The Death and Life of a Global Web Platform

We’re living in an era of the web where a wide group of people who built the web are coming to the same conclusion. Facebook executives who made their fortunes on the site now blame the company for, “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” The original futurists who envisioned the web as a global utopia are no where to be found. Even Zuckerburg, yes Zuckerburg, just made his focus of 2018, “Fixing Facebook.” Rick Webb said it well by simply trying to apologize for his original willingness to go along with it.

How surprising is it that it’s wrong? We are biological organisms with thousands of years of evolution geared towards villages of 100, 150 people. What on earth made us think that in the span of a single generation we could suddenly jump to a global community? If you think about it, it’s insanity. Is there any evidence our brains and hearts can handle it?

There is a ton to be concerned about on the web right now but it’s also worth taking a moment to consider that maybe the early dream of the global web is the reason we feel so trapped. Maybe believing we can create a global space where everyone can come together for the greater civic good is not only naive, but it has a way of homogenizing an entire generation of web product thinking. Maybe the web feels so out of wack today because we tried to make platforms that work for everyone instead of building them for the unique needs of the communities we understand.

If you create a platform that is meant for everyone in the world you will evade the responsibility to say what is or is not true in the world. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube can ban porn, violent imagery, but when it comes to Impersonator Trolls, MAGA Bots, Birthers, #CometPizza, Real Donald Trump, and InfoWars they will always be in an awkward place. When asked, in front of Congress, if they support users on their site who willfully spread information they know to be wrong, Facebook says yes. As long as the users are ‘authentic’ and not paid foreign actors.

So how do we restore trust on the web at a global scale? How do we rebuild a common, civic, universe of information online? Maybe the most helpful answer to accept on a product level is that we’ll never be able to do it at global scale and we need to stop trying before it‘s too late.

There is no putting the global internet genie back in the bottle. Billions of people get their news from their Facebook news feed and are only slipping deeper into their own affinity groups and personal echo chambers. But there is some evidence to suggest that people understand the architecture they are being thrust into online makes them feel like they’re going crazy. A survey conducted by The Verge found increasing trust issues with Facebook and Twitter and trends that many are simply retreating into their own private groups.

If we’re going to build trust online, on a civic level, we need to start with the communities we live in and have a deeper influence over. Think about how much more tangible these thorny questions about platforms and media get if the scale becomes local. How do we restore trust on the web in an American city like Chicago? How do we create elegant ways to verify that the person talking on the platform is real constituent of Chicago? How do we keep conversations on topic and civil without being over zealous? How do we buck the programatic ad model and make a site good enough that people want to pay for a membership? How do we mend the relationship between citizens and the city media representing them?

This idea isn’t new. The past decade is littered with attempts to bring the best of platforms and media together (I’ve tried and failed a couple times). But I think our cultural understanding of the web has changed significantly in the past decade. We’re seeing the natural limits and blind spots of these global platforms and there is an opening now that wasn’t there before.

If you’re thinking about these issues, or thinking about building something similar in your city, hit me up. DMs are open. twitter.com/codybrown