''We're going to capture your attention and repackage and sell it''

How social media conquers our world

''We're going to capture your attention and repackage and sell it'' Photo: Max Pixel

Nowadays, it is not always necessary to use the law to change the world: sometimes it is enough to use social media. But building an internet where users didn't have to pay for anything as their attention was going to be the commodity that was traded is one of the most destructive and short-sighted decisions that people could have made, considers Director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Ethan Zuckerman.

Ethan Zuckerman, who studies how people change the world (or attempt to) by using social media or other technological means, spoke with MIT Technology Review about how social media started controlling us rather than the other way around. According to the scholar, now people use the levers of norms of markets and technology more often than the legal lever to make changes. He mentions #MeToo (a campaign against sexual assault and harassment) as an example of a norms-based campaign. ''If you can't get social change done through the traditional model of civics, there is a whole new set of tools, and people are starting to learn how to use these things.''

Zuckerman believes that it is a mistake to give media companies control over people digital public sphere by using filter algorithms. That's why he and his colleagues created Gobo, a tool that lets people aggregate feeds from different social networks and filter them on their own. The algorithms of the tool are an open box where users can reach in and experiment with settings. Moreover, people can write their own filters for it.

However, it is rather hard for anyone who's not Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat to compete in the social sphere because big networks get all sorts of advantages, such as more bandwidth and cheaper servers, that make it very hard to compete with them. Besides, they are more likely to buy a meaningful competitor than to fight it in the marketplace.

In 1990s, Zuckerman created pop-up ad that became one of most hated objects on internet. ''Our intentions were good,'' he later wrote as apology. Photo: Ethan Zuckerman

Although Facebook has stated that it shifted its focus to posts from friends and family from the commercial ones, Zuckerman doubts that it is actually happening. ''I won't believe it until I see a credible business model based on something other than targeted advertising,'' said the scientist. ''Until I see Facebook saying, 'Look, you're going to use this as a service and you're going to pay us for the service,' as opposed to 'We're going to capture your attention and repackage and sell it,' I won't believe it.''

Asked if a publicly supported social network could be created as a potential solution to social media's echo chamber effect, the scholar said it was wholly unrealistic in the United States. Nevertheless, it could be realistic in Europe, where the public media culture accepts the idea that somebody might want to invest money in people having some basic knowledge about politics, the world, the people around them. ''I could imagine an innovative European public broadcaster saying, 'Maybe we build a social network that's compatible with other social networks, has algorithms designed to help you tune whether you're getting news about the world, news about your community, and makes those levers visible and controllable.''

By Anna Litvina