- Can The Free Market Save Social Media?
Another company will appear that learns from Parler and Twitter, right? Right???
Photo by William Moreland on Unsplash
Ok, to save from the angry internet rants, I have to caveat this post first. I don’t know the right answer. I’m writing this because I have a thought and, after a year of social distancing (and several years of… this) I’m craving a good, civic discussion. I want someone smarter than me (shouldn’t be too hard to find) to read this and then post their own counter-argument so I can learn.
Alright, that being said, here’s the thesis:
Let Twitter do whatever they want to their platform in the near term. The free market (or, as a backup, an antitrust lawsuit) will correct it.
Here’s what I mean. When Twitter bans a political figure, a subset of the population gets angry, claiming that Twitter is violating free speech and has too much censorship. That subset turns to an alternative platform that fills the market hole Twitter is leaving. That alternative platform, Parler, effectively gets shut down by their supporting infrastructure for having too little censorship.
Now, in a free market, a third company should be coming along soon and — like Goldilocks’ third bowl of porridge, is just right. Or, at least, a little closer to just right. This third platform would learn from the mistakes of Twitter, Parler, and others in order to better fill the gap and satisfy a growing demand among those who are unhappy with the existing options.
Even better, in a perfect world, this all happens without government intervention. (Too bad we don’t live in a perfect world). If the government does in fact need to get involved, it should be regulating a company’s size via antitrust lawsuits, not regulating speech and/or who a company serves — unless the company is violating established discrimination and racism laws in which case, yes the government should also step in there.
The point of this post isn’t to debate whether or not the President’s government position and/or his statements warrant being deplatformed and whether or not Twitter’s actions are the start of a slippery slope to mass speech censorship, Section 230 versus First Amendment rights for editorial policy, etc. We can discuss that over (many) drinks later. What I want to focus on here is one free market perspective that argues why Twitter, as a company, should be able to freely choose who they allow on their platform and why the problem should correct itself with enough time.
I’m not 100% bought in to the theory myself yet. But it’s a thought that’s been on my mind enough to the point that I want to voice it and learn from the aforementioned smarter people. I know I’m wrong somewhere here and want to understand.
Here’s an analogy. It has key flaws, but I’ll explain those at the end.
Let’s say I own a food truck and I’m the only person in the neighborhood who provides lunch to a corporate business park. I sell cheeseburgers and only cheeseburgers. No hot dogs. No hamburgers. Just cheesy, greasy, goodness.
At first, everyone in the area is super excited because, previously, they had to bring their own food from home. They love the option to go outside and buy some food. However, some of the employees are allergic to dairy. They ask me, the food truck owner, “Hey, do you think you could start selling burgers without cheese?”
As a private business owner and cheese lover, I tell them, “No. If I bend my menu to cater to you, next thing you know I’ll have to provide gluten free buns or, heaven forbid, meat alternatives. And that’s not what I’m about.”
This results in a subset of the office population that is unhappy with my bad food menu policies. Those people don’t have any other options, though. Maybe the government should step in and force me to provide food to everyone fairly since I’m the only food provider. Here’s the free market option, though: over time, someone notices a demand that I’m not fulfilling, so they start a second food truck business that does sell allergy friendly foods and they directly compete with me. This is good. Now we have competition.
There’s a problem with this second food truck, though. Turns out their meat is not exactly vegan friendly. When someone asks what it’s made of, the owner smiles and says, “well….It’s not animal meat *wink* *wink*” That’s because their burgers are made of…human meat. This abhors the local business association in charge of scheduling the food truck appearances and they tell the human meat truck that they aren’t allowed on the business park grounds anymore. Now we’re back to me being the only food provider for the employees and that’s where we are now with Twitter and Parler.
Here’s the crucial third step. The people still need allergy friendly food. Another food truck can come along and see that their need is still not being met. They can also learn from the mistakes of the human meat truck and…well..choose not to be cannibalistic. Maybe they can show up and compete with my burger truck. Or maybe a fourth company. Or a fifth. With each iteration, with each new company, the competition gets smarter and better — understanding the people’s needs in more detail until they’re perfect enough to draw away a significant portion of my client base.
At this point you’re likely shaking your head at your screen thinking, “Liam, your overly simplified analogy is so deeply flawed. In this scenario, all of the food trucks have equal access and there are no barriers to competition like there are with the tech giants.” And you are absolutely right. That’s why I can’t go 30 seconds into any tech podcast without hearing the word “antitrust” and why Rep Dave Cicilline is a household name (at least, in my home). But, more on that aspect of the issue in a second. First…
In the world of tech giants, there are actually a lot of competitors — competitors that are viable. We simply don’t ever hear about them because we the people are too compliant (read: lazy) to move — and convince their friends to move — to these alternative platforms. Now, however, I think we’re finally at the moment where a critical mass of social media users are unhappy to the point of moving. Don’t like being hosted by AWS? Move to Linode or Cloudflaire or Azure or a plethora of other webhosting services. Looking for an alternative way to be heard? Start a Substack (all the cool journalists are doing it), or join Diaspora. Heck, if you have serious concerns about digital freedom, you can even host your own Diaspora server or pod and be in complete control over your data while sharing your thoughts with the world on a fully featured social media platform (unless your ISP shuts you down, but that’s an entirely different, net neutrality debate).
Few people are using these alternative platforms now. But, once upon a time, no one was using Twitter either because they had email and RSS feeds instead. MySpace was more popular than Facebook until a critical mass decided to make the switch. And what was TikTok before they started seriously competing with Snapchat and Instagram? musical.ly. And it sucked, at first. Now, it’s becoming a legitimate competitor.
No one even heard of Parler until now. This would have been a banner year for the platform had they done a few key things differently to undeniably stay within the AWS/Google/Apple App store’s terms of service. The next platform is watching and learning — and the slice of the public who is unhappy with Twitter should be willing to exercise their free market vote via their signups and jump ship to the new platform when the time comes. Because we can all at least agree that we need more competition in tech. Maybe they can even implement better cross-posting features to make the transition easier — letting member members post to the major social media platform while simultaneously posting to the new, up and coming service.
If there’s another thing we can all agree on, it’s that the free market is not perfect. The free market assumes perfect information flow, logical decision making, blah blah blah nothing is fool-proof to an sufficiently motivated fool. This is also where my food analogy breaks down, because Twitter is not a food truck — even though both leave me queasy and feeling bad about myself.
But that’s why governments exist (I think). When competition isn’t happening the way it’s supposed to or someone gets a little too much power — when the free market needs a little nudge in the right direction — governments step in and make things better.
Now, rather than the government telling Twitter who to allow on their platform and controlling speech, if we want to allow the market as much freedom as possible while minimizing government control over ideas, then the government should be intervening in a different way. They should be telling Twitter, “Serve whoever you want within the bounds of discrimination laws and don’t directly allow overtly illegal things to happen. We won’t tell you who to serve, but we will tell you that you’re too big and we’re going to break you up in order to stir up some new competition.”
Or, maybe the government provides support to existing alternative platforms to help them compete. Move the official White House feed from Twitter to Diaspora and switch their official channel from YouTube to Vimeo. The point is, rather than regulating speech, the government is regulating monopoly practices and encouraging competition. And the latter is much less threatening and more bipartisan than the former.
Rather than letting this moment be one of controlling speech and debates of censorship, let this be an opportunity to empower the little guy competitors and make them a bigger threat to the tech giants. Can we turn to the market for an answer to our social media moderation dilemma? A little short term pain and thrashing in return for long term goodness?
Ok, that’s the theory. Like I said at the start, I’m not entirely sold on it yet but I had to get it out on paper (or, the screen). Tell me its shortcomings, you smart Medium readers, you. The free market is far from perfect, government even more so. I know there’s some major flaws in this thinking and application, I want to hear them so we can collectively come to a better answer for the world we live in. (And follow me on Twitter! Oh, the irony).
- Date of publication:
- Wed, 01/13/2021 - 11:20
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