As social networks have become pervasive around the world, they’ve been used as tools for social change. Democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were coordinated and documented on Facebook. The #MeToo movement took its name from a Twitter hashtag, turning into an international movement against sexual harassment in the workplace.
Even before the social media platforms Telegram and Parler were used to organize the invasion of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, the civic role of social media had become inescapably massive. What citizens—and government leaders—do online has real implications for the health of our democracy and our society.
But the social media tools most widely used today were not designed with citizens in mind—they were designed to allow college students to flirt and co-workers to stay in touch. As companies like Facebook have become multibillion dollar enterprises, they've fine-tuned their tools to keep users engaged with highly emotional content, which likely increases political polarization and makes it less likely that social networks can bridge existing social differences.
Civilizing social media
Build online spaces that aren't just accidentally civic spaces,
but intentionally so.
My work at UMass centers on the idea that social media could be something radically different: a set of tools specifically designed to make us better citizens and neighbors. The systems my team is creating aren't meant to put Facebook out of business. Instead of being used by three billion people, they're meant for groups of 30 to 3,000—for communities that already exist in the physical world, or for communities of interest, connecting people who would have a hard time meeting physically.
The social media software we are developing differs from tools like Facebook in key ways. The community members are responsible for making decisions about what speech is acceptable and how transgressions should be handled, instead of a central authority deciding. In addition, these systems are open-source, so they can be customized, and they interoperate with existing networks like Facebook, so people can participate in networks like Twitter and these new networks simultaneously.
Why create alternatives to powerful, financially successful corporate products? The importance of social media in our public life makes clear that these spaces are too important to be left entirely up to the market. Instead, we need to experiment with building tools with explicit civic goals and purpose, looking for ways to build online spaces that aren't just accidentally civic spaces, but intentionally so.
We know a great deal about how social networks can be made entertaining and compelling, thanks to billions of dollars spent and billions of users posting on existing systems. We still have lots to learn about how to create online conversations that are healthy, productive, participatory, and democratic.
Ethan Zuckerman is an associate professor of public policy, communication, and information, as well as the director of the UMass Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, focused on reimagining the internet as a tool for civic engagement.
Hear Zuckerman’s talk “Fixing Social Media” for more about the initiative: