone. Bullshit! If you place a low-resolution avatar of everyone on the planet into one giant town square, armed with a handful of clumsy tools like character-limited replies and unnuanced emjoi reactions, they will become outraged. And then they will go to war with each other, both ideologically and physically. This is a classic left-brain utopian misunderstanding of human nature taken to its logical conclusion, plain and simple.
In my day job as a software engineer, my favorite way to solve a problem is to define it out of existence.1 How do we define this problem out of existence? Simple: disconnect. That is what I've chosen to do, but that is a personal choice, and many of my closest friends and thinkers I admire remain at least partially connected. Often, this is because they belong to online communities that would be too painful to leave, so they stay.
So I've begun exploring an idea: what would it mean to create a community platform that was anti-viral; that is, committed as a core principle to having useful boundaries within which something healthy can grow undisturbed. Want ads? No problem. Want to organize a group, publish a manifesto, plan events, and send direct messages? Go for it. Want to invite 6 billion people into one space? Not so fast.
As an example, I belong to a running group. I've heard from many members, including the leadership, that they would love to delete their own Facebooks, except for the fact that the group is organized almost entirely on Facebook. Where can they turn? A Slack workspace is fine for chat, but isn't quite right for anything else. Shared calendars capture events, but not photos or discussion. There are newer versions of old-school forums, but those don't fit the bill either. So, back to Facebook. What if groups like that had an alternative?
I'm calling the project Bubble, and the code can be found on my GitHub. Will it dethrone Facebook and Twitter? Certainly not. Who knows if it will go anywhere at all. But I have to at least explore the idea to see what happens.
The goal I'm setting for myself is to have something enjoyable to use by the time my kids want to start being social online. Ideally, it won't take that long to get something running, but life is busy and it's more about having a meaningful carrot to chase. At any rate, my Bayesian prior here is that I'll realize at some point that the project was doomed from the start, or else why hasn't someone else done it? But then again, Vitalik Buterin thought the same thing before founding Ethereum, and that worked out alright.
- Those who have read it will notice that this idea was articulated best in A Philosophy of Software Design by John Ousterhout. It's a fantastic book, which I would recommend to anyone interested.