Designing a New Social Media Platform

In Delphi, Greece, μηδὲν ἄγαν (meden agan) was inscribed on the ancient Temple of Apollo — nothing in excess. Applying the famous principle to the design and structure of social media platforms could reduce a number of their negative effects: their addictive properties, online bullying, depression and lower self-worth, breakdowns in civility and their impact on political polarization, and so forth. Other problems, such as information privacy and the spread of misinformation (leading to all sorts of absurd beliefs, affecting human behaviors from advocacy to violence, with its own impact on polarization) will be more difficult to solve, and will involve proper management rather than UI changes (so they won’t be addressed here). The Social Dilemma, while mostly old news to anyone paying attention to such things, presents a good summary of the challenges and is worth a view for those wanting to begin an investigation.

A new, socially-conscious social media platform — we’ll call it “Delphi” for now — would be crafted to prevent such things to the extent possible, while attempting to preserve the more positive aspects of social media — the access to news and information, the sharing of ideas, exposure to differing views, the humor and entertainment, the preserved connections to people you like but just wouldn’t text or call or see. Because while breaking free and abandoning the platforms completely greatly improves well-being, the invention is as unlikely to disappear quickly as the telephone, so there should be some middle ground — moderation in all things, nothing in excess — between logging off for good and the more poisonous platforms we’re stuck with. People could then decide what works best for them. If you won’t break free, here’s at least something less harmful.

The new platform would do away with likes, comments, and shares. These features drive many of the addictive and depressive elements, as we all know; we obsessively jump back on to see how our engagement is going, and perhaps we can’t help but see this measurement as a measurement of our own self-worth — of our looks, intelligence, accomplishments, whatever the post “topic” might be. Comparing this metric to those of others, seeing how many more likes others get, can only worsen our perceptions of self, especially for young girls. Instagram is toying with removing public like counts, while still allowing users to see theirs in the back end, which is barely helpful. All three features should simply be abolished. With Delphi, one would post a status, photo, video, or link and simply have no idea how many friends saw it or reacted to it. Have you ever simply stopped checking your notifications on current platforms? It is quite freeing, in my experience. You know (suspect) people are seeing a post, but you have no clue how many or what their reactions are. There’s no racing back on to count the likes or reply to a compliment or battle a debater or be hurt by a bully. You’re simply content, as if you had painted a mural somewhere and walked away.

There are of course probable work-arounds here. Obviously, if someone posted a link I wanted to share, I could copy the address and post it myself. (There may be a benefit to forcing people to open a link before sharing it; maybe we’d be more likely to actually read more than the headline before passing the piece on.) This wouldn’t notify the original poster, who would only know (suspect) that I’d stolen the link if they saw my ensuing post. Likewise, there’s nothing to stop people from taking screenshots of posts or copy-pasting text and using such things in their own posts, with commentary. Unless we programmed the platform to detect and prevent this, or detect and hide such things from the original poster. But you get the idea: you usually won’t see any reaction to your content.

Delphi wouldn’t entirely forsake interaction, however. It would replace written communication and emoji reactions with face-to-face communication. There would in fact be one button to be clicked on someone’s post, the calendar button, which would allow someone to request a day, time, and place to meet up or do a built-in video call to chat about the post (a video call request could also be accepted immediately, like FaceTime). The poster could then choose whether to proceed. As everyone has likely noticed, we don’t speak to each other online the way we do in person. We’re generally nastier due to the Online Disinhibition Effect; the normal inhibitions, social cues, and consequences that keep us civil and empathetic in person largely don’t exist. We don’t see each other the same way, because we cannot see each other. Studies show that, compared to verbal communication, we tend to denigrate and dehumanize other people when reading their written disagreements, seeing them as less capable of feeling and reason, which can increase political polarization. We can’t hear tone or see facial expressions, the eyes most important of all, creating fertile ground for both unkindness and misunderstandings. So let’s get rid of all that, and force people to talk face-to-face. No comments or messenger or tags or laugh reacts. Not only can this reduce political divisions by placing people in optimal spaces for respectful, empathetic discourse, it can greatly reduce opportunities for bullying.

The goal is to only get notifications (preferably just in-app, not via your phone) for one thing: calendar requests. Perhaps there would also be invitations to events and the like, but that’s the general idea. This means far less time spent on the platform, which is key because light users of social media are far less impacted by the negative effects.

To this end, Delphi would also limit daily use to an hour or so, apart from video calls. No more mindless staring for four hours. Nothing in excess.

Much of the rest would be similar to what’s used today. We’d have profiles, pages, friends, a feed (the endless scroll problem is solved by the time limit). Abandoning the feed completely has benefits (returning to a world where you have to visit a profile or a page to see what’s happening), such as less depression-inducing peer comparison (look at how beautiful she is, how amazing his life is, and so on), but that could mean that one doesn’t really bother posting at all, knowing (suspecting) only a couple people will visit his or her profile. And one would also be less likely to be exposed to differing views if one has to seek them out. A feed may be necessary to keep some of the positive effects mentioned earlier. But perhaps going in the other direction could help — say, a feed just for pages and news, and a feed for friends, granting the ability to jump back and forth and ignore for a while so-and-so’s incredible trip to Greece.