Growth at any Cost: Social Media has Made the World a Worse Place, Here’s How To Fix It

Dan McComas, former head of product at Reddit, gave a very candid interview about why he thinks modern social media sites like Reddit have made the world a worse place.

His core argument is that VC-funded social media sites only care about one thing and that is growth. More users, more posts, more views and eventually more ad revenue. This leads to a situation where there is no incentive to think about how their product affects the users that use it and the world at large.

The impact of social media sites on their users and society as a whole can be considered an externality. The metrics these sites care about (e.g. engagement) don’t and often can’t measure their offline impact such as fake news and propaganda swaying elections or leading to ethnic violence.

Dan argues that despite being everyone’s favorite whipping boy Facebook is doing more here than its peers. Specifically he writes

I absolutely disagree with a lot of people and think that Facebook has done a better job at this than any other company. I think they have tried to prioritize user safety and they have tried to put processes in place for managing content. I think Twitter is much worse. I think, ultimately, the problem that Reddit has is the same as Twitter and Discord. By focusing on growth and growth only and ignoring the problems, they amassed a large set of cultural norms on their platforms. Their cultural norms are different for every community, but they tend to stem from harassment or abuse or bad behavior, and they have worked themselves into a position where they’re completely defensive and they can just never catch up on the problem. I really don’t believe it’s possible for either of them to catch up on the problem. I think the best that they can do is figure out how to hide this behavior from an average user. I don’t see any way that it’s going to improve. I have no hope for either of those platforms.

The combination of growth by any means necessary, male dominated tech companies belief in “free speech” and the disdain tech companies have for spending costly human resources policing communities when automation is much cheaper has led to the majority of social media sites having normalized harassment, abuse and other forms of bad behavior as expected parts of their experience.

It is also unsurprising that Facebook with its over 2 billion users and billions in profits can afford to focus on cleaning up their service versus being as obsessed with growth.

Reddit vs Twitter: Communities versus the Public Sphere

I’m not a regular user of discord but I did want to comment on what I saw as the key differences between Reddit and Twitter when it comes to the toxicity of their various communities. As Dan mentions, he expects that the best many of these services can do is hide bad behavior from the average user.

Reddit has actually made a remarkable turnaround on this front. This was a service that would often only appear in the news due to one of its many toxic communities but they’ve slowly but surely gotten rid of the worst ones and now actively quarantine problematic communities before they become a big problem on the site. As an average user I can browse the front page or deep dive into communities such I care about as /r/ClashRoyale & /r/Transformers without encountering much of the toxicity and bad behavior which used to be the hallmark of the site for so many years. A lot of credit also goes to the many unpaid moderators who police each of the subreddits without any compensation from the company.

Twitter is a completely different beast. The best synopsis I’ve encountered of the problems with Twitter’s community experience is a post by Yishan Wong, former CEO of Reddit, on Quora where he writes

“The issue that discourages and deters people from using Twitter is that for all the value that Twitter provides, it also happens to be the most effective tool in existence for a large number of strangers to abuse and bully other people over the internet with all the self-restraint and moderation of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.

This is due to a combination of factors:

  • All content is public (excepting private feeds, which are a small minority of tweets)
  • Every other user can see and respond to any of your tweets
  • Any user can be addressed (@mentions) by any other user
  • Any tweet can be rebroadcast by any users to their followers
  • The userbase of Twitter is extremely large and diverse
  • Users are anonymous by default on Twitter
  • Banned users can sign up for new accounts due to this anonymity

No other social network or product, online or off, has this combination of features.

Bullying and verbal abuse in general are an unpleasant but inevitable aspect of human discourse. Disagreements happen, misunderstandings happen, people can be mean to one another, they project or displace anger about unrelated things onto others.

But while this is merely unpleasant when it happens with friends, or at a family gathering, or in a workplace, or on the street at the bus stop, Twitter amplifies this negativity for the victim to the maximum possible degree. New users are spared this at first, but the likelihood of being set upon by a global mob of users who dislike or misunderstand something you said and have decided to abuse or excoriate you without mercy is directly proportional to how prominent you are on Twitter.

Let me make this clear: the more successfully you use Twitter, the more likely and more frequently the worst possible thing that can happen to you on Twitter is going to happen to you.”

Yishan is spot on in his analysis. An additional wrinkle is the gender dynamics of disagreements online. There is lots of evidence and research that shows that men are more critical, less respectful and fairly dismissive of women in discussions whether in the workplace or in general. It is thus unsurprising that Twitter’s gender demographics are 64% men and 36% women which implies the site is doing a terrible job at attracting and retaining female users.

How This Can Be Fixed

Usually I am one to shy away from simple solutions to complex problems but the reality is that the current trends of normalized bad behavior on social media sites are a choice the sites have made and they can simply choose differently. Here are two simple things these sites can do

  1. Come up with first class objectives and key results (OKRs) around user well being then treat those as being of equal priority to traditional metrics around growth and engagement. This may sound like asking companies like Facebook to engage in mood manipulation research which received so much outcry years ago but I personally think the media screwed up in 2014 by condemning Facebook for trying to understand how the site influenced people especially when they turned around in 2016 to complain that influenced elections.
  2. Talk to female and minority users about their experience on the site then see what can be done to improve their experience. This doesn’t just mean in the US, it means talking to women and ethnic minorities in South America, Asia, Europe, etc.

That’s it. It’s not hard, it’s just requires these companies to take the impact of their services on users and society seriously.

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"Everything you touch you change. Everything you change, changes you" - Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower