Silicon Valley has a social problem.
First, who am I to point this out and try to take it on?
I was part of the problem.
My first book, cowritten with Shel Israel, titled "Naked Conversations," hyped up the use of social tools, like blogs, before Facebook and Twitter got popular. I wrote that when I worked at Microsoft on an online community called Channel 9 where I interviewed hundreds of Microsoft employees and when I had one of the best-known tech blogs out there.
I've spent the past year looking at my own behaviors, both pro and con when it comes to online communities, which I've been helping build and participate in since the early 1980s. I won't go into my history here, but I brought pain to my fans, friends, family, community through some of my behaviors, and spent the past year, fixing those, getting sober, and looking at social media with a fresh eye (you should see my Twitter lists, which are an amazing way to see the tech industry at https://twitter.com/scobleizer/lists ).
I was among the first to use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, and LinkedIn, amongst many other social services and I often interviewed the founders of these services and helped hype them up.
But when I was getting my readers to try these services I never saw the kinds of problems that they are bringing to bear today and which are tarnishing Silicon Valley's reputation and throwing our best-known companies through an important process which many believe will end with new kinds of regulations, building on Europe's GDPR regulations.
Before we get into that, if you are reading this post you are seeing it on Cake, a new social/community publishing platform. Let's talk about it after we talk about the problems that social is currently seeing, but feel free to poke around and visit more. It was started by Chris MacAskill, who is one of the cofounders of SmugMug, a beautiful photo site that recently bought Flickr. You can see his team's work to make social beautiful here already.
Back to the problems.
What are they? (And homage to people like Tristan Harris, who have been pointing these problems out for years).
1. Addiction. These systems were designed with growth and addiction at their core. Many who participate see the same consequences as drug users do.
2. Surveillance, lack of privacy.
3. Safety. Many see negative consequences for participating. My wife was threatened, for instance, and many friends have had to deal with stalkers and death threats. And many problems start with threats, but turn into worse problems. Even lesser problems is just the kind of lighter misogyny, racism, and hatred many experience, which keeps them from participating and, worse, being heard.
4. Corrosive to community. Bad actors can convince people to do the wrong thing.
5. Noise and outrage. As these communities got bigger they became less fun to participate in. No longer were you seeing your friend's baby photos, but you were seeing political posts, or, worse, always being pitched business ideas/products/companies. Many complain they look like a constant stream of advertising.
6. Getting heard is controlled by algorithms, not people. I say the algorithmic feeds overindex on outrage, while feeds like Twitter, that show almost all overindex on noisy people. Neither of whom you probably want to have conversations with every day.
7. By making it so everyone can participate we lost something: the role of experts and authorities. Think about the arguments about climate change, for instance. Can you quickly tell who is a scientist? Who works at National Park? Who lives near a glacier? Or who is paid by an oil company to disrupt real conversations?
8. They made a world that doesn't have as much beauty because they were designed to run on small, low-resolution phones, which use a minimal of bandwidth and batteries. Today our smartphones have much better screens and longer-lasting batteries and our bandwidth and costs of delivering that are way up. But Twitter and Facebook still present low-resolution images and crappy text treatments that are horrid for reading longer, more thoughtful posts.
So, can Cake clean this up?
Yes. On some of the posts here, for instance, you'll see that only panels are able to comment. That keeps bad actors from disrupting conversations. Keeps spammers far away. And even makes it safe for experts to really chew on a topic like vaccinations, abortion, climate change, racism, sexual abuse, gun control or, really, any political topic. Wouldn't you like to hear a reasonable discussion on any of those topics by people who were hand picked?
Cake has a mechanism to do that. The others don't, and I don't believe they ever will.
Think back to any conference, like SXSW. You sat in a few panel discussions. I've done that. And I've been on stage, too. When I'm in the audience I'm there to learn and support. Same here on Cake (although I've opened this post up to anyone to participate in, many threads here you will see are closed to comments where you can only watch a "panel" talk and they you can react to those comments, same as a real-world audience can by laughing, clapping, cheering, etc.
Addiction is a real problem in my life. I'm an alcoholic, and have talked about that publicly, but I also am very addicted to social media. For one, it's been my job for more than a decade. For two, I've built the best Twitter account I've seen anyone have with literally most of what makes the tech industry run. My screen is far far more interesting than TV and, often, then hanging out with family or friends. And I'm not alone. This summer I took my kids across America on a 9,000-mile road trip. We saw so many people swiping through Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and others while standing in front of the most amazing things and having their loved ones with them. I'm addicted, so are you.
But here you'll find fewer of the mechanisms that the big social companies used to addict you. Fewer notifications. More white space. Fewer video and audio streams begging for you to look and instantly share with huge networks of people. More long form conversations that require you to slow down and actually enjoy someone's writing rather than being yelled at every second or two to "look at this, read this, like this."
On my Twitter screen, for instance, everything literally moves (I use Tweetdeck). That movement, alone, is addicting, but they take it further by sending you emails and notifications just in case you missed something. Try to delete Facebook, too, and you'll get really freaky emails showing you the friends you will miss. It's hard to say no to your friends.
Here people are in charge, not algorithms. People have to pick the panels. Have to make the great content that will get you to engage. And I'm already noticing that this is a community that has a spiritual angle to it: one with values, ethics, and curated behaviors.
I've seen both sides of when people behave corrosively. I've done it, destroying my own reputation because I brought pain. But I've witnessed many others do it too. Drama, fights, and nasty stalking or blocking behaviors. That kind of pain has already been planned for here, and in discussing Cake with the team it was made very clear to me that this community has a deep set of values, a strong ethical mission that rewards people for behaving well and isn't corrupted by the need to always grow and lock in users.
Plus, unlike other tries to build new social communities and publishing platforms, this one is built on modern technology: Amazon's AWS, by a team that keeps millions of users happy every day. That is a prerequisite for what comes next. One competitor, who was seen as a Facebook killer, was built on a single database server that crashed when it started seeing an exponential growth in new users.
The thing that got me to see Cake was Trey Ratcliff's panel about Google+'s wasted promise and its demise.
Oh, and there'll be a new kind of business model here, one that is interest based, not surveillance based. If you haven't heard Facebook and Twitter are always watching who you are, your demographics, and all that, and selling access to you to advertisers based on that. Here Cake won't do that. Instead, when you do see advertisements in the future, they will be based on the communities you join.
You'll see me here more in the next few weeks. I hope you join me and, even, forgive me for the negative behaviors I brought to communities in the past. This is a fresh start for me, and, I believe, for Silicon Valley as it enters a new social age. One that brings the advantages of social with fewer of the negatives.
Now, let us eat Cake and clean up Silicon Valley's social problem.
I can't wait to see what you do with it.