CONTRIBUTORS

Fixing online discourse means starting from scratch

Lucie Repova
The Fulcrum (TNS)

Everyone is aware of the broken state of online discourse — people operating in echo chambers, misinformation proliferating the social media space, endless arguments over basic facts, polarization reaching record highs, people hating others who disagree with them, cancel culture and many other issues that have been amplified due to the existing social media platforms.

Despite the general recognition of social media’s immense problems, few people have tried to solve them. Unsurprisingly, going against Facebook or Twitter is no small task and the chances of failure are – let’s be honest – close to 100 percent. But if we let fear dominate us, how are we supposed to get out of this mess?

Many of my friends who are talented engineers and designers, public intellectuals and businessmen, have tried implementing solutions within the existing platforms, namely Facebook. They started enthusiastically only to be shut down a few months later for reasons as ambiguous as “we are refocusing our resources to more mission-critical projects.” It seems obvious that Facebook’s mission-critical projects were aimed at maximizing profits over public good. Its business model uses our attention and data to extract value, which is reflected in the flawed design of its products and services.

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Facebook definitely stuck to its early motto of “moving fast and breaking things,” where “things” has had multiple meanings over the years: “our mental health,” “way of living,” “jobs,” “connections,” “democracy,” “political system” and many others.

Bad values lead to bad business models that lead to bad design. This is a chain reaction. The reality is Facebook cannot change its design, which harnesses people’s attention and makes them angrier and more outraged, without changing its business model, which relies on high engagement to maximize profits. The company also cannot change its business model without changing its values and finding the proper balance between profits and the health of society and our political system.

Simply put, the damage is irreversible. Shareholders rely on the current business model, employees in positions of power subscribe to their values and culture, and users’ negative perspective and distrust of the brand cannot be repaired with a simple design change.

The solution is to start from scratch. It will be long, hard and painful but I do not see any other way out of this.

So how do we do this?

Let’s start with the bedrock of every company — its values. I started Iris (my new social platform) because I wanted to help improve our democracy through civil discourse with the intent to find common ground and achieve societal progress. This important part of our political system vanished and I wanted to get it back on track. I was also concerned about the degraded user experience. It is frankly very difficult to get good conversations started. Having fewer than 100 followers on Twitter makes me look like a bot or a weirdo, and makes it difficult for me to engage in fruitful conversations with people who have different perspectives. There is no easy way to build up my credibility. A new social platform should focus on users first and should work to optimize their experience and the quality of their interactions.

That’s how we improve both the health of the political system and the health of the individuals within the system.

Targeted advertising is the evil of all evils. Yes, it makes a lot of money but, no, it does not align with our values. We have to find something else. The answer is in freemium — either a business-to-business or business-to-consumer model where you charge organizations or individual users a monthly fee for extra features. This allows the new platform to optimize for quality of conversations and user experience, not quantity of engagement.

Last but not least, the basic design of social platforms has failed to evolve in 20 years. It’s always the post and the comment sections, the follows, the upvotes. Every Twitter or Facebook competitor has copied its features to the tiniest detail. Are people too lazy to try new things? Are they afraid to innovate and fail many times before finding what works well?

I believe that in order to design a successful new platform, one has to look at real-world interactions. Most of our conversations happen in small private groups. Whether you go to a networking event, dinner party or a conference, you gather with four or five other people and have one private conversation. Occasionally, you have public discussions in the form of panel events and interviews where experts share the best insights. Why does this not happen online?

Imagine a new platform where anyone can participate in civil discussions and be heard. Imagine a platform where anyone can build relationships with the people in their discussion groups and discuss a topic at a much more granular level than in large public comment sections. Imagine a platform where number of followers is not the determinant of credibility. If that sounds good to you, sign up for Iris and see it for yourself.

We are doing things differently. By emulating the format of our real-world interactions, we can create an online space that is more civil, produces higher quality content, makes people more fulfilled and connected, and leads to a healthier society in general.

I look forward to seeing you onboard.

— Lucie Repova, who worked in investment banking and consulting, founded the new social media platform Iris.

— The Fulcrum covers what's making democracy dysfunctional and efforts to fix our governing systems. Sign up for our newsletter at thefulcrum.us. The Fulcrum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news platform covering efforts to fix our governing systems. It is a project of, but editorially independent from, Issue One.