Skip to Content
Silicon Valley

Don’t just ditch Facebook—start your own social-media site instead

There might be a better way of making social media a healthier place, from creating more user-friendly settings to setting up our own sites from scratch.
September 13, 2018
Jake Belcher

Fed up with political propaganda bots and discriminatory online ads? You may think the answer is to delete your Facebook and Twitter profiles and head offline, but there might be a better way: build your own networks.

“These systems are affecting billions of people around the world,” said Ethan Zuckerman, the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, in a presentation today at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference. “We have a responsibility to figure out how to make these systems significantly better.” 

Karrie Karahalios, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, made a similar point in her own EmTech presentation. “We need to help control what we see [on social media] and do it collectively,” she said.

One of the main problems is that many people don’t understand how algorithmic systems affect what they see online. In the pre-Internet era, newspaper publishers produced and disseminated their own news articles. Meanwhile, TV studios produced shows and broadcast networks distributed them. Today, many people discover news stories and videos via Facebook and Google, which enables anyone on social media to “amplify” content by sharing or  linking to it. This amplification cycle creates a number of problems: the production of extremist content, the spread of conspiracy theories, online shaming by anonymous mobs, and issues related to algorithmic biases and content moderation, said Zuckerman.

Yet many people don’t realize to what extent they’re being manipulated online. Karahalios said 62 percent of the people she studied didn’t know that an algorithm determined what appeared on their Facebook news feed and were angry when they learned the truth. She also found that people tend to assume that the first result they see in an online query is the best or most accurate one.

The most radical suggestion is for people to simply create their own social-networking sites, although that is obviously easier said than done. Another solution is making user settings on social-media sites and search engines more transparent. Karahalios and Zuckerman are (separately) building user interfaces for Twitter as research projects. Both believe that control panels should be located on a site’s main page, perhaps in a sidebar that’s always visible.

Zuckerman also suggested creating tools that make it easy to export social-media content to another platform and view multiple social networks within the same browser window. “This would be hard to do commercially,” he conceded. “But it’s important to imagine how things could be rather than just say, ‘We have this thing and it’s broken.’” 

Deep Dive

Silicon Valley

light and shadow on floor
light and shadow on floor

How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation

The tech giants are paying millions of dollars to the operators of clickbait pages, bankrolling the deterioration of information ecosystems around the world.

Sophie Zhang
Sophie Zhang

She risked everything to expose Facebook. Now she’s telling her story.

Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist at Facebook, revealed that it enables global political manipulation and has done little to stop it.

Conceptual illustration or urban elements and a construction worker
Conceptual illustration or urban elements and a construction worker

How to save our social media by treating it like a city

We need to make our online spaces more similar to our offline ones to limit the reach of bad actors and keep people safe.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.