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The tech giants aren’t going to remedy their own problems. A small online forum in Vermont could show us the future
December 9, 2021
By Ethan Zuckerman
True Images / Alamy Stock Photo
The physical isolation of the pandemic has shifted even more of our lives online. Meetings and classes moved to Zoom and many have stayed there. Holidays and birthdays are delivered to us through the lens of social media. YouTube and TikTok feed us an apparently endless stream of entertainment, tailored—though we don’t understand quite how—to our own tastes and preferences.
As our lives become more digitally mediated, many of us do not like what we see. Social media is a performance: we find ourselves comparing quotidian moments of our lives to the carefully curated greatest hits of the beautiful lives our friends present online. The videos fed to us by opaque algorithms never satiate us—they just keep us hungry for more.
The good news is that we’re becoming better critics of the technologies that surround us. Ideas that 10 years ago were primarily encountered in the academy have become common talking points. No technology is neutral: tools embody the values and intentions of their creators, whether or not their creators intended to insert their biases. We are learning to look at the futures imagined by Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg through a critical lens, asking who these tools will help and who they might hurt. Armed with these critiques, the obvious question is: “What do we do with these broken systems?”
Faced with broken technologies, we should be looking for someone to fix them. The challenging question is “who?” Do we ask the massive, powerful and perhaps uncontrollable companies that have built our digital future to do a better job of protecting us from the harms they have engendered? Do we ask our governments to recognise that their responsibility for keeping us safe and sane extends not just to physical space, but also the virtual realm?
Companies like Facebook aren’t going to fix their own problems. The revelations from the Facebook Files released by whistleblower Frances Haugen make this clear. Facebook knows full well that its tools can damage both individuals and society as a whole and has done the barest minimum to ameliorate these harms.
At the same time, we should not expect the government to come to save us any time soon. Most of these companies are based in the United States, where the federal government seems so sclerotic and paralysed that it is extremely unlikely to pass significant legislation on a topic as sensitive as online speech.
Those based in China, such as TikTok, may be more concerned with limiting criticism of the government than misinformation or hate speech. And while the EU has shown an appetite for taking on big tech, GDPR has been barely a speed bump for surveillance capitalism. We might cynically read Facebook’s ads begging for government regulation as a recognition of how unlikely meaningful regulation is to be implemented.
So what then? Are we doomed to live in a broken future? Good news again: technology is malleable. New ways of interacting are created not just by billion-dollar companies, but by individuals who see a need and work to fill it.
Consider Tracy Chou, a young programmer whose writing about problems of gender and racial diversity in Silicon Valley saw her subjected to online harassment. Her new company, Block Party, adds features to Twitter that, frankly, should have been introduced years ago—powerful tools that block the kind of harassment and hate speech that often makes platforms unusable for women and people of colour.
We could argue that it should not be Tracy’s responsibility to fix Twitter. On the other hand, as someone who experiences this harassment, she may be better equipped than Twitter’s engineers to understand the harms of technology and how we might solve them. And Twitter deserves applause for actually allowing its tools to be fixed. Many other companies react to projects like Block Party with lawsuits or other attempts to keep user hands off their technologies.
The problem with mending broken systems is that you still remain trapped within them
But fixes are not enough. The problem with mending broken technological systems is that you remain trapped within the world imagined by that system’s creators. We might fix YouTube to host less hate speech and less vaccine misinformation, but surveilling users, capturing their attention and selling it to the highest bidder will remain the basis of how the site operates. Real technological change comes not just from fixing broken systems but imagining utterly different ones.
Michael Wood-Lewis was living in Burlington, Vermont, the only city of any real size in that rural American state, when he began a mailing list for his neighbourhood that curated forum posts by local users. Front Porch Forum became popular as a way for neighbours to borrow tools and share recommendations; for babysitters and local contractors to find work; for residents to organise neighbourhood events. Wood-Lewis found that people tended to talk to each other via Front Porch Forum in a way that we have all complained neighbours don’t talk to each other anymore.
The list has since expanded from that neighbourhood in south Burlington and now serves every town in Vermont, as well as some rural towns in bordering states. It is very different from Facebook, or even direct competitors like Nextdoor. Unlike most online spaces, it is highly moderated and content that strays into politics or controversy is quickly removed.
It’s slow: rather than being up-to-the-minute, the email is released once a day. It’s advertising-supported, but advertisers tend to be local to the communities they’re reaching and it’s also supported by donations from members. Perhaps most importantly, Wood-Lewis has no ambitions of being Silicon Valley’s next tech unicorn. His ambition is to demonstrate that a different way of interacting with each other online is possible.
At this moment where technology has become so powerful and so embedded within our lives, we need more people like Tracy and Michael. We need people to take responsibility for fixing technologies that could be much better; and to be re-imagining technologies that allow us to treat each other in the way we would like to be treated in the real world. In this column, I hope to feature the work of people doing the hard work of fixing our technological world, and to help hold accountable those whose visions of the future consider only what’s best for shareholders rather than the needs of society.