Saving the Socials: What If We Tried a Multipronged Approach?

Elon Musk made headlines once again following the completion of a $44 billion agreement to acquire control of Twitter in one of the largest leveraged buyouts in history. Many are delighted, believing that Musk’s influence will benefit the platform. The dizzying frenzy of takes has ranged from contemplative and prescriptive to predictably irrational and befuddling. At the same time, doubts remain as to whether Musk can get the deal over the finish line, even as other billionaire investors like Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal and Larry Ellison join in to help finance it. As of now, the deal is ‘on hold,’ with Musk saying that he remains “committed” to the deal but needs more information on the volume of spam and fake accounts on the platform.

Amidst all of this consternation, and regardless of whether the acquisition occurs, we find ourselves asking: what if the rules governing our public discourse weren’t contingent on billionaires taking a whimsy break from hoarding their monstrous wealth? With our priors cooked in a world where the richest 10% own 76% of all wealth, it’s no surprise that we limit our visions of radical change to pure conjecture about the intentions of the world’s richest man. But let’s assume, for a second, that we could decide how to build social media platforms governed by rules we decide upon together. How would that be different from what we have now, and how could we make those alternatives a reality? 

The best way to gauge the diverse array of approaches to social media we could see may be to look at how various groups are reacting to Musk. 

For example, some like the idea of a Twitter that matches its content moderation policies with “the law.” This could mean that Twitter is governed as a ‘limited public forum’ governed by First Amendment doctrine in the United States. While some proponents argue that platforms would be less able to engage in viewpoint discrimination under this standard, detractors might claim that it opens the floodgates to content Twitter currently moderates as false or misleading, hateful, glorifying of violence, and more. Then, there is the open question of what matching the platform’s policies to the “law” would mean outside of the United States, given Twitter’s global operation across many jurisdictions with different approaches to speech.

Another wellspring of competing views is asking how Twitter should approach authentication of users and algorithmic transparency. Some would say that requiring users to prove they are real, a goal shared by Musk, would go a long way towards reducing the influence of spam bots and troll farms, while others defend anonymous or synonymous accounts as essential to protecting critics of powerful individuals, whistleblowers, and users from marginalized groups around the globe. Similarly, while ‘open-sourcing’ algorithms could provide transparency into how a platform like Twitter upranks or downranks content, it could also introduce security risks by allowing bad actors to pore over the code and exploit vulnerabilities.

Whatever Musk decides to do with the platform is unlikely to please everyone. There is no single answer to the Twitter acquisition, so maybe we should consider as many strategies as possible while remaining wary of any kind of solutionism, but especially techno-solutionism— our tendency to try to resolve every sordid feature of modern society through a new app or platform. These strategies could include:

Boycott, Tech Worker Unionization,  Legislative Efforts

Needless to say, the acquisition of Twitter has incensed many people. People have called for boycotts, have threatened to leave the platform, and have urged the government to intervene to prevent the acquisition. Many Twitter employees are alarmed as their ethical commitments to the company are jeopardized. Unionization of Twitter employees, similar to unionization efforts at Google, could be extremely beneficial.

We are officially done with Twitter, others may say. After years of using the platform, we have come to the realization that it simply isn’t worth our time. Twitter has become a hot mess due to all the spam accounts, trolls, and bots, as well as the lack of options to co-direct the platform we all rely on. We would rather devote our time to other things than clean up after this mess. So long, Twitter! You won’t be missed! That’s another approach. To be sure, people left Facebook in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but Facebook is still alive and well. 

Beyond unionization and boycotts, we could use policy to create the right conditions for more alternatives to today’s social media to thrive. These policy initiatives could be implemented at the state and federal level. Over the past few weeks, conversations with leaders in the worlds of worker co-operatives and employee stock ownership programs have allowed us to identify some ways to achieve broader-scale adoption and mainstreaming of cooperatively run social media: 

  • Passing Interoperability Legislation: A major obstacle to cooperative social media platforms could be the lack of interoperability with incumbents, which allows gatekeepers to enjoy powerful competitive moats due to network effects — essentially, that an increase in users makes a platform more valuable to future users. One way to ameliorate this gap is interoperability rules. Put simply, consider how you can freely email Gmail users using an Outlook account. That is because email is an interoperable system, unlike today’s social media platforms where, for example, a Facebook user cannot necessarily engage with a Twitter user. Interoperability legislation, like the ACCESS Act of 2021, could allow for cooperative versions of social media to compete based on governance structures and values, rather than on their ability to build a network of users from scratch. 

  • Making the Small Business Administration (SBA) Do Its Job: For years, the SBA has treated traditional employee and consumer-owned cooperatives disadvantageously relative to other business models — for example, it has long denied access to its flagship 7(a) loan program to co-ops. This ostensibly changed in 2018 with the passage of the Main Street Employee Ownership Act as part of a defense authorization bill, but SBA delays in implementing the law required Congress to add additional language to this year’s Appropriations Bill to reiterate Congress’s intent to ensure that lending programs of the SBA are inclusive of employee-owned businesses.  Effects of the Committee Report on the SBA’s behavior toward co-ops have yet to be seen — however, the Biden Administration should consider elevating attention to this program and specifically highlight the potential of platform co-operatives, including cooperative social media, to be benefited by SBA programs, either through an Executive Order or through a M-Memorandum (see for examples) issued by the Office of Management and Budget to the SBA.

  • Regulatory Exemptions: With California’s new data protection law, the California Privacy Rights Act, which amends the 2018 CCPA to align more closely with Europe’s GDPR, social media platforms may face increased regulatory scrutiny given the surveillance-based advertising models upon which they depend. In order to incentivize investment in co-operatively run social media platforms, states like California could consider providing carve-out exemptions to data protection regulations on the presumption that cooperatively governed platforms provide users with direct control over their privacy. Similarly, Europe could also experiment with exemptions and incentives for cooperative social media platforms, as traditional ‘gatekeeper’ platforms are targeted by recent legislation like the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA).

Nationalization, Exit to Community, Cooperative Ownership

Nick Srnicek, author of Platform Capitalism, has advocated for top-down nationalization, while Evgeny Morozov has championed “digital socialism” and James Muldoon, author of Platform Socialism, has argued for a bottom-up form of socialism that rejects the power of a central state in favor of workers’ control and user democracy.

These are just a few ideas for policy and regulatory interventions that might be deployed to facilitate a future where we have multiple cooperatively run versions of social media to choose from. Fortunately, we already have platform cooperatives developing social media tools today — entities that would directly benefit from some of the regulatory interventions mentioned above. 

A substantial number of users are likely to abandon Twitter, perhaps not enough to cause Twitter’s crash and burn, but enough to significantly embolden Mastodon, an emerging, open source, decentralized social network with, according to an unsanctioned bot, some 232,815 users at the time of writing this. Mastodon, with its many human-scaled, private instances, including, could become a rescue vessel pulling up next to the social media Titanic as it starts to hit rock bottom.

Under broad-based employee ownership, employees control technological features, production processes, algorithms, data, and job structures. Democratic governance, in which all stakeholders who own the platform collectively govern it. Co-design, in which all stakeholders, including users, participate in the platform’s design and development to ensure that software grows out of their needs, capabilities, and aspirations. With the platform laying the algorithmic groundwork for other cooperatives, the company aspires to open-source development and open data. Learn more here

Users could be free to, for example, democratically decide to monetize their data by sharing it data with entities that they deem aligned with their goals and values. Such a platform may incorporate a unique data model that is designed to allow for both sharing and cutting off access to the data through legal and technical triggers corresponding to decisions made by the platforms’ users. Another cooperatively run platform may choose not to monetize its data at all, instead relying on subscriptions from its users to fund its operations and choosing to elect a rotating, representative bodies of decision-makers with limited terms to enable quicker decision-making.

Cooperative social media platforms can experiment with virality, which may be directly responsible for much of the toxicity we’ve seen in our public discourse over the past decade, by shifting away from a surveillance capitalism model supported by targeted advertising and funding themselves through subscriptions that grant subscribers an ownership stake. They can also learn from innovations in decentralized financing through tokenization and conversations with those pioneering more democratic, software-enabled organizations like DAOs

By also making the platform’s algorithms transparent to their user-owners, co-operatively run social media platforms can solicit input from technologists and experts in the public interest community to arrive at the right balance of product and algorithmic choices that allow for some degree of virality, which can have benefits like enabling marginalized communities around the world to use the platform for advocacy, while reducing the current tendency for the most angry, divisive content to quickly spread. 

In addition to supporting deplatforming to superior platforms, we must work to improve existing ones. Given network effects and user inertia, not everyone will abandon Twitter, so a multifaceted acquisition strategy makes the most sense. Exit to Community, a strategy for transitioning from VC-funded platforms to community ownership in which a greater number of stakeholders (users, workers, customers, or some combination of all) are involved in running it, is one approach for turning Twitter into a platform cooperative, or at least democratizing it somewhat.

To revitalize social media, we must be proactive. Please join us in advocating for policy changes, alternative solutions, and the transition to more democratic forms of social media utilities. These approaches, when promoted in a spirit of solidarity and with a focus on common goals, will pave the way for a more equitable internet. We hope this article has given you a bit of a toolbox to make informed decisions about your online presence. Join Mastodon today, use Twitter less, join the antitrust movement, support the platform coop movement, and speak out in favor of tech workers’ unions. With these steps, we can work together to create a better internet for all.

Image credit: “Social media autumn colors” by kkgas on the platform coop