The era of the white “tech brothers” of social media is over, thank goodness!

The era of social media tech siblings is on fire. That, more than anything, seems crystal clear here at the end of 2022.

Facebook, though still widely used, has seen the writing on the wall; CEO Mark Zuckerberg has all of his attention on virtual reality. Instagram is losing cultural relevance as it is also struggling to compete with TikTok, in part due to the latter app. It is not social networks, but more like television.

Meanwhile, Twitter appears to be running around like a toddler that has just learned to walk, with new CEO Elon Musk tumbling from one ill-considered new policy to another.

It’s not that billions aren’t still using these platforms, at least for now.

Rather, it is that the future of how we connect, discover and communicate online now has to move away from these massive global platforms and the aggressive Californian ideology behind them.

In a sense, social media has been a global experiment: let’s unleash a whole new way of disseminating information, socializing, and consuming media, and see what happens!

Consider what happened recently with the launch of the ChatGPT chatbot, an artificial intelligence project that can produce compelling snippets of text, even song lyrics or poetry, but can also spit out incorrect or biased information.

How, in light of this new tool, do you now trust what you are reading? It’s a question that the creators of ChatGPT either never considered or just didn’t care to think about.

Attempts to control or somehow moderate that technology are being called “censorship” by AI advocates such as prominent tech investor Marc Andreessen.

While this is going on, Elon Musk and a wide cadre of Silicon Valley power figures, including David Sacks and Peter Theil, have taken it upon themselves to destroy what they call “the waking mind virus,” a kind of right-wing trap. term for any policy related to the vulnerable or marginalized.

This is the version of technology whose death we cheer or encourage.

When the platforms of modern digital life are run by people who are increasingly radicalized and hostile to ordinary human goodness and decency, it is time to move on.

A tough question though: if we’re going to move on, where will we go?

Social media is dominated by what are called network effects: you go or stay where the people in your network are, which fosters a kind of stickiness. That’s why it’s so hard to leave them, and why I’m also struggling to leave Twitter, even though I think I should.

But these network effects come with downsides. The bigger a network gets, the harder it becomes to find community. And moderation becomes more difficult, whether it’s to control spam or bots, or to crack down on hate and bullying.

Perhaps, then, it is centralization itself that is the problem… when people like Elon Musk say they want something like Twitter to be a global public square.

Jack Dorsey, former CEO of Twitter, seems to believe this to be true. In a post he published this week, he sought to address issues social media faces in moderating content, such as the botched handling of the Hunter Biden laptop story (links to the New York Post story were briefly hidden by one day).

He suggested that the only way forward was for social networks to offer more control to the user, more transparency about how content is moderated, and that instead of one central network, you should be able to choose from a variety of smaller networks, all of which they could be connected to each other.

Dorsey’s basic idea that huge global networks would be better replaced by smaller, niche creations is promising.

Mastodon, the Twitter alternative, which has seen significant growth since the Musk acquisition, operates on what’s called a federated model; Rather than a worldwide network, Mastodon is made up of many small networks, all of which can communicate with each other.

However, it is intimidating for newbies and also clumsier and more confusing than its main rivals.

What is needed is a happy medium between the user-friendliness of the headlines and the independent, more local spirit of the newer alternatives.

The future of social media will be smaller, less centralized.

For that to happen, many things need to happen: user agitation for change, perhaps state regulation, and broad social change.

But maybe more than anything, it’s time for the tired tech brother approach: arrogant; devil-may-care; accustomed to the worries of the outcast, to be put to rest.

The ash after a forest fire is said to be very fertile. As we head into a new year, it may well be time to consider fanning the flames that are burning on social media. From burned embers something new and better can grow.

Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance contributing technology columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @navalang

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