In recent years, the world has been rocked by a series of scandals and shocking revelations about how social media giants operate. Data breaches, unethical features, and other scandals exposed deep flaws in several major social platforms.
In light of these revelations, it is time for social media giants to change. The only way that these networks can be effectively managed and regulated is by implementing ethical design.
Read on to discover why social media giants need to tackle ethical design on their platforms, and how they can achieve that in 2019.
What is ethical design?
Ethical design refers to products and services that are created in a way that pursues positive morality over profits. While a brand’s ethical policies dictate how it does business with its partners, manufacturers, and customers, ethical design is built into its actual product.
For physical goods such as beverages and cosmetics, this can relate to elements such as eco-friendly packaging or products sourced from Fairtrade-certified farms. But for software and digital services, it is often about how the user’s experience is impacted in an ethical way.
Why is this an issue now?
For years, social media was held aloft as a beacon in an age of darkness. A world that had hitherto been disparate and relatively isolated was able to come together and connect.
You could send a message from a London Starbucks to a Moroccan souk in mere seconds. Families in the US could FaceTime their loved ones in Australia on Christmas Day, and real-world events could spread across the globe within minutes.
Social media connected people, on both the micro and the macro level.
Take the Arab Spring as an example: in 2010 and 2011, the citizens of several Middle Eastern countries revolted against oppressive regimes and poor standards of living. The revolution was largely facilitated by social media, with social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter used to galvanise and organise individuals together.
Amidst inspirational narratives like this are lesser stories, tales of old friends reuniting or lost property being returned to its rightful owner. Social media enabled these stories, and it was hailed by many pundits as the dawn of a brighter age.
The darker side of social media
In recent years, social media has taken a darker turn. The world has been rocked by a series of scandals and controversies that showed the more toxic side of social media.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal is perhaps the most obvious example of this. But so too are the recent New Zealand shootings broadcast live on Facebook, and Twitter’s controversial blue-tick verification of various white supremacists on its platform.
On the face of it, these are apparently isolated incidents, but they are indicative of wider problems slowly gnawing away at social media’s underbelly.
The everyday user is not exempt
On a more granular level, social media as a user experience is questionable. Unethical practices by major social platforms have come to light that expose their ruthless nature.
Last year, it was revealed that Instagram deliberately withholds push notifications to some users with the aim of increasing app open rates. And Facebook’s co-founder Sean Parker revealed that the platform is designed to exploit human vulnerability to boost profits.
These revelations are at the heart of ethical design. Social media is ubiquitous and unavoidable, permeating every aspect from our lives. It is necessary to interact with businesses, keep in touch with friends, make purchases, and it’s even a requirement for some job roles. As such, it is down to the tech giants themselves to implement ethical design practices that safeguard the user.
So what can social media do?
If the above seems like we are fighting a losing battle against social media, don’t be disheartened. There are things that social media firms can do to combat the damaging effects of unethical design.
Implement more comprehensive filters on news feeds
A lot of time on social is spent sifting through irrelevant or uninteresting content — most people aren’t interested in what a former colleague from a job they left ten years ago is doing at the weekend.
Social media firms could give their users the option to create custom filters that only show the most relevant posts they want to see. For example, a person might choose to only see posts from people that they have meaningfully interacted with in the past 12 months.
The only drawback of this is that it might create an echo chamber, preventing people from being exposed to different viewpoints. Some may say that it is up to the user to expose themselves to a wide range of opinions — here is a good place to start.
Take ownership of influencers and their content
The recent Fyre Festival scandal shocked many, an effect compounded by the release of Netflix’s Fyre documentary. The controversy forced social influencers under the spotlight, and their working practices have come under increased scrutiny as a result.
Social media platforms are more than mere conduits for influencers. As the hosts of these social stars, social networks are implicit in their practices. They facilitate influencers, and as such should shoulder some responsibility when things go wrong.
The Fyre Festival incident is a fine example of this. Influencer Kendall Jenner failed to disclose that her now-deleted Instagram post promoting the festival was sponsored (to the tune of $250K), landing her in hot water with the Federal Trade Commission as a result.
While Jenner should have declared her fee, Instagram too should have taken action to ensure that influencers use their platform responsibly.
Influencers aren’t going away anytime soon. Ecommerce brands around the world enjoy considerable growth through influencer partnerships. As such, it is up to social giants to ensure that the practice is regulated and ethical.
Rather than simply tagging a post with the #ad hashtag, social platforms should include a dedicated feature for verified users to make clear that the content they share is sponsored. Failure to do so should be met with punitive fines, temporary account disabling, or even permanent exclusion.
Notify users of how much time they spend on social media
Several online casinos have recently rolled out options for its players to set limits on the amount of money and time they spend gambling online. These are set by the player, and help safeguard against unhealthy gambling habits.
Social media platforms should implement similar features on their users as well. Its addictive nature, combined with the dreaded infinite scroll, encourages people to spend long periods of time on social media.
A preset limit that restricts a user’s time spent on social media would help people grasp just how much time they actually waste on the platforms. They might even spend their time better, actually using social media functionally rather than aimlessly scrolling.
Get rid of the infinite scroll
On the topic of the infinite scroll, social media giants should seek to place restrictions on how long a user can mindlessly scroll for. Even the feature’s inventor, Aza Raskin, regrets how addictive and damaging the infinite scroll has been to users.
Social media firms should restrict users’ ability to scroll infinitely, putting restrictions on just how many times they can scroll through their news feed.
Instagram implemented such a feature in 2018. Once a user has viewed all new posts from the past 28 hours, they are notified with an in-feed message. A user has the option to scroll further to see older posts, combined with other, more recent posts.
Such a feature would prevent users from getting lost in a scrolling black hole, encouraging them to spend less time online and more time in the real world.
While the recommendations above would prove effective at combating the adverse effects of social media, it is up to the social media firms themselves to implement them. With the spotlight shining on social giants brighter than ever before, it is surely only a matter of time before these recommendations become reality.
Written by Kayleigh Alexandra
From Micro Startups