Curbing the network effect

Imagine that Facebook was only allowed to have 5% of citizens of any given country signed up for their service. Or Google could only track 10% of all search users in any given ad-demographic. The remaining users would be divied up by me-to companies who would just copy the innovators, but it would also allow for other companies to actually innovate service and revenue models – allowing for greater diversity of services and conditions for services; some would be pay-per-use, some would be ad-driven, some might sell you and your family to the secret police, or be funded by state grants. But there would a higher democratic reduncency in a world where no one company can be gamed for unproportional gains.

This could be regulated by government oversight – which is fraught with it’s own problems – or perhaps internationally traded like a carbon credit, with exponential cost increase per user once you reach a limit. I’m sure there are existing systems and ideas out there which could be used, and the deliniation is tricky: Should email be included in such a limit, to curb gmail? How about the iPhone with the iOS / icloud walled garden – is that garden a “social media space” in itself, and should Apple be forced to open up their phone for other app stores, or should there be a limit on phone market share per territory?

There’s an ongoing discussion about the human / ecological costs of large scale farming practices and factory farming – zoonotic diseases, single point-of-failure monocultured crops – so the analogy to societal ills maybe is useful here: If we’re all a bunch of cloned sheeple, reared for our wool and meat by Facefarm, we’re more vulnerable to a coordinated campaign which will give us political worms. The way forward isn’t then to replace one giant farm with another, but rather encourage small farms to flourish by regulating/outlawing the large ones. You’d have to keep a watchful eye on efforts to subvert this – large holders maskerading as small actors – but it will always be the case the people will try to work around either the letter or the spirit of the law.

I was listening to The Vox discussion with Steven Feldstein, author of The Rise of Digital Repression, and the topic was to what extent social media is a net boon or bane for liberal societies, looking at the examples of how Duterte used Facebook to come to power in the Phillipines, Trump in the US etc. Not having read the book I’m uncertain if I share the participants optimism that social media in the end will prove to be a net good – the argument being that with an an accelerated and more all encompassing Internet it will become too difficult for repressive regimes to find a balance between giving people access to communication and restricting the sedicious activity. (I imagine a hand on a throttle, constantly trying to keep the train of technological progress within a narrow band of acceleration.)

But as it’s presented in the podcast, the argument seems a bit naive and the conclusion not at all obvious: People and companies seldom have qualms about making money off of immoral activities, often by equating legality with morality – “if it’s immoral, make it illegal.” There no necessary connection between democratic ideals and social media companies – Apple blocking apps used in Hong Kong demos come to mind – and there’s no mechanism which automatically leads the companies down a democratic path; as the successful dictatorial capitalism of China (and the bustle of Western companies to establish a foothold) should prove.

The argument for a laissez-faire approach to software and social media is that by allowing unfettered access to the public, services are created which then battle it out in the marketplace, and once a platform reaches a critical mass of users the network effect comes into play and their success is self-fulfilling; You are on Instagram because everyone is on Instagram. For the company, what follows is a re-evaluation of what your business model is, and since the only thing you can sell is your audience it’s only natural that what you are developing is ways to package and sell your audience in as many ways possible. You’re not in the business to offer your users new functions –  that’s just part of your costs – you are in the business of selling your members to your customers, who can be advertisers, politicians or governments (repressive or otherwise). As long as the social media space is unregulated, this will alway be the outcome because it will always be more profiteable to make more money than making less money, and if you’re making the most money, you win.

So I’m thinking about how the damage could be limited, without curbing the possibilty of actual innovation and making a living off of online social stuff. How about setting a hard limit on how big services are allowed to become, while at the same time enforcing interoperability to allow people to move their data? We can look at the history of how monopolies were broken up (when governments still cared about that) but the point of breaking up companies here would not be because they’re stifling innovation or (unavoidably) use unfair tacticts to keep competitors down, but that they’re bad for societies and bad for people. We don’t want to replace a hegemonic system with another, we don’t want them to appear in the first place.

My assumption is that social media, and in extension any free online services, are overall detrimental to society the more users they have. I’m unsure where to draw the line of which services should be included, and I certainly don’t have any pat suggestions for how to regulate them, but it seems a better approach to have a discussion on “what in society is worth preserving and promoting, and how would a framework look that regulates companies based on that?” rather than “Lets ask Facebook to be nicer”.

MateuszCurbing the network effect