The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What readers want from social media in the future

Twitter's headquarters in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu/AP)
4 min

Imagination is alive and well — at least outside Silicon Valley.

While many people today agree that Facebook and Twitter feel like toxic wastelands, not that many people have ideas for how to fix them. So we recently asked you to envision a better kind of social media in response to an essay I wrote about the momentum that is building to reinvent online communities.

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The future isn’t written yet, and that’s why I’m writing this column: to start fresh conversations about what’s possible in the years and decades ahead. Culture, science, technology and even politics are ever-changing — sometimes regressing, sometimes evolving. Yet we often assume that what’s here and now is here to stay.
I want to investigate what it will take to solve big problems so that that future feels different from today — and also distinct from the past. I’ll examine trends and solutions that demonstrate the art of the possible, and offer a clear-eyed look at barriers to progress. I will aim to examine my subjects with healthy skepticism, but never too much cynicism.
From time to time, I’ll invite readers to say what they imagine for the future, and where they see signs of progress.


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Real-world joy served as an inspiration for many of you who want to emulate your best embodied experiences online — the awe of traveling the world, the serendipity of stumbling into a conversation with strangers at a cafe or party. Others say the solution is more about gatekeeping to ban trolls and bots and having trusted people serve as conveners and moderators of online conversations.

Several of you are rolling up your sleeves and trying to build alternative online communities free from the advertising business model that beleaguers existing platforms. And a few of you think the answer lies in checking our own behavior online.

Here are some of the most poignant ideas we heard from readers:

Small is beautiful.

“Digital communities, like physical communities, benefit from a sense of shared responsibility, and that can only be created by erecting barriers to entry: it must be easier and more convenient for community members to contribute to the community and share in its benefits than nonmembers. … The best social networks will be what they always have been, since the dawn of the internet: relatively small, long-lasting affinity groups largely populated by people who have been there for years.” — Alex Remington, Washington, D.C.

“I really enjoyed the early versions when it was like a wild cocktail party; you could share gardening tips in one corner, social justice posts in another, enviro/sustainability news in yet another. It felt like there were pockets to pique and feed various interests.” — Jacqueline Church, Boston.

Change the rules of engagement.

“I believe conversations and postings on social media would become more factually accurate and less inflammatory if users are held accountable, either through legal or moral systems. … Why can’t social media companies require verifiable identification of all subscribers? I must show my driver’s license or some other ID along with a credit card to book a room or a flight, join many social organizations, and engage in many other activities. Why not this as well?” — Kenneth E. Gabler, St. Marys, Pa.

“A strictly peer-to-peer network in which our devices serve as social media servers and we are our own content moderators. This re-creates the standard human experience of interacting with those we like, in all the ways we like, but eliminates the for-profit business model, complete lack of control over personal data, and sociopathic billionaire aspects of current social media.” — Wes Simonds, Austin.

Look to humans, not the technology.

The element that is left out of the conversation regarding how to build a better social media are the users themselves. With an overwhelming amount of data available, the user has to be willing to do the work of questioning, researching and allowing their prejudices to be proven wrong in the process of that questioning. A public forum or town square without such participation is nothing more than hysteria that Mary Shelley described in ‘Frankenstein’ or Arthur Miller in ‘The Crucible.’ Our educational system does not address this element of critical thinking — in fact we are less and less willing to allow our children to participate in real questioning. As adults we choose to complain that we are not being spoon fed the truth. The bug in the program cannot ignore the user.” — Leslie House, Santa Fe, N.M.

“It’s important to ... bring back the gray. We’ve become too ‘digital human’ and the temptation is to go further in that direction, where perhaps a new phase of embracing the best human characteristics and values is more important a direction.” — Matthew Scott of, London.

“We know what makes Facebook & Twitter popular is their ability to serve the base needs — sharing pictures of kids & pets and thought-broadcasting. On rare occasions do enough stars align where you get a compelling issue, and people work constructively together to come up with some positive responses? I’d say the problem is less technology than human nature. Perhaps also communities need to find and celebrate unsung civic all-stars rather than the rogues & influencers who command the most attention.” — Jon Garfunkel, New Castle, N.Y.