Like a denim-clad digital omnipotent, Mark Zuckerberg spent the new year reflecting upon his creation. And he did not like what he saw.
Live-streamed deaths along with cyber bullying, terrorist recruitment and nation state interference have turned a social network once reserved for “tagging” “liking” and “poking” into one that helps people cause each other serious harm.
The billionaire tech mogul has now vowed to “fix” Facebook as part of a new year’s challenge he has set himself. But what can be done?
Stop the world feeling anxious and divided
In his Facebook post Mr Zuckerberg noted that the world felt “anxious and divided”, and said that he wanted to help turn this around using Facebook.
Facebook itself has been accused of creating societal divisions. It has been shown to allow discriminatory adverts that excluded black communities, Spanish speakers and other groups. The website, which is a reflection of its users innermost thoughts and feelings broadcast to the wider world, is often rife with negativity, or gives unrealistic images of other people’s lives.
It is this second point that has led former bosses to claim that social media is “ripping society apart”, and has been a long-lasting criticism. Fixing this is not easy, and might require a total re-think of how the news feed works.
Facebook has been accused of exploiting its influence when it wants, but shunning responsibility when something bad happens. It makes money from people using its website even when they do so in a manner that is harmful or illegal, and so it is fair to assume they should be held accountable.
Governments are supposed to bear the brunt when something in a nation goes wrong, and so Mr Zuckerberg should accept that a two-billion strong website that functions in much the same way as society, should be policing its estate. Users are paying their data tax, after all.
Publish a clear set of rules
To police this smorgasbord of opinion, photos and videos, Mr Zuckerberg needs to make his rules clearer. It currently has a set of policies that are outlined on its website, but how these are applied is not often clear.
Its team of moderators are tasked with enforcing these policies, but they have their own set of secret rules, some of which were leaked last year. When someone observes an offensive post that does not align with our own views, that does not mean it should be taken down. When a post, comment, group or event might cause some harm – either physical or psychological, it should clearly be deleted.
The reality will be more investment in policing and automated systems to flag controversial material. The current moderation system appears to be falling short. In some cases racial abuse against Muslims remained online, while discriminatory posts about white people were immediately taken down.
Stop ‘hooking’ users
Back in 2009, the world was in dire economic straits and Facebook was struggling to make a profit. The phrase “user engagement” would have been the word on Mr Zuckerberg’s shareholders’ lips. Advertisers make Facebook money, and they need to know that eyeballs are on their expensive placements, after all.
But after years of being taunted by the red notification that gives users a mental lift when it appears on their phone, users enthusiasm is wearing thin. Is that because its core audience is getting older, and is less easily manipulated? Facebook could benefit from getting its users to return because it offers a valuable way to spend their time, rather than because they have been psychologically manipulated by some trigger or design feature that hooks them.
Treat people like customers
People are beginning to realise that the relationship is one-sided and that they have given up a lot of valuable information for free. A sea-change may be on the way.
Perhaps Facebook would gain more users, or more engagement, if there was more of an incentive to get involved. Zuckerberg mentioned the rise of cryptocurrencies in his new year post. Should some sort of reward mechanism – Zuckcoin? – be in the works.
Make its advertising more transparent
Facebook’s precise advertising has become a bone of contention. Once clunky – showing the same pair of shoes someone bought the week before, which proceed to follow them around the internet – it is now incredibly precise. That’s because the social network can track what people are looking at on their device as long as they are logged in. It combines this with demographic data and the pages a user has liked to create a profile that brands can target.
But people might become more receptive to advertising if they could gain better control. A tick box option might help if they no longer want to see airbrushed models parading in their underwear, making someone feel insignificant for the rest of the day. Perhaps Facebook will learn that being force fed the same product over-and-over because someone clicked on a picture of it on Instagram actually puts the consumer off purchasing the item.