Elections 2016: Why We’re (Now) Attracted to Strong Leaders

Typical Myspace profile from back in the day. Keep in mind that this was “normal”.

Anyone remember the days of MySpace? The patch-worked backgrounds, animated-gifs, fonts of varying styles and sizes, loud and obnoxious music that would give you an headache every time you visited someone’s page — those were the days! It was chaotic, sure, but the internet was a lot more exciting and full of life back then.

When Facebook came along, though, they standardized everyone’s profiles and made sure everything and everyone looked exactly the same. The layout was normalized, the color scheme was strictly enforced, and they made extra sure that there wouldn’t be any sounds or music playing from your profile because that was deemed too unruly for the Web 2.0. (I know this, because as a musician I tried very hard to circumvent these efforts but I ended up losing the war in the end, unfortunately.)

Maybe I’m taking my job too seriously here, but as a product manager my job is to be the representative voice of the user and the customer. On a deeper level, what people really want is for their opinions, expressions, and voices to actually matter. Mark Zuckerberg seems to think that swapping a few algorithms and forming a few partnerships with existing media outlets will be enough to curb their “fake news” problem, but in the end, these initiatives won’t really do much, if anything at all, because it’s not really tackling the problem at its root.

People have the need to feel empowered. They need to feel like what they do matters, and is contributing to something bigger than themselves. There’s not much reason for anyone to care about the “truth” unless they have some kind of stake in the process. What’s missing right now on social media, is the stakes.

The reality is that social media has been moving in the opposite direction of free speech and free expression for quite some time, and that fact has to be confronted now if we’re to create products that actually matter in the near future. The whole concept of a “feed”, for example, is problematic because it implies that users are merely livestock specimens meant to consume whatever the platform deems appropriate for them. It is, in essence, teaching users to be helpless, which they will either accept or reject violently, both of which will have negative consequences on the political landscape as a whole. People cling to strong leaders when they feel dis-empowered — we need to come to terms with the fact that technology has played a major role in getting our society to this point if there’s ever going to be a reversal of this trend.

The solution? We can’t fix everything all at once but we can take baby-steps towards a more open environment by bringing back some of the chaos from the older days of the Internet itself. Let’s allow people to change the appearance and sound environments of their profiles, at the very least. We should also allow people to self-govern by allowing them to elect their leaders within their community’s groups.

Sure, it’ll mean that we’ll be seeing a lot more…uh, “colorful” profiles and communities, but that’s basically what happens when you give your users some of the decision-making power in how the platform is shaped as a whole. But, it also means that we’ll be seeing people representing themselves online in a more honest and truthful way, just because they can. And because they now have a stake in the process, they’re much more likely to stay involved and loyal for the long haul. I do believe that whichever company manages to capture this sentiment will probably dominate the social media landscape for a long time, simply because it’ll just be that much better than what came before.

Given the uncertainty of world to come in the near future — lots of people will be re-evaluating and second-guessing the relationships that they have with their platforms and technological products. The time to try something new is now and not later, in my opinion, lest someone else seizes on the opportunity first.