INTERNET REPAIRMEN & WOMEN WANTED
We are living in a state of disrepair. In the early days of the World Wide Web and social media, early advocates such as myself widely believed that online communities were self-repairing. Despite the absence of a top-down structure or central authority, communities would protect themselves from existential threats to their original purposes and founding principles. We reasoned that greater accessibility of information and freedom of expression would reinforce the humanism and egalitarianism on which these communities were founded. This belief inspired grand experiments such as The Well, Google, and Wikipedia, and recently prompted CERN, the birthplace of the Web, to recreate the first web page as an homage to these ideals.
We appear to be wrong.
Contrarily, communities are self-organizing into increasingly polarized tribes. Politics is the readiest example. Opposite to our original belief, today’s communities appear regressive, in large part because they self-organize around the inconsistent clicks and views of inconsistent human beings. The organizing algorithms behind large online communities such as Facebook and Snapchat reward individualism and communalism at the expense of collectivism. Empowered by unprecedented freedom within these communities, individuals are gaining more control over every societal institution.” This is perhaps the dominant social movement of the 21st century. Individuals can not only share money, but also create currency independent of banks through Bitcoin. An individual such as Edward Snowden can impact global policy more than many governments. A user-generated video such as “Chewbacca Mom” outperforms Super Bowl ads.
Should we have seen this future from the onset of new media? Despite recent attention, orchestrated rumors (or fake news) were always staples of Internet culture. Alt.net became the largest repository of bestiality and pedophilia; Wikipedia is increasingly toxic due to handfuls of attackers; Reddit became the preferred platform of the far right to organize propaganda campaigns; and, Twitter became ground zero for hate-speech among the cultural elite. Evidence is mounting that communities are becoming dangerous with 82% of sex crimes involving a minor initiated from social sites.
Perhaps, out of guilt for my modest contribution to the adoption of these communities, I left a 25-year career in commercial online marketing to become an Internet repairman. In the last 18 months I began working at the frontlines of countering hate-speech and violent extremism online alongside companies such as Facebook and Google as well as a raft of well-intentioned NGOs. Almost immediately, the lack of 21st century digital marketing skills among policy makers and practitioners became apparent.
So, I helped found The Social Good dedicated to repairing some of society’s most pressing challenges by applying social technologies, data and media developed in the private sector in service of the public good.
· Diminishing stigma and fear of mental illness through online badging
· Normalizing discourse on gun safety through micro influencer networks
· Decreasing affinities for ideologies of hate through artificially intelligent narratives
· Restoring police community relations through mobile technology
· Addressing opioid epidemic by empowering friends and family, classmates and colleagues, of addicts through a more navigable online journey
On its own The Social Good can accomplish very little. As Bill Joy’s Law states, “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work somewhere else.” So, the organization adopted a highly inclusive approach to social impact, beyond the resources of any single organization.
1. Convene cross-sectoral teams with expertise in data, tech and marketingto support subject matter experts;
2. Rather than one-off campaigns, develop sustainable, replicable, and above all measurable programming models;
3. After piloting these models, distribute underlying methodology and technology for free across the entire ecosystem of practitioners and partners;
4. Provide ongoing training and real-time support through private sector volunteers and internal staff;
This approach helps fill the critical skills gap in technology, data and marketing gap necessary to disperse harmful communities and strengthen healthy ones.
Communities such as Facebook and Twitter now transcend nations, ideologies, and laws. Given this scale and diversity, we must now develop and deploy a shared ‘infrastructure’ for repairing communities online. A 21st century digital toolkit for community repair. These five repairs will make a fundamental difference in preserving safety as well as speech online:
1. Build and deploy a data management platform to capture — data that is unaffordable by any single practitioner — extract actionable insights, and measure programs amid ever-rapidly changing online discourses and behaviors;
2. Set-up a volunteer network of public private experts in data, marketing and technology to support subject matter experts in real-time;
3. Construct and distribute a content curation engine to mine, organize and distribute pre-existing narrative content to fuel thousands of programs worldwide to compete with organizations such as ISIS with peaks of 90,000+ messages of support per month;
4. In keeping with Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement on artificial intelligence, provide free access to the next generation of AI to automate and scale efforts across the three stages of social innovation: identification, engagement and measurement of impact;
5. Fund additional organizations to serve as sectoral ‘conveners’ to organize resources and information fragmented and siloed across practitioners and languages.
This social innovation will coordinate disparate efforts into a genuine competition plan for repairing our communities online. My hope is that this will also serve as a call-to-action for more Internet repairmen and women from the private sector to step forward at a time of our nation’s need. Our vision of the Internet is alive, but requires volunteers to shore up the root system to allow it to flourish.
CURTIS HOUGLAND, FOUNDER AND CEO, THE SOCIAL GOOD, INFO@THESOCIALGOOD.US