Over the last few years, a series of Facebook scandals have made consumers question their relationship with the platform. From “fake news” to invasive “research” apps with root-level access to network traffic data, it’s not clear how the social giant will regain users’ lost trust.
For those reasons and more, the next five years will be a crucial time for the open Web to stage a comeback. When the Internet started, no single company dominated as an access point or controlled what users saw. It might be optimistic, but I believe we can (and will) return to a freer, more open Web. It’s just too bad it took some major abuses of power to get there.
The dark side of social and algorithms
Social media has not only enabled community, transparency and positive change, but also abuse, hate speech, bullying, misinformation, government manipulation and more. In just the past year, more and more users have woken up to the dark side of social media.
According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, in the last 12 months, 74% of Facebook users have either adjusted their privacy settings, taken a several-week break from the platform, or deleted the app from their mobile phones altogether.
Open Web and privacy advocates, on the other hand, have warned against the dangers of social media and unchecked algorithms for a while. For example, an expert from The American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology warned in 2015 that Google’s algorithms could be responsible for rigging the 2016 US election. Fast forward a few years, and we found that Russia-backed Facebook posts reached 126 million Americans during the 2016 presidential race. It might have happened through a different company, but roughly similar effects played out.
Another concern is that the “black box” around algorithms will impact major, life-or-death decisions including sentencing people to prison and diagnosing diseases. While some of these developments could be positive, we need to have more clarity around how these algorithms work and why these decisions are being made.
A crackdown on oversight
In the next five years, there will be a bit of a reckoning for companies that have operated in this black box for so long.
First, the day will come when regulators will implement a set of laws that govern the ownership and exchange of data online. It’s already starting to happen with GDPR in the EU and various state data privacy laws taking shape in the US. These regulations will require platforms like Facebook and other platforms to give users more control over their data, and when that finally happens, it will be a lot easier for users to switch between services or build new services on top of existing ones.
For example, we recently heard that Facebook intends to further blend Instagram and Whatsapp with Facebook. It’s likely they’ll want to make the company harder to split up later (and harder for users to know what’s happening with their data). Regulators should be all over this development for privacy and security reasons.
Second, there will be a day when governments globally will disempower large platform companies. We can't leave it up to large companies to judge what is false and true or have them act as our censors. My thought is that governments worldwide will institute algorithmic oversight over these large platform companies’ algorithms. Potentially, these protections could also extend to other areas of artificial intelligence responsible for making important decisions.
A return to the open web
A full-scale return to the open Web won’t happen overnight. I believe that technologists in this area need to look at some of the positive things that have made social media successful. For example, with Facebook, people like the ability to connect more easily with each other. The instant gratification and “social highs” that come with these connections have been widely studied.
Projects like the Indie Web are actively looking at ways to connect people across platforms, without having to silo data into a single provider. Approaches like “backfeeding” will enable users to create websites with social profiles they own themselves. That way, they can receive likes, comments and other discussions in a central location. This idea could potentially modernize the concept of blogging, since not everyone wants to take the time to write long-form posts.
Even personally, I’ve slowly started to detox and remove myself from social media. I still have been able to connect with the people I love. Now I have even more time to blog and subscribe to RSS feeds. These are small steps I’ve taken back to the Open Web’s roots, which I hope others will also take in the future.
I’d love to see thousands (or millions) more people turn back to the open Web, helping to transform it into a platform to bring people together -- and more importantly, regain users’ trust.