What might it look like if social media banned profanity, exasperation and most other emotional language? What would a social post look like if it only permitted clinical detail-laden discourse, fully cited to its original sources? What if social media was reimagined as a kind of live-updated journalism or community-written academic literature? Could this solve the toxicity problem that plagues social platforms today? Or would it destroy the very reason we turn to social media in the first place?
Social media is built upon the idea of virality and reaching vast audiences. Few share their thoughts, experiences and ideas to social media in the hopes that not one single solitary person will read them. Instead, we turn to social for publicity, to get ourselves heard by the world. This rewards content that will widely interest and thus be shared and commented on by the most number of people.
Twitter’s historical 140-character limit helped define the idea of cramming complex thoughts into brief meme-worthy viral one-liners. Rather than thoughtful and measured discourse carefully outlining a complex topic and describing in detail a poster’s perspective and all of the citations and evidence supporting that position, Twitter permitted only a brief retort. The more profanity-laden and emotional and sarcastic and meme-worthy that response, the better.
The small screens and cumbersome keyboards of mobile devices made typing longer responses more difficult, while the idea of tabbing back and forth in a mobile browser to compile a lengthy list of citations and details became almost untenable. Most importantly, we use our mobile devices through brief bursts of attention, meaning a one-liner is much more likely to be consumed, commented upon and shared widely in the time it takes us to catch the bus in the morning, whereas a 50-page academic treatise on the topic will likely be skipped entirely.
Social media’s real-time nature entrenched this idea of “first one to comment wins.” There is no longer time to consume a piece of content, contemplate its context and deeper meaning, research and confirm all of its details and develop a thoughtful and informed response. There is barely enough time to type up a snarky one-liner with just the right dosage of profanity and emotional diatribe and get it out before someone else beats them to it.
If LinkedIn is about becoming enlightened, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are far more about being entertained. LinkedIn is filled with precisely these kinds of lengthy detail-laden and heavily cited posts. Profanity-laden diatribes and snarky responses are less common on its pages.
Users come to LinkedIn to learn.
In contrast, while we may learn from them as well, we turn to Twitter and Facebook primarily to be entertained. We embrace profanity, sarcasm, stupidity and flame wars as part of their unique appeal, a form of escapism and entertainment not unlike streaming a movie or TV series.
This means we actually want to see all of those very things that make the platforms so toxic.
What if the major social platforms explicitly banned profanity and emotionally-laden discourse?
While users would inevitably find creative ways around profanity bans, much as they do on other online services that man such content, it is quite within the realm of feasibility to build filters today that could do a quite reasonable job of curtailing such content.
Of course, photographs and video pose a unique challenge to filtering, with their rich visual language that would be difficult for today’s AI systems that “see” images merely as a set of metadata tags, but through the selective targeting of certain visual elements, over time it would be possible to do a reasonable job of restraining the visual narrative of social platforms to the same clinical discourse as their textual ones.
If the entertainment value of social media were removed, would we stop using it? Or would it morph into something new? Perhaps Twitter, Facebook and Instagram might become new incarnations of a LinkedIn-like learning platform reverting back to the earliest days of the Web where users came to share knowledge, not be entertained by personal attacks on one other.
Putting this all together, we have the technology today to create a new kind of social platform where profanity, sarcasm and emotionally-laden diatribes are all an artifact of the past. Where only thoughtful, informed, civil discourse is permitted. Where ideas and opinions can be expressed only in the form of clinical language that cites and provides evidence to justify its arguments.
This would fundamentally alter the very concept of consumer social media, but in many ways it would merely nudge Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to be more like LinkedIn, rather than creating some fundamentally novel kind of online environment.
What if social media was about being enlightened, like the early academic days of the Web, rather than being entertained, as its commercialized present has become?
In the end, perhaps the future of the Web lies in a return to its past.