Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, has questioned whether the way we currently use social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook can be considered a “net good” for the planet. He points out that despite the “world wide” element of the web, people largely choose to interact with people similar to themselves. Tech companies and regulators shouldn’t simply “leave people to make whatever social networks they like,” he says.
Speaking at the Innovate Finance Global Summit this week, Sir Tim bemoaned the fact that negative content often appears to find an audience more quickly and easily on social media than positive messages. He also referred obliquely to the harassment and fake news controversies which surrounded both the EU referendum and the US presidential election last year as evidence that at present, social media has the potential to do more harm than good.
These toxic examples defy the utopian ideals with which the web was founded. “The assumption was if we gave humanity an open space to play with, good things would happen,” he says. “We have tried to keep it open, we kept it royalty-free. We have kept it open in the sense of no censorship. On a good day, in a good country, we keep it free of spying.”
Sir Tim speculates that online abuse and fake news are both products of a fundamental design flaw in these platforms, and that it may well be time to seriously reevaluate how we interact with each other in the online realm. “We need to rethink the way we build society on top of these web pages,” he says. “How come nasty, mean ideas seem to have traveled more prevalently than constructive ideas on Twitter sometimes? Is that the way it has been designed? Could Twitter be tweaked?”
Twitter has, of course, been criticized for its troll problem before, and is continually working on its suite of security tools which aim to make the user experience safer (often with mixed results). The network’s ongoing security issues were reportedly to blame for Salesforce’s decision not to buy the platform last year.
But while Sir Tim makes some compelling points, the “social media is bad” angle feels more than a little skewed. He doesn’t refer to the support that oppressed and bullied people often find online, the communities and relationships that form virtually, or the reach that social media can offer to good causes. Perhaps if there is one deep flaw in our perception of social media, it is that we are all too quick to only see the bad.
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