Our relationship with tech is a mess, but how can concerned citizens and technologists work together to fix it? Can we actually align companies like Facebook, profit-driven entities with a duty to maximize shareholder wealth, with public interests like improving mental wellbeing, reducing political polarization, and detoxifying our information ecosystem?
As someone who believes in both capitalism and the power of technology to bring the world closer together and add joy to our lives, the current “techlash” has been a wake-up call for me about the importance of ensuring technology produces more positive individual and societal outcomes. Take Facebook, for example, which has been battered with years of negative press and calls for reform without much underlying change to its operations. Still, market forces haven’t produced a change, and campaigns like #DeleteFacebook and Stop Hate for Profit have done little to alter the data practices and advertiser relationships for which Facebook has been criticized.
Now, with the recent release of the so-called Facebook Papers and testimony from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen to governments across the globe, much of the world is grappling with how a company can be so heavily criticized while remaining wildly profitable. So, we need to ask if and how profitability and positive social impact can be better aligned.
Human Experience (HX)
Building a Coalition
Social media has elicited a firestorm of criticism pointing out its various adverse effects on our wellbeing, how we interact with one another, and even democracy itself. But what’s the solution to this vexing problem? That, so far, has proven elusive.
Luckily, a multitude of interrelated movements that are each focused on separate parts of improving social media have the potential to coalesce into a singular whole that can effect change. These areas of focus include changing business models, increasing regulation, better educating users, refining design, and gaining more understanding of social media’s impact on wellbeing. Improving social media will depend on a systematic approach that appreciates the problem’s interconnected moving parts and can unify researchers, tech workers, policymakers, economists, media, advertisers, and other stakeholders around a coherent roadmap toward an improved social media future.
As Haugen argued in her testimony to Congress, “Until the incentives change, Facebook will not change.” Fixing social media requires a collaborative solution because the real problem is the underlying structure of how social media platforms operate. That means multiple stakeholders will have to come together to make serious changes to social media.
Separate Players, Single Goal
I run the nonprofit All Tech Is Human, which is committed to forging a responsible tech ecosystem for those focused on reducing the harms of technology, diversifying the tech industry, and ensuring that technology is aligned with the public interest. In this capacity, I interact with a wide variety of individuals working to improve social media from different angles.
Each group in the responsible tech world plays its role in different ways. Human-centered designers emphasize the importance of cultivating greater empathy for a product’s audience and ensuring that the environment is tailor-made for its needs. Digital citizenship advocates promote media literacy and digital hygiene. Social scientists demand greater access to data from platforms in order to understand each one’s impact on human behavior. Lawyers and economists highlight the tension between the public interest and profit-driven, publicly-traded companies maximizing returns for investors.
Startups and businesses may propose ways to reimagine digital spaces. One example is the microsocial network Front Porch Forum, built for neighbors located in Vermont and parts of New York, that has focused on the public good over increased profits. Meanwhile, legacy platforms like Twitter are working on a decentralized social network in the hope of improved communication and decreased societal harms. And nonprofits like New_Public have spent a considerable amount of time mapping out what healthy digital spaces look like.
So, given the range of interests and backgrounds at play, how do we form a cohesive movement with participants across such a wide spectrum of backgrounds? The overall movement can become much stronger when these groups work together and find common goals and language.
As summarized in our report Improving Social Media, All Tech Is Human has found the throughline that connects everyone committed to fixing digital spaces is that they want to put greater emphasis and value on the human experience (HX) of being in that digital space. Getting there will involve a shift in how we speak about people on a platform, moving away from the conception of an audience of “users,” and also reimagining what a successful platform looks like. Right now, a platform like Facebook can be financially successful while its “users” are miserable and the public at large worries about it tearing apart the fabric of democracy. So, something clearly needs to change.
Right now people often talk about the negative impact of social media. We seem to know what’s wrong with it, but what does a good social media experience look like? What does it feel like? Reframing the social media conversation around our ideal human experience allows us to focus on maximizing the positive outcomes as opposed to solely reducing the negative ones.
Centering the language on our “human experience” with platforms reframes the work of improving social media far beyond being a mere tech problem. This term can unite the various groups that have focused on specific parts of the larger, underlying social media problem. Each of these groups deal with portions of a complex problem that involves technological development, governmental regulation, education, business models and human behavior. By unifying these groups around a central idea, a more complete picture emerges of both the overall problem and the potential paths forward.
HX is not a new concept, but one that has resurfaced in recent years as a way to shift discussion from users to humans. We are people, not products, and the term “users” is condescending, dehumanizing, and also severely overlooks how people are both influenced by and, in turn, influence a platform.
HX offers a better template for understanding our relationship with technology and what we as individuals really want from an experience on a platform. Over the past year, I have participated in a working group called the HX Project, which recently went public with some initial thoughts around HX in the hopes for eliciting feedback to continue evolving the concept. The initiative seeks to both craft and implement better language for discussing technology and to inspire more robust and collaborative dialogue. We aim to build a diverse coalition, recognizing the substantial amount of voices that must be included for meaningful change to occur.
The launch of the HX Project is, hopefully, the first step in a much longer process that unites various groups that have been siloed for years but who would all benefit from working together. HX is an early stage concept, which will be expanding and evolving as groups come together to share their knowledge and perspectives. In the coming months, All Tech Is Human will release a report developed by an open working group to showcase the people, organizations, and ideas related to the emerging cross-sector and interdisciplinary field of HX.
In order to align social media with the public interest, we need to have the public involved in the process and make foundational changes. The problems plaguing it run deep, so mere cosmetic fixes like investing more in so-called Trust and Safety measures won’t be enough. Part of the major shift toward improving social media is moving away from treating individuals as mere “users,” istead valuing them as humans who deserve a quality, human experience.