Social Media Has Entered Its Chaos Era
We have entered the chaos era of social media in America. Sociologists would call it a “legitimation crisis”: It’s what happens when people lose faith in social institutions during periods of rapid change, including, crucially, institutions devoted to communication. Consider the lightning-fast transformation of Twitter, where six months ago journalists from national newspapers were trading barbs with politicians and experts, and today CEO Elon Musk changes the site’s rules on a whim, often making it impossible to know who is a legitimate source and who is an impostor.
Twitter isn’t the only social-media platform undergoing a vertiginous shift. Meta has laid off thousands of workers in the aftermath of profit declines and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s obsession with creating a “metaverse” in virtual reality. Newer social-media apps such as Hive Social seem to wink out as quickly as they arrive, and the newsletter platform Substack recently launched a Twitter clone called Notes, which is already earning bad reviews for its moderation policies. Meanwhile, Congress has banned government employees from using TikTok on workplace devices, and is mulling a national ban for all other citizens too.
Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher who coined the term legitimation crisis, also had a framework for how such calamity might be averted. One way is to rebuild trust in institutions by creating a stable, democratic public sphere where open communication is possible. We’ve learned the hard way that this is no easy feat. The problem we face right now is that social-media companies can change the layout of our metaphorical town squares however and whenever they’d like, warping our public sphere in the process.
This tends to happen because companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Substack are centrally controlled, run by executive teams that set the rules for millions of users. Musk, for example, rebuilt Twitter’s algorithm to boost the circulation of his own tweets (a charge he initially denied, until Twitter itself revealed that it was true), while Facebook and TikTok have secret algorithms that manipulate what people see. On Instagram, which, like Facebook, is a property of Meta, users see video “reels” from people they don’t follow in their feeds, whereas posts from accounts they do follow can be delayed or hidden for days. “Social media is like mass media now—you can’t control what you’re seeing,” Dan Hon, a designer and an adviser for the government-technology nonprofit Code for America, told me.
Hon and many others have found a solution in Mastodon, a nonprofit microblogging platform that’s part of a decentralized social network known as the “Fediverse.” In the Fediverse, there is no single company setting the rules, no eccentric CEO, and no algorithmic controls on what users see. And the idea is catching on. Bluesky, a decentralized social platform announced in late 2021 by Jack Dorsey, finally launched in a limited beta version earlier this year and drastically expanded this month; it’s now a popular, if small, community among the social-media elite.
I am one of the millions of people who fled to Mastodon after Musk’s transformation of Twitter in late 2022, joining a crowd who pushed its active-user base from roughly 300,000 to 2.5 million over a period of weeks. After the dust settled, Mastodon retained roughly 1.5 million active members, which adds up to a pretty impressive leap for a free, experimental platform. No, it can’t compete with Twitter’s 2022 numbers (237.8 million active users before Musk acquired it), but Mastodon—and Bluesky, which I joined late last month—offers a rare glimpse of what life could be like after social media’s legitimation crisis: a stable public sphere, outside the control of a central authority.
For decades, a certain set of digital idealists has pushed to decentralize power on the internet, to reshape the web in a way that more closely aligns with the vision set by its early architects, before corporations such as Google, Amazon, and Meta controlled so many aspects of life online. That dream may never come to complete fruition. But in the midst of this crisis, when so much of what we’ve been conditioned to take as the natural social-media order is crumbling each day, we finally have a clear view of something new on the horizon.
People who are used to apps like Facebook and Twitter—and that’s most Americans—may struggle to see the value of Mastodon and Bluesky, which do indeed look a lot like those services at first glance. Critics complain about how technical the Fediverse is, and can’t figure out how to use a system where they aren’t locked into a centrally controlled timeline. The concept is weird. But in a way, this moment of chaos and opportunity harkens back to an earlier time when Americans were grasping to define a precarious balance of powers: the very dawn of U.S. federalism. Federalist government and decentralized social-media platforms are by no means the same thing. Instead, I would suggest, a platform such as Mastodon sits on the other end of the spectrum from Twitter: It’s a decentralized ideal versus a centralized one. Most of us would probably prefer to live somewhere in the middle, and so did many 18th-century Americans who were puzzling out the federalist system.
One of the origin myths about the United States is that our Founders agreed on what federalism meant in 1787, when the Convention presented their freshly drafted Constitution to the states for ratification. But it was as confusing to Americans then as the Fediverse is to many people now. Federalism, or the precarious balance between state and federal government powers, was such an alien concept that three of the Constitution’s biggest proponents spent the next several months explaining it in 85 lengthy essays for various New York newspapers and books. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay’s writings were collected under the title The Federalist, published under their collective nom de plume, Publius.
The ever-expanding debate over Mastodon versus Bluesky versus Twitter, and so on, feels like an echo of what happened after the Constitution was ratified. As the Stanford historian Jonathan Gienapp points out in his book The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era, the Constitution and federalism continued to be contested throughout the 1790s. Indeed, he writes, it’s almost impossible to get at the original meaning of the document, because even in the late 18th century, U.S. voters could not agree on how to maintain decentralized state powers while also supporting a centralized government.
It’s a disagreement that continues to this day, but the debate over centralization has spread beyond politics into a disagreement over the management of our public sphere. Should we stick with an easy system like the ones we know on Twitter and Facebook, where a few media kings rule us all? Or embrace the ambiguity of decentralization in the name of freedom? Or perhaps, in the tradition of Publius, there is a middle way, where a federalist public sphere develops centralized norms and standards, which support decentralized meeting halls on thousands of servers.
More than 100 apps are talking with one another in the Fediverse, including the photo-sharing site Pixelfed and the music-sharing service Funkwhale. Still, Mastodon remains the biggest. That’s partly because anyone can set up a server there using freely available software created by Mastodon’s creator, Eugen Rochko, and his small team. Bigger players are joining up too. Publishers such as Medium and the Texas Observer have set up their own Mastodon servers. Late last year, Tumblr announced its intention to support ActivityPub, the protocol powering Mastodon, which could bring in more than 100 million new users and make it the first old-school social platform to join the Fediverse. Eventually, I’ll be able to see my teen nephew’s Tumblr memes from my Mastodon dashboard. Bluesky runs on its own open-source protocol, AT, but enterprising developers are already building a bridge between it and ActivityPub.
Now the question, as the U.S. Founders knew, is how to govern a community designed to be ungovernable by any central authority. Large platforms like Facebook and YouTube moderate their content by forcing users to adhere to their terms of service. This is partly for legal protection and partly to uphold nebulous “community standards.” It’s also their business. Nilay Patel, the editor in chief of The Verge, argued in a column last fall that the actual “product” offered by social-media companies is this moderation: It is the fundamental thing that defines how people use the platform. This becomes a challenge in a context where no central authority polices users.
Bluesky has some ideas about decentralized moderation—it offers users the ability to set their own personal moderation rules, for example—but many of them remain untested. Mastodon’s moderation system is more mature. Rochko maintains a list of curated servers open to all comers, whose moderators have pledged to uphold the “Mastodon server covenant.” That means “actively moderating against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia,” among other things. But moderation is an uneven system in practice.
The physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, author of The Disordered Cosmos, joined Mastodon in late 2022 and was immediately confronted with racist vitriol. When she spoke up about it, people on several servers complained that she was breaking moderation rules by talking about politics without hiding her comments behind a “content warning” box. Another Black Mastodon user, Mekka Okereke, a director of engineering at Google, dealt with the same moderation problems when he tried to raise awareness about racism on his server. In a thread about the topic, he wrote, “I experience racism almost every day, as do most Black US citizens. I’m not going to start every other sentence with [‘content warning’] just to make y’all feel better.”
No server on Mastodon is required to follow Rochko’s informal covenant. People have set up servers devoted to Nazism and violent misogyny. This is radical decentralization in a nutshell. There are some suggested rules for all servers to follow, but server rights reign supreme. Nobody can shut down a server whose policies they dislike. All they can do is “defederate,” or block incoming messages from that server.
In a sense, platforms such as Mastodon and Bluesky are taking us back to the late-20th-century days of the web, before Google ruled search and Facebook ruled social. Then, decentralization was the default—there was simply no central meeting place with enough gravity to pull in millions of people and billions of dollars. It felt like anything was possible. Maybe we would all become members of a global nation, united by high-speed networks and our obsession with the Hampster Dance meme. No one was sure what structures would take root, because the web simply hadn’t existed long enough to establish a pattern.
Soon, however, the freewheeling Fediverse may find itself caught in the same trap that ensnared the early web: money. Most Mastodon servers are run by volunteers. Some take donations from members or receive grants. But soon they will be joined by Tumbler, which is ad-supported, and many other such sites. Hon, the Code for America adviser, suggested that this could be an opportunity for shared-revenue models, in which servers offer micropayments to people whose posts are displayed next to ads. Right now, nobody is really sure how they’ll maintain social networks without getting paid to do it. Even Bluesky CEO Jay Graber has been coy about what her company’s business model might be. In any event, Hon said, questions about monetization will probably lead to conflict: “Some people might get annoyed about it and defederate.”
That’s the beauty and the agony of decentralization. No matter what you do, somebody is always going to take their ball and go home. Still, the lure of a decentralized network is strong. After a decade on Twitter, I’m enjoying the experience of a digital community with no algorithm shaping what I see. It’s just chronological. And I don’t have to worry that some angry billionaire will change all the rules on every server tomorrow.
That isn’t to say that someone couldn’t set up one server to rule them all. Perhaps an organization will attempt to re-create Twitter’s former power—only this time in the Fediverse. Already, people on Mastodon are discussing whether the platform’s original server, Mastodon.social, is too big and making it harder for smaller servers to assert their rights. Meanwhile, Bluesky is currently the only server available to people using the AT Protocol, which means it will grow without competition for the foreseeable future.
I asked the ActivityPub co-creator Evan Prodromou, effectively one of the framers of the Fediverse, how we can prevent a wealthy company from setting up the Mastodon equivalent of Gmail—a server so large that it would re-centralize the Fediverse. He thought for a while. “Decentralization is about choice,” he said. “So we need more … commercial organizations stepping into the space.” Healthy, balanced competition has always been the key to federalism, and Prodromou believes that it can work.
When Prodromou imagines the future of the Fediverse, he hopes “we see more experimentation around improving our social connections.” Instead of apps “pushing ads for toenail clippers,” he wants to see platforms that remind you to check in on friends you haven’t heard from recently, or that remind you to compliment your buddy’s new recipe. “In the political sense, that could mean showing you what’s going on in your city or province,” he added.
Hon said he dreams of using money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for Fediverse projects, because they are providing infrastructure for civic communication. “The government needs a platform to disseminate information,” he said. This could be it.
These are a lot of hopes and dreams to pile onto a social-networking system that’s still only a few million users strong. And yet every great community—even a nation—begins as an experiment, an idea that grows stronger the more we write and talk about it. Even if the Fediverse fails, it’s still worth doing. Annalee Flower Horne, a founder of the Wandering.shop Mastodon server, told me: “We look at communities and say that if they end, then they’ve failed. But a community doesn’t have to be permanent to succeed.”
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Canada should look to its past and Europe for guidance on media policy — but not south
Seventy years ago, Canadian leaders turned away from the British model of media policy that rejected advertising-supported private broadcasting.
While it’s gone well for a few private corporations, it hasn’t benefited the Canadian public. And the future heralds an even more dangerous American-style media landscape here in Canada.
Canadian leaders once understood the importance and even the potential danger of media to the public. Those lessons need to be remembered. The honourable early history of media policy in Canada needs to be embraced anew.
Aird Commission findings
In 1928, the Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting, also known as the Aird Commission, was created to consider alternative models for the future of Canadian broadcasting.
It was led by Sir John Aird, the president of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. As media scholar Marc Raboy writes in his comprehensive history of Canadian broadcasting, Missed Opportunities, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was established because of public pressure that came from a broad coalition of civic organizations that made up the Canadian Radio League.
The Aird Commission found much to be alarmed about regarding radio. As Aird stated in 1932:
“I have watched — naturally I felt it my duty to watch — the program and the material that was coming over the air, and much of it is of the most objectionable character … what I object to most strongly is the character of the ribald songs and vulgar dialogues regarding robberies, burglaries, hold-ups of banks and things like that.”
The commissioners listened to radio around the world and heard the concerns of various communities with access to the medium. They consistently heard complaints about content, but also about advertising.
As a result of its research, the Aird Commission proposed a publicly owned corporation not unlike the British Broadcasting Corporation (the BBC). It argued the new medium of radio should be regarded as a national public service rather than a profit-making industry, and its ownership and operating structure should be organized to recognize this principle.
Creation of the CBC/Radio-Canada
In 1936, the Canadian Broadcasting Act created the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio-Canada as a Crown corporation funded through fees known as receiver set licences (initially $2.50 per licence) with limited financing from advertising.
Richard Bedford Bennett, the Conservative prime minister of Canada who had the unfortunate task of attempting to unite a divided and economically struggling country through the Great Depression of the 1930s, pushed the CBC through its parliamentary hurdles.
“This country must be assured of complete Canadian control of broadcasting from Canadian sources. Without such control, broadcasting can never be the agency by which national consciousness may be fostered and sustained and national unity still further strengthened.”
In addition to telling the Canadian story to the booming cities of Vancouver, Montréal and Toronto, the CBC was tasked with reaching remote and isolated rural and maritime communities, providing both national and local voices reflecting Canada and in two languages: English and French. Canada’s vast territory and multilingual character made the CBC one of the world’s most far-reaching and complex public broadcasters.
Yet the Aird Commission recommendation that private broadcasting should be fully replaced by public broadcasting never happened.
The British model of public service media funded through receiver licence fees was eventually abandoned in 1953, and CBC funding would be tied to the shifting sands of parliamentary funding.
Cuts to the CBC
In 1984, the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney made significant cuts to the CBC, and those cuts increased under the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien.
Make no mistake — the BBC has more than its share of problems. While it’s thrived without advertising, it has lost some of its audience to the private commercial broadcasting that began in the U.K. in 1955 and from political pressure exerted by both Labour and Tory administrations.
Nonetheless, the BBC continues to dominate broadcast and online news in the U.K. The CBC has not fared as well.
Budget cuts to the CBC, often fuelled by partisan politics, have wrought havoc. The Windsor CBC station I watched as a child growing up in Detroit was once a profitable Canadian production powerhouse, but it cancelled popular local programming and slashed the news operation.
In 1990, because of further budget cuts, CBC closed down the station’s news department, spurring street protests from thousands of Windsor citizens.
A “Save Our Station” committee was formed to pressure both CBC and the Canadian government to preserve the Windsor operation. Some limited news service was established because of these protests, but other communities once served by the CBC had no such luck.
Private broadcaster CTV has eclipsed the CBC as Canada’s most-watched television network. And according to the independent media database IMDb, CTV’s top programs are all American productions; mainly police and medical dramas.
The European way
Europe suggests a better path. A recent study by the European Broadcasting Union shows a strong correlation between a country’s democratic well-being and robust public service media, including online media.
Social media policy in the United States has generated echo chambers of misinformation and conspiracy and has certainly not curtailed the erosion of civic knowledge. A 2022 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center reveals that while many Americans are angry about politics, less than half of those surveyed understood the basics of U.S. government.
And in Canada? According to Statista, Canada is one of the world’s most connected online populations, with a social media penetration rate of 89 per cent of the Canadian population.
The most popular media sites in Canada are also U.S.-based — Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
U.S.-based, advertising-driven social media sites designed to stoke outrage are not creating more informed Canadians. The actions of the so-called Freedom Convoy illustrates this phenomenon.
And, unfortunately, similar to American civic illiteracy, a recent Forum Research Poll suggests only one in 10 Canadians would pass the Canadian citizenship exam.
The future of advertising-driven media does not bode well for democracy. Even Silicon Valley leaders are warning against a laissez-faire U.S. policy approach in terms of generative artificial intelligence/large language models like ChatGPT.
The American threat to Canada continues not because of U.S. power, but because Canadian leaders have not put in place policies to foster and protect Canadian democracy.
Civic organizations of all stripes need to come together to demand a new approach to media that’s informed by lessons from Canada’s past and by the obvious mistakes evident south of the border.
This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. The Conversation is trustworthy news from experts, from an independent nonprofit. Try our free newsletters.
It was written by: Mark Lloyd, McGill University.
Mark Lloyd does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
The social media apps we use, from best to worst – Mashable
For a bunch of people who supposedly hate social media, we sure do spend a lot of time on it.
Just 33 percent of U.S. adults have “some or a lot” of trust in social media, according to a late 2022 report from the Pew Research Center(opens in a new tab), and people who spend time on social media are more likely to experience mental health problems(opens in a new tab), including depression. According to BroadbandSearch, an independent research site that compares internet providers, the average American spends a little more than two hours a day on (opens in a new tab)the very same hurtful platforms they purport not to trust. And it seems like new social media platforms — any sort of online space in which people are publicly chatting with each other, including Facebook and Twitter and TikTok and, yes, LinkedIn — are popping up every day.
There aren’t loads of social media platforms that are brand new in 2023, but there are dozens that we spend our time on every day that have had some pretty radically nightmarish moments in 2023. Unfortunately, as it is the middle of the year, it’s time to rank these nightmares.
While evaluating these social media platforms, I’ve considered five questions:
How widely-used is the app?
How grumpy does the app make me because of the content?
How grumpy does the app make me because of the interface?
How likely is the app to disrupt democracy?
How annoying are the influencers on that app?
There are many apps that launched recently that didn’t make the list — Geneva, Diem, Melon, Pineapple, Somewhere Good — because they just aren’t widely-used enough to asses just how awful they are. I’m omitting far-right social media apps like Parler and Gab — they are all worse than the apps I’m writing about here, and their content is too vile for me to make fun of in a listicle.
Here are the social media platforms that have stolen our brains so far in 2023, from least bad to worst. This list is just my opinion, but it is also correct.
A very nice escape from Twitter for the 20 minutes it was relevant.
Fine, but no one uses it anymore so it is now therefore boring. Boring, to be clear, is not necessarily an insult when it comes to social media (see: Facebook further down the list, which I wish was more boring).
Boring but alright.
This app seems fine but I don’t have access to it. Send me an invite and I will do my best to accurately review it.
A new app that is annoying to me, but others find it lovely.
There are LinkedInfluencers(opens in a new tab), which is annoying but not actively harmful.
Stay with me, but the newsletter platform is kind of killing it this year. It launched chats and a Notes feature to rival Twitter and some of the more popular Substack writers make a pretty good living from their newsletters. It’s this far down, though, because Substack isn’t without its problems: The platform allows some pretty hateful speech, like the transphobic newsletter from Graham Linehan.
This would be higher if it didn’t force Snapchat AI onto every single user.
Can be vile, but can also feed you a pretty consistent number of frog videos. It’s lower down because entire nations are banning it for — you guessed it — potential threats to democracy.
I swear to God if I get fed one more video about dieting I’m going to scream.
Unfortunately for Facebook, most of us simply refuse to forget 2016(opens in a new tab) and the Facebook Papers. There’s an old saying in Tennessee(opens in a new tab) — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, ruin democracy once, shame on — shame on you. Ruin democracy twice — you can’t get democracy ruined again.
Elon Musk 🥴
OPEC denies media access to Reuters, Bloomberg, WSJ for weekend policy meets
VIENNA, June 2 (Reuters) – OPEC has denied media access to reporters from Reuters, Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal to report on oil policy meetings in Vienna this weekend, reporters, Bloomberg and people familiar with the matter said on Friday.
The three media organizations are among the world’s leading suppliers of financial news and information. They report on the outcome of policy meetings between OPEC and its allies, where ministers make decisions that impact the price of the world’s most traded commodity.
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies is a group known as OPEC+ and includes top oil producers Saudi Arabia and Russia. Ministers from the group, which pumps more than 40% of the world’s oil supply, are scheduled to gather on Saturday and Sunday for regular biannual meetings.
OPEC staff declined on Friday to give media accreditation to Reuters journalists to cover the event. The staff handling media accreditation at one of Vienna’s luxury hotels said they could not issue accreditation without an invite. They did not comment when asked why Reuters reporters received no invites.
OPEC has not responded to requests for comment from Reuters this week on why it has not invited or accredited Reuters reporters for the meet.
“We believe that transparency and a free press serve both readers and markets, and we object to this restriction on coverage,” a spokesperson for Reuters, the news and media division of Thomson Reuters Corp (TRI.TO), said on Friday.
“Reuters will continue to cover OPEC in an independent, impartial and reliable way in keeping with the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.”
A reporter from Bloomberg was also denied accreditation on Friday, a person familiar with the matter said.
A Bloomberg spokesperson confirmed on Friday the company has not been given accreditation to cover the OPEC meeting.
The Wall Street Journal did not respond to a request for comment.
Reporters from the three outlets, many of whom have been covering OPEC meetings for years, did not receive invitations from OPEC ahead of the meeting.
Without accreditation, journalists cannot enter the OPEC Secretariat where the ministers meet, or attend press conferences during the event.
Reporters at other media outlets including trade publications Argus and Platts received accreditation on Friday. Argus confirmed its reporters have been accredited and will attend. Platts did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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