It’s Time for a Democratic Social Network

The social blogging site Tumblr announced that on December 17th, 2018 that they would be removing all pornographic content from their site. Anything that has been “flagged” as controversial will be deleted. The content was flagged using a computer program rather than human moderators, which has led to what you might call a scorched earth content policy. Anyone who has used Tumblr knows that this is the end of Tumblr. The site was known as an internet home for creators considered outside the mainstream, including LGBTQ artists and sex workers. It did not build a user base out of religious tracts and home recipes. The site is about to implode in conflagration of capitalist fear and greed.

The strategy centers around Tumblr’s placement in the iOS app store, which has its own arbitrary content rules. Most recently, Tumblr had to deal with a series of programs, or “bots” that were posting child pornography on their site. Even after removing those accounts, they could not get Apple to reinstate their position in the app store, and this latest announcement is a last ditch effort to get back on the iPhone.

Tumblr’s executives are going to whitewash this move for their investors, who are mostly banks and venture capital firms. They are going to make some noises about “leadership” and “tough decisions”, but we the users can see this behaviour and know its true meaning: Capital makes all the decisions on the internet, and it’s time we put a stop to it.

Social Networks have put us all in this weird situation with corporations. We are consumer and product all at the same time. We make a choice of the content we consume with our likes and follows, and that data is a product sold to advertisers who sell us ever more products. Some of those products even help users produce more content, which attracts more consumers, which generates more data to sell, and on it goes.

We know this cycle is profitable, and we are just beginning to see where it leads. I pray that we do something before we actually see where it leads, because holocaust denial and flat earth theories make big money for these companies. Facebook and Twitter are on the cusp of being regulated. They are mini-nations, with the attentions of hundreds of millions of people. But we can’t simply let them be regulated like television and radio, because that would be abandoning the best feature of the internet – the interactivity. Once again, the internet can do better than traditional media. It can be run democratically.

Consider this, have you ever been consulted about the design decisions of any social network? You probably haven’t, and if you knew how social networks were built, you would think that’s insane. Making twitter clones is a rookie trick for most coding “boot camps”. It seems like magic, but all of these social networks have been cobbled together from codebases that are available freely on the internet. Breaking off and starting your own social network is easy enough. Sites like Mastodon and Pillowfort already fill that niche, but what if their design decisions were made democratically? Every network has settings that tailor the user experience for individual users, but what about the decisions that affect multiple users, like budgets, codes of conduct, or the design of the algorithm that shows content?

In the race to become profitable, the large social networks are ignoring the users that made them attractive to capital. This is one of those unique times in technology history where plucky upstarts can take down industry titans. Instead of just transmitting and receiving content, we can change our media into new experiments in governance. Social networks have always provided the illusion of democracy with their voting systems, but we can go much further now. We could have social networks run by representation, user contribution, random lottery, or even cult of personality. Not all of these configurations work, but we already know that letting corporations and advertising run our lives on the internet is not working. We can reshape the future, we just have to try.

Also published on Medium.