Jason Bell


An Idea for Better Social Media

Recently, I’ve been dismayed at how pointless and nasty Twitter has been. I rarely see sincere points raised, and when they are, someone usually responds with cruelty and cynicism. Hacker News is much better, though far from perfect. HN benefits a great deal from the community that frequents it, but it also benefits from a nice commenting system.

I have an idea for how to take some of the benefits of HN to Twitter and Facebook. I haven’t thought through all the implications; only the basic problems I see and some mechanisms to fix them.

There are several problems. The first problem is that it is easier to make a mess than it is to clean one up. I can make a provocative statement, embedded with tons of implicit assumptions, and it will take someone a while to unpack all the assumptions and counter them. It just seems to work that way.

Probably in part because of the above, many people resort to attacking the source of the statement. Admittedly, it’s a more efficient way than dismantling arguments one by one. Sometimes it makes sense to question the source, but in a rigorous way that calls into question the credibility. Instead, social media is often filled with just insults meant to cut opponents down. Just because ad hominem is dressed up in wit doesn’t make it better.

You can see how this tends toward deterioration (if I’m right about it all, of course.) Then the goals of improving harmony, spreading truth, seeking good compromises, and finding common ground all get supplanted by grade-school-style one-upmanship.

None of this would be a problem if it were easy to filter, but it isn’t. You can avoid some channels, like I do: I’m not on Facebook or Instagram or Snap, and I manage my Twitter carefully to avoid politics. Even in my case, I still get exposure to some pointless nastiness on Twitter every now and again, just because of the sheer volume of the content.

The Idea

It’s a very simple one and is inspired by HN’s downvoting system: vetos. I’ll use Twitter for context.

Every day, all Twitter users would get to veto 1 or more tweets. You see a tweet you don’t want on Twitter, and veto it, and it doesn’t just hide it for you, it hides it for everyone.

Okay, millions of technical/tuning questions arise: what if the person just writes it again? I don’t know, maybe the person who was vetoed doesn’t get notified? Should it take more than 1 veto to get rid of a tweet? Maybe, it could be tuned over time. Should I be able to manage which vetos affect my feed? Probably. Should veto privileges only be given to certain users based on some criteria? Possibly.

But I want to set those aside for now, assuming they could be figured out over time. The key principle is what matters: the veto puts power in the hands of one person. I can sweep away digital garbage with the click of a button. The hope is that vetos would be concentrated on the most extreme content, leaving the more moderate stuff in the middle, as well as the stuff that appeals to everyone. It turns social media into a positive sum game for honest seekers of truth and harmony, and a zero sum game for pot-stirrers. People who want to fight just cancel one another out, instead of generating noise.

Suddenly, it increases the incentives to make a clear case for something, to use careful wording, or to acknowledge a different opinion in a nice way. As a major bonus, it pushes the amount of content on Twitter down, closer to a manageable level. Not only does the crap go away, the good stuff gets boosted just by being good. Currently, even with quality stuff, you have to shout just to take attention from the polemic.

I’m sure there are problems with my idea. That’s fine, it’s just an idea, and besides, the larger point is that it would be cool to figure out mechanisms for achieving a kinder web.

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