Wednesday Briefs – 13 January 2021

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This week: Revolution!; Social Media Blows Up; Parler Silence.

Revolution!

Most revolutions end badly. They tend to start with romantic and idealistic visions promoted by charismatic leaders, but are then hijacked by extremist actors who are more interested in control and power than in democracy or the common good.

The American Revolution turned out better than most for the rebels. But the same cannot be said about other revolutions. The French Revolution resulted in protracted turmoil for decades before a true republic could emerge and endure. In the meantime, Robespierre’s Terreur and the Napoleonic era featured death and destruction on a grand scale. As to the various communist revolutions around the world, the cost in suffering and human lives has been beyond imagination. These revolutions delivered very little if anything in terms of improving living standards.

The Prague Spring of the early 1990s in Eastern Europe fared better because prevailing conditions at that time and at that place were unusually ripe for change. The Soviet Union, principal patron of those communist regimes, was exhausted and in dire financial straits after the collapse of energy prices in the late 1980s. Twenty some years later, the Arab Spring was a dismal failure. Very little has changed except in Tunisia, according to this study from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Are we on the eve of another American revolution? Some segments of the population, on both sides of the political spectrum, are angry and feel disenfranchised. On one side, some demand restitution or some rebalancing from a system that they see as long rigged against their advancement. On the other side, some believe that the election was stolen and also see a system that is stacked against their advancement. Obviously, the two paths forward are escalation or de-escalation of the more extreme rhetoric and actions. After de-escalation, new possibilities can materialize.

READ MORE on the demographic and income factors of a revolution, including why aging countries may be more prone to populist revolts >>> So You Want a Revolution, or >>> Why ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Failed.

Social Media Blows Up

After the dust settles, the clearest consequence of banning President Trump from Facebook and Twitter and of removing Parler from Apple, Google and Amazon services will likely be a big jump in competition for social media and search providers. This would be a good thing and long overdue. Users of Facebook and Instagram are captive in at least two ways: 1) they have invested years of content on the platform and would be reluctant to walk away from it and 2) they have built their network of contacts over a long period and would be reluctant to restart from scratch on another platform.

What the world needs after last week’s social media events is a new open-architecture or agnostic platform. The way this would work is a user would create his content (a post, a photo, etc.) on that new platform and would then choose on which of the incumbents to publish it. The incumbents are the social media companies that already exist today, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. The user could choose to publish a single piece of content on one incumbent, for example only on Facebook, or on several, for example, on Facebook and Twitter and others etc.

The user would own his content at the new platform, a parent platform of sorts, and could shop his content to algorithms designed by the incumbents. In some cases, though not all, the incumbents would pay the user for his content, a case we had made separately in Tech Giants Should Pay Users.

As to the user’s content and contacts accumulated in previous years, a user should be able to segregate them in a separate file at the incumbents and to lift them out or to copy them in a few clicks, say out of Facebook, and onto the new parent platform.

Parler Silence

Parler’s banishment from Apple, Google app stores and Amazon servers may prove to be the best thing that happened to the company, if for no reason other than a full-blown Streisand effect. Parler, formerly relatively obscure, is now known to all and has in addition a grievance that may earn it broader sympathy on first amendment grounds or other.

The road back to respectability and acceptance should not be difficult if the company plays its cards right. One is a revision of the Code of Conduct and some tightening of rules. Two is an effort to invite non-conservatives to join Parler and to turn the service into a true debating forum instead of just an echo chamber for the right. Three is to be the main alternative to Twitter, whom they can paint as the bad guy across town, whether that characterization is fair or not. Of course, the challenge will remain that most people do not want to micro-blog on multiple platforms. Which brings us back to the need for a parent platform that feeds several.

Our own view about the suspension of accounts is that Twitter and Facebook have a right to do it. Everyone has a right to speak up but no one is entitled to speak with a megaphone on someone else’s turf. Our preferred solution was to charge a fine to users who violate the Code of Conduct, instead of banning them outright.

The chart below summarizes more generally how Twitter could charge heavy users with a large number of followers. The x-axis represents a user’s frequency of tweeting (or posting on Facebook) and the y-axis how important tweeting is to such user. Social media companies are providing us the equivalent of small billboards to advertise our views and products. As with real life billboards, these digital billboards should not be free to the user when he/she derives an outsized benefit from tweeting or posting. In addition to those in the green box below, users who violate the Code of Conduct can be billed at a different dollar rate, one that is sufficiently high to deter future violations. Would this be practical and effective in imposing some decorum and discipline? We can’t know for sure until we try it.

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