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It’s Time for a Public Conversation About Social Media Companies

A company whose platform is built on the backs of content creators owes some responsibilities to those creators

Amid the ongoing cancel culture that is rampant among social media companies, there is a large undercurrent of people who say things like, “These are private companies, and they can do what they want.” The idea behind this is that social media companies do not owe you their product, and that is not of harm to you, the consumer. Especially since you are not paying for their product, why should they have to listen to you?

To see why this thinking is flawed, we need to think back to the history of these platforms and what is needed to make them work.

Why is anyone on Facebook or Twitter at all?

Because that is where everyone else is.

To be frank, it would not be difficult to build a site with a better user experience than Facebook, nor to build a site with essentially the same user experience as Twitter. So why isn’t there much competition in this space? Very simple – nobody is there.

Building a social media platform is a huge chicken-and-egg problem. In order to develop the platform, they have to encourage people to join before the site is self-perpetuating. The success of these companies is not accidental. What makes these giants work is that they put a lot of effort and energy into getting a critical mass of people on their site.

Therefore, when someone is a contributor to these sites, the platform itself is gaining from their contributions. This is true whether or not the company or the contributor is paid. The simple fact that the person is on this particular site making content means that they aren’t on another site doing it.

Hunter Biden and Broken Promises

When these sites were being built, the promise was that these would be open conversations, that the platform was merely there to mediate the conversation, not police the ideas. In the beginning, the people partaking in those conversations were essentially donating their content to the platform on the basis that this would be a free exchange of ideas. This is how the companies marketed themselves to the public.

Let’s take the Hunter Biden story that Twitter literally would not let people link to. What if, in its beginning days, Twitter had said, “We are going to remove or prevent people from posting political content we don’t like?” Who would have joined Twitter under those circumstances?

Perhaps it would have gained a following equivalent to a large blog, but it would not have garnered nearly the massive following that it has today.

What happened was this: Twitter (and the other social media companies) used you, your attention, your time, and your content to build a critical mass for their platform. Then, they used that critical mass to violate the implied trust that users had placed in the system.

I don’t know if this implied trust is directly actionable (I’m not a lawyer). My point, however, is that this is more than just an instance (or several instances) of a company operating with distasteful policies. This is about companies who use the labor and creative content of its users in order to build a self-sustaining platform, and then use that platform to undermine the very users whose content and labor built them up. This is not just a distasteful policy, this is a moral violation of trust.

The problem is that companies do in fact change. So, if a company decides to change its direction from one of openness to one of censorship, and a company was built by its users, what would be a morally acceptable way for them to shift positions?

Starting the Conversation

My goal here is not to provide answers, but to start a conversation. We need a public conversation on the responsibilities that are expected of a company whose platform is built on the backs of content creators. To what extent do changes in policy need acceptance from the user base? How can a company that is changing direction de-platform prior users in a just fashion? What does a company that changes policy owe to prior users who built the platform on the basis of previous policies?

Without good answers to these questions, society should warn against any involvement in social media whatsoever. If platforms are going to regularly make an about-face on the principles of a free society and open discussions, we should not think of them as valid outlets of our expression, and should not spend our time and effort giving them a critical mass.

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

It’s Time for a Public Conversation About Social Media Companies