I want a better social network

Facebook kinda sucks, and it’s not doing much to foster an informed and politically engaged citizenry. It certainly doesn’t help me to be a better citizen. Here’s what a better social network might look like.

Incentives for political engagement

Likes and comments from friends are the main drivers of both the creation of new posts and the spread of content through the newsfeed. I post things because it’s nice to feel liked and loved and to have people interested in what I have to say. Things that inspire strong emoji and pile-on comments are the most likely to earn me likes, and also the most likely to show up in my feed.

Imagine, instead, if local political engagement — showing up to a town council meeting, or calling my state legislator about a bill currently in discussion, or reporting a pothole — was the currency of your social network. I want something like the Sunlight Foundation’s tools in the middle of my online social experience. I want to see what my friends are saying, but also what they’re doing — especially when it’s something I can join in on.

Maybe streaks, like GitHub had?

Whatever the mechanisms, the things that are satisfying and addicting on a better social network should be the things that are also good for people.

Tools for collaboration

Discussions on Facebook, even when it comes to long-term issues of public importance, are ephemeral. There’s no mechanism for communities and networks to build and curate shared knowledge and context.

Local community wikis (like the handful of successful ones on localwiki.org) are still a good idea, they just lack critical mass. They would work if integrated into a better social network.

For non-local things — the quality of news sources, organizations, and everyday consumer issues — something more like aggregate reviews should be part of the system.

No ads

A big, distracting part of my Facebook feed is the ads and promoted stories. These are mostly extra-clickbait-y, ad-heavy versions of the same kinds of clickbait showing up in my feed anyway. More fundamentally, showing ads is what Facebook is designed for. Everything that is done to make it interesting and addicting and useful is ultimately an optimization for ad revenue. When one change user experience change would improve the well-being of users and another lead to 1% more ad impressions, Facebook will take the ad-driven path every time.

A better social network wouldn’t have ads.

Free software that respects privacy

Obviously, being able to get your data out and move it to another host would be a feature of an ideal social network. If the people who run it start doing things against your interests, you should have better alternatives than just signing off and deleting everything.


To recap: I want take Facebook, Nextdoor, Sunlight Foundation, Wikipedia, and lib.reviews, smash them all together into a great user experience and an AGPL license, and kill Facebook.

Now is the perfect time to take another shot at it. If there’s anyone working on something like this seriously, sign me up to help.

Moving forward after the election

I’ve been mulling over what happened in the election, and what I should do now.

I think these things are key:

  • Just a small difference in turnout would have turned the election around. Any conclusions about the American people that we draw based on that election would still hold true if Hillary had won. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia? They’ve been major components of our culture all along, and that would still be the case if Trump had lost.
  • Michael Moore’s explanation of why Trump would win, in retrospect, was pretty dead on. But there’s one thing I think he gets wrong: “The left has won the cultural wars.” We’re winning — with bare majorities — on some vital issues, but we haven’t won yet. Winning would mean a candidate like Trump would never have had a chance.
  • Education is one of the things that makes the biggest difference, and it’s one we can change. In recent elections, education has not been a great differentiator of voting Republican vs. Democrat. This time it was. Combine that with age and it’s even more dramatic. This is closely related to progress in the culture wars; especially in the case of younger college graduates, there’s a shared vocabulary to talk about social justice and privilege, and a conceptual framework that has become part of our everyday social and political lives rather just abstract academic jargon.

So here’s my strategy:

  • Give money now to the organizations that can help mitigate the short-term damage. The ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and independent investigative journalism are at the top of my list to fight back against abuses of power and help vulnerable people.
  • Pour my energy into things that will help in the longer term. For me, that means my day job at Wiki Education Foundation: helping professors and their students to improve Wikipedia in the areas that really matter.

If you’re a technologist, find ways to use technology to fix democracy. I’ve got some ideas — we need a better social network than Facebook, one that drives reality-based discussion and concrete political action rather than ad clicks — but I’ll save that for another post.

If you’re web developer and you want to volunteer for an open source project that makes a concrete difference in education and public knowlege, I’ve got plenty of cool things you could do for Wiki Education Foundation’s platform. It’s Ruby on Rails and React, and every day professors and college students are using it to improve coverage of important topics on Wikipedia.

Diderot — a Pebble watchface for finding nearby unillustrated Wikipedia articles

photo-nov-05-2-52-49-pmI published a watchface for Pebble smartwatches that shows you the nearest Wikipedia article that lacks a photograph. Have a Pebble and like to — or want to ­— contribute to Wikipedia? Try it out! It’s called Diderot. (Collaborators welcome!)

After using it myself for about a month and a half, I’ve finally added photographs to all the Wikipedia articles near my house within the range of Wikipedia’s ‘nearby’ API.

Extra thanks go to Albin Larrson, who built the WMF Labs API that my app uses to find nearby unillustrated articles. The great thing about it is that it filters out articles that have .png or .svg images, so you still find the articles that have only a map or logo rather than a real photograph.