Quitting smoking or reducing your social media use can be a great New Year’s resolution. Research shows that there are benefits to physical and mental health, and many people who do it permanently or temporarily report increased productivity, focus, and well-being.
But the so-called digital detox is not so easy. Many of us use social media because it’s a convenient way to keep in touch with friends and family, as well as stay abreast of news and online debates. The problem is that the algorithms of all major platforms, designed to increase the amount of time users spend in their apps, tend to drag us into a vortex of commercial and entertainment images and videos.
The solution for Dutch doctor Elselien Kuepers, 33, was to switch to non-commercial, less popular apps. “It gave me a lighter and more authentic experience,” she told DW.
The app Kuepers uses, BeReal, allows people to post a daily snapshot of their lives. It sends daily notifications at random times, giving users two minutes to take and post a photo of themselves. “Two minutes isn’t enough time to get a fake-looking photo,” she says. “The app doesn’t even allow filters, so what you post is a true representation of what you’re currently doing.”
On her timeline, you can see photos of people playing board games, walking or eating. Some photos are crooked, and half of people’s faces have been cut off. “I find it more exciting than Instagram, which is full of edited and perfectionist images,” she said.
BeReal exploded in popularity in the summer of 2022, ranking as the 10th most downloaded social media platform, highlighting the widespread demand for a different and less problematic social media experience. In response, countless start-ups have sprung up in recent years, with varying degrees of success, or with the opportunity to compete with the big tech giants.
Use innovation to solve typical big technical problems
The controversies surrounding most classic platforms like Tiktok, Facebook or YouTube stem from how their algorithms or business models work.
The amount of time the average user spends on social media apps is fragmented and sold to advertisers by social media companies. The platform analyzes its users’ data to optimize the app and occasionally sells it to third parties.
This business model is a major driver of some of the most widely publicized social media problems: exacerbation of mental health and its addictive effects, data privacy concerns, the spread of misinformation, and the formation of echo chambers in which users are primarily exposed to people who agree with their own views. ideas and users. A research paper published in December 2022 by Christian Montag, a professor of molecular psychology at the University of Ulm in southwestern Germany, and colleagues points to a link to models of how big tech companies function.
“As long as users pay for social media services with their own data, I don’t think these problems will be solved,” he told DW.
How a new app tries to solve typical social media problems
Alternative social media initiatives try to avoid this problem by designing decentralized network structures in which users or user communities control the flow of content on the platform, rather than algorithms.
One of them, Mastodon, is not a master server, but a federation of interconnected servers hosting accounts and the content they post, each with its own rules and protocols.
This structure, called Fediverse, allows users from one server to interact with users and groups from other servers. Communities on Mastodon have more freedom to create their own guidelines than on platforms like Twitter. But their content is exposed to the public through their users, who are mostly members of multiple communities, preventing them from turning into closed circles like existing echo chambers.
Like many other apps with a similar structure, Mastodon also attempts to delegate the decision to remove harmful or abusive posts to user votes. Some applications leave the decision to a jury or someone chosen at random.
After Elon Musk took over Twitter, Mastodon hit the headlines as one of the apps users started signing up for after leaving Twitter.
Some other alternative apps, like Steem or Mind, have incorporated blockchain technology into their monetization functions. To reward or delegate posts, users can use cryptographic tokens, which are traceable and therefore often more transparent than regular transactions. This means that all transactions happen within the platform, and it is clear at a glance how and by whom a post was sponsored.
Some experts question the sustainability of Fediverse-based applications. The decentralized nature of these platforms can make it difficult to moderate content and deal with inappropriate or harmful posts. Since there is no central authority overseeing Fediverse, it may turn into a less safe and friendly environment for users.
However, Montag is optimistic about the future of these experiments: “I think the Fediverse could be the future,” he said, noting that competing with the current major platforms will not be easy.
Montag added that newer apps have complex systems that have usability issues, while the current giants have been shaped by years of testing and offer users a more convenient and immersive experience.
Treat social media as a public good
As startups work to create better alternatives, some groups and initiatives are pushing to hold current big tech companies accountable. The Center for Human Technology (CHT), for one, has been campaigning for stricter policies to rein in social media companies and push them toward their own business models and remove their disruptive features.
Montag noted that regulating social media giants and mitigating the damage they do is as important as market innovation. In addition to mitigating losses for big tech companies, introducing regulation could create competition for new start-ups. ‘We need protocols that enable users to communicate across platforms, the way two people call each other through different providers,’ he said.
“Scientists are debating whether social media is best described as a public good. In this case, we have to imagine paying a subscription fee for a decentralized platform that respects our privacy.”
He emphasized that getting social media out of a business model that relies on user data and time is the only way we can create a “healthier” social media.