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Can Social Media Have A Structure That Does More Good Than Harm?


I had dinner with friends a few nights ago, and people were talking about quitting Facebook. Some of them already had. They were freaked out by the revelations that led to Mark Zuckerberg testifying in front of Congress this week - revelations that a political data company called Cambridge Analytica had gotten access to personal information - personal information of about 90 million of us. Well, I haven't quit Facebook. But I think a lot about what happens when I open the app - the good and bad about my complicated relationship with Facebook and social media in general.

Well, we're going to talk now with someone whose job it is to think about all this. Zeynep Tufekci is a techno sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Welcome to the program.

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Thank you for inviting me.

KELLY: Does the bad outweigh the good?

TUFEKCI: That's a tough question. I think in some ways, this particular business model - surveillance and targeted advertising this way - is not compatible with a healthy democracy. On the other hand, it's a great connectivity tool. So rather than does the good outweigh the bad, the question for me is, how do we make the good outweigh the bad? You know, how do we proceed so that - just like earlier technologies - we no longer have lead in paint. Our cars have seatbelts and emission controls and airbags, right? We need to put the safety and oversight to our digital tools so that they're not a surveillance machine.

KELLY: We'll stay with this point. If you're trying to design from scratch a social media app where the good would outweigh the bad, what would it look like?

TUFEKCI: It would absolutely be one that has the person using it as the customer. Right now, when I use Facebook, I'm being sold. My attention is being sold, and my data is being used to sell me to advertisers. That's just not healthy. If I was starting from scratch, I would make the app a small amount of money that is - we pay for phones. We pay for SIM cards. We pay for our Netflix. We pay for all sorts of things we purchase.

And a couple years ago, I wrote an op-ed for The New York Times where I looked at their SEC filings. And three years ago, it was about 20 cents per month to run the platform per person in the United States. That wasn't a lot of money. And if you consider the fact that ad technology is costing them a lot, it's quite plausible to have this level of connectivity that is affordable almost anywhere in the world. And you can subsidize a little bit, and you can have somewhat freer version. There's things you can do.

KELLY: So you're talking about designing a social media platform with a fundamentally different business model than the existing ones have.

TUFEKCI: Absolutely - because once it's infrastructure like this, you need to fix it rather than walk away. It's the same way you can't just walk away from dangerous roads. It needs to be safer. And that's the hopeful part. These technologies are really young. And what we've done is we've allowed this enormous data collection and this targeted advertising to be the main business model. So this should be a wakeup call that we shouldn't allow this to continue. And that we shouldn't feel bad about wanting to use it to connect with people. I mean, I think it's perfectly fine. A lot of people are feeling guilty that they're using Facebook, and my response is don't. It's a great product in many ways. We just want it to be safer, and we just want it to have the seatbelts.

KELLY: But you're sounding somewhat optimistic, though, that this technology...

TUFEKCI: I'm an optimistic.

KELLY: ...Is young enough and that there is room for this landscape to change quite a lot.

TUFEKCI: Absolutely. I'm an optimist because if we did bring some oversight, if we did sort of break up this kind of power, if we limited data retention - we limited the surveillance and all these things - I think there would be this enormous boon to innovation. There would be these new business models. It's such a young technology. For all the talk of innovation, Silicon Valley right now is a very boring place. Everybody's trying to get purchased by Facebook or Google. That is not an innovative landscape. And we've got two giant ad brokers basically determining the whole economy - digital economy. We should not be cynical. We should not be resigned. We should say wait a minute, this is not the only way to do this. Let's keep all the good, and let's get rid of as much of the bad as we possibly can.

KELLY: Dr. Tufekci, thank you.

TUFEKCI: Thank you.

KELLY: Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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