What’s Next In Social, Part 1 Podcast Transcript
The Bright Team
The Bright Team • Jan 10

What’s Next In Social, Part 1 Podcast Transcript

Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines

We think we're likely to see some changes from some of the larger social media platforms, more copycat and niche social options emerge, and eventually, one or more challenge brands that offer something genuinely different. We'll discuss why and for the first time touch on the role AI Is likely to play.

Taryn Ward.  Hi. I'm Taryn Ward,

Steven Jones.  I'm Steven Jones,

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TW.  and this is Beaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines,

SJ.  We're taking a closer look at the core issues around social media, including the social media landscape, to better understand the role that social media plays in our everyday lives and society.

TW.  This series, we first online social networks back to the beginning and explored how they've evolved, and what it's meant for our online experiences. Over the next two episodes, as we near the end of this series, we'll think about what's next in social media. This episode, we'll think carefully about what it takes to create a successful social media network, building on what we've seen work and not work over the past 30 years, and next time, we'll draw some conclusions about what that likely means for what comes next.

TW.  Let's start with a question: What are the barriers to entry in terms of creating a new social media network?

TW.  Unusually for us, the answer is pretty straightforward. Money. Barriers to entry describe obstacles that prevent competitors or challengers from easily entering an industry. These barriers benefit incumbent brands because they protect them from meaningful competition and often disadvantage consumers who have fewer choices as a result. For social media, challenger brands, these are all financial because government policy is often actually in favour of new social networks, in part because despite the power it has over our lives, social media is not a highly regulated industry, at least in the West, and many governments are concerned about the level of control existing networks hold and would prefer to see it spread out.

TW. Steve, it would be great to hear from you. You know, having worked in industries that are heavily regulated by governments, what can you tell us about the difference between those industries and social media?

SJ.  That is an interesting point. I mean, the most, I guess, the most regulated things that I did that was was working inside a level four containment facility, where safety is of paramount concern and is always in conflict with achieving the goals that you want to do, right, you have to be creative about how you solve problems, and then of course, making vaccines making the vaccine for Ebola others extremely regulated, and prescribed and specifically how things have to be done and everything has to be documented, and so on and so forth.

TW.  Just for people who are less versed in your great level four lab stories. Could you say a little bit about what a level four lab is?

SJ.  A level four lab is where we it's basically a level of engineering control that's built in to the system that prevents environmental exposure. So, the viruses that we work on and they were all viruses that we worked on in that lab, things like Ebola and Marburg virus and Lassa fever, 1918 influenza virus in Canada was regulated to, to that lab. It's a whole system of boxes within boxes, you work within the viruses inside biosafety cabinets with regulated airflow where the output is, is HEPA-filtered to get rid of the virus, and then the air that comes in and out of the lab is HEPA-filtered., and in North America, and across much of the world you wear these big hazmat suits with, with airlines so that you can breathe. Obviously, you don't carry oxygen tanks in the back like firefighters do.

SJ.  That was where we did the research to build our Ebola vaccine., and every aspect of that work is controlled by health safety regulations. The lab is inspected every year, and it is extremely well-documented everything that you do, and that's right and proper, and if any industry wanted to open a level four lab, they would be subjected to exactly the same regulations that governments are, and the situation is not quite the same in the US because the biosafety requirements are sort of guidelines rather than regulations, because of the bizarre way that US legislation works and management of the of the country in the States.

SJ.  But in Canada, they're actually, you know, regulations to the act, and they're enforceable by law. So, it's very interesting, and, you know, as we've made the vaccine, everything that we did to make that Ebola vaccine had to be recorded, done to the prescribed standard, and anything that may sneak into the final product that shouldn't be there had to be tested for and removed, and, you know, we did a lot of molecular biology in this we had to basically remake all of the nucleic acid constructs from scratch, sir, so that we weren't potentially contaminating them with any kind of protein that shouldn't have been in the final product. It was a tremendous amount of work, and, you know, we tried to do this quickly, and compared to other vaccines, we were very quick, but it definitely isn't the same as the Move-fast-and-break-things approach of the of the tech industry, and that's largely because governments don't like you breaking people or things too much, and it's surprising to me always that they've let the tech companies get away with so much, and I think that's probably because they got a head start and got away from them, and I think some of the legal actions that we're going to talk about in other episodes are an attempt to restore and redress that and to be fair, the early days of vaccine research probably weren't very different. Right, Jenner took cowpox from a milkmaid, gave it to a small boy, and then infected him with smallpox, which would be an absolutely abhorrent experiment to do today. So, you know, regulations that govern level four and vaccine manufacture are there for a reason.

TW.  Right. So, I think if we take a level four lab on one side, in the current social media landscape, on the other, we're talking about two very opposite ends of the spectrum. It's harder to imagine two more opposite things. So, when you were working on the vaccine for Ebola, it wasn't just getting the funding and getting some of those things in place. It was also about ticking a lot of regulatory boxes, and I don't mean that in a dismissive way. I mean, there were a lot of things you had to prove, all the way throughout, that you were following some pretty well-established procedures and that what you were doing was safe. Again, social media. Definitely not. So, for social media startups, access to capital is the biggest problem. It's the biggest hurdle. 

TW.  So, if you want to build a social media network that's meaningfully different to existing online options. That's really hard because in order to challenge the incredibly well-known and well-funded incumbents, you're talking about a significant amount of capital, even if there aren't a lot of regulatory hoops to jump through. There is capital available for this, as we've discovered ourselves, but there are a couple of issues. 

TW.  So: first, because consumer social is a high-risk area, investors tend to focus on specific types of founders who are more likely to create a copycat or a niche offering; and two, money means control, and often it means ticking a predetermined set of boxes, not regulatory boxes, but boxes in terms of growth, which favours a revenue model and a growth model that has a proven track record. So, this means, again, a copycat or a niche offering. 

TW.  Let's think and talk a little bit more about the first issue, which types of founders are getting social media projects funded, this is going to be a little bit controversial, and I'm sure we're going to be accused of complaining and it's really not that at all, we're just trying to talk about some of the facts here. So, if we set aside some of the trendy investments, we saw a lot of networks promising decentralisation last year, and we saw a lot of Twitter copycats get funding last year, and this year, AI is the keyword or the magic word. But even these projects demonstrate, more often than not, the rule that we've established. The number one consideration, especially at an early stage, is the founder. For better and for worse, we know that there's a sort of ideal profile: Stanford, super-connected, worked for a startup, had an exit, lives in the valley, white male, loves ice, baths, et cetera, et cetera.

TW.  To be clear, founders don't have to take all those boxes. But the more the better, and you can see this when you look at some of the newer social networks that have gotten funding, and I don't have an issue with people who fit this profile, so my best friends fit this profile. The problem is, we've all seen this movie before. We know what kind of social media apps these guys built, and I say these guys because they mean these guys, it's largely men. Facebook was a version of this, Twitter was a version of this, if a bit of a twist, Instagram, Snapchat, Clubhouse, look up the profile of some of the founders who worked on Clubhouse, and to some extent even BeReal. So, we know all this, and then we're surprised when we see the same problems repeated with all of these new networks: something like 2% of funding goes to women founders, sometimes less and far, far less to women, founders of colour. That's a problem across a lot of different sectors. But it's uniquely troubling in social media because it means there's a lack of innovation directly tied to a lack of diverse life experience.

SJ.  Wow! Well, I mean, it's impossible to argue with any of that. I mean, I'm in violent agreement. I mean, it is absolutely ridiculous that if you want a different kind of social media experience, that you would give the job to a Zuckerberg clone, and, you know, Mark Zuckerberg was incredibly successful. You can't argue about the man's technical and financial success. We can argue about a lot of things, and we do, in our episodes on Meta, and we will again in future episodes on health and mis- and disinformation and so on and so forth. But you can't argue against that, and so it's not surprising that young, particularly young men who come into the industry want to emulate that type of success. There's also a cult of personality around people like Elon Musk, which, you know, despite the fact that he's never built anything useful by his own pair of hands in his life. He's seen as an example of how to do this right, and he personifies breaking things. Ask anybody who uses Twitter, sorry, "X", formerly known as Twitter.

SJ.  So yeah, it's, you know, if you want to do things differently, you need those diverse perspectives, right, and, and you're not, you're not going to get them because those voices are effectively silenced. Because let's be honest, the people with the money to invest in VCs, a generally white Anglo Saxon university educated men, very often from the tech industry themselves, because they had exits that gave them the money that they can then invest, and they're going to fund people that they see the look and act and talk and behave like themselves. Because it's hard to think looking, looking at yourself introspectively and going, what mistakes that I made in, and how can I avoid funding companies that will make those mistakes is extremely difficult and uncomfortable, and people don't want to do the mental or emotional labour, right?

TW.  Yeah, absolutely. I think one argument that we've heard in response to this point is, well, we've heard it, we've heard a few that that are not worth repeating. But one is sort of his argument that maybe white men who went to Stanford and love ice baths are just better at building social media networks, and I think that's where we get into the second issue, and that is that is, well, what do you mean by a social media network, and we have to define our terms and think about what we want the outcome to be. So, when new social media companies take on financing, especially from venture capital firms, they agree to a very specific type of growth and, in a way, committing to that move-fast-and-break-things approach from the word go. It's about getting as many people online and depending on key metrics, keeping them there as long as possible. In fact, most founders understand that they will need multiple rounds of funding, and to be eligible for more money, they need to max out those key metrics at every stage. Eventually, the entire value of the company is also tied to those metrics. It's not just how many ads they actually sell. It's how many potential ads they might sell how much potential influence they might have over our lives that determines how much a social media company is worth, and so I think maybe we could agree that if that's what you're building, maybe white males from Stanford who love ice baths are best suited. But that is only one potential model in a world of a whole lot of other options, and I think we've been stuck down this pathway, partially because of what's getting funded, and this is where I think it's worth talking a little bit about surveillance capitalism, which we'll address more fully elsewhere, and this is the idea that surveillance capitalism is the widespread collection and commodification of personal data for profit. It's important to separate this from government surveillance or capitalism more broadly. Please do not send us messages about how we hate capitalism. That's not what we're talking about. This is a very specific concept first popularised by Shoshana Zubov. In a 2014 essay, Zubov credits Google and later Facebook was pioneering surveillance capitalism, and over the past several episodes, we've seen how others have picked up on the concept and further developed it, even while Google and Facebook have remained major players, and just noting before we get into the discussion part, we both really highly recommend reading her book.

SJ.  I think you hit two points there, which sort of resonated with me as you were speaking, which was, you know, definitely the surveillance capitalism. Let's come back to that. It's like, what do you mean by social network? And, you know, I think Facebook was never intended to be a social network. Nor was Twitter if you listen to our episodes, we talked about the early ideas, and that was not their intent. They developed into systems for sharing information with people that you know, whether they were life experiences, or the news or whatever, or batshit crazy conspiracy theories. Let's face it right now. But sorry, Taryn, I see your head in your hands. But its true, I mean, allegedly, they're not they're not true. These things that people say.

So, they didn't know what they were building, and then it became this system to do the connecting, but then they needed to make money, all of them. Everybody needed to make money, and we're definitely not against capitalism. We would also very much like to make money. We want to pay people, we want to pay them lots of money, and give them really good jobs, and, you know, all of the good stuff. But what they did was decide that instead of connecting people, what they were going to do was sell influence through this surveillance, this surveillance capital machine, and so I think you're point about your ice bar ice bath loving, oatmeal latte swigging, white Stanford graduate, nothing against oat milk lattes, Taryn, I know you like an oatmilk latte. You know, one of the boxes is ticked right there, right? But that group and people are probably very good at building surveillance capital machines with a social media skin on it. Right? That's exactly the point, and if you want a different experience, if you want something which is going to be open to State's Attorney General, excusing it, or bringing in a scheme to exploit young people, or indeed everybody, if you want it to be good for people's mental health, if you want it to support the fabric of society, rather than tear it apart, those people are probably not the right people to do it, because they're not actually concerned about connecting you. They're concerned about reaping your data and selling it to the highest bidder; or actually reaping that data, profiling you, and selling the ability to influence you to the highest bidder.

TW.  Certainly, we've seen that again and again. Yeah, I mean, if my drinking out milk lattes gets one of those boxes ticked for us. Great. But really, I just don't like cow's milk, I think. I think that's all right. I think one of the difficulties is that it works. That's not the word I want to use. Rather than saying it works, it operates as it was intended to operate, and so can sometimes mean huge profits. So, you know, that to say that it works is an oversimplification because there are a lot of people it's really not working for, and I would argue that it's really not working for democracy, it's really not working for capitalism, if we want capitalism to continue, there, there are a lot of ways in which this is not working. It does mean a lot of profit for a handful of these companies, and in fact, we've seen this model developed and repeated so often it starts to feel like it's the only option. It's not. But if we want to see more alternative models, and it's important that we do see some alternative models, so people can make meaningful choices about how their data is acquired and used, it's important that we think about what those alternatives would look like, and how they could operate, and who is best place to build them.

SJ.  I mean, I can't argue with any of that either, and partly because obviously, we think that people who come at the problem with a different perspective, and with different life experiences and intentions are able to build better, or at least alternative products, right, where we're probably not going to build something which will replace Facebook, because there will always be a place for something like Facebook, just like there is always going to be a place for something like EasyJet, there is also a place for you know, something different, and, you know, I, genuinely believe that you need a different approach, you need to approach the problem with a different mindset, and, you know, do what, you did right back at the beginning, and what we've done collectively since then, which was systematically analyse the problems with social media and work out how we can fix them, bearing in mind that the primary goal for weaknesses to be social networks is actually connecting people actually having that having them have real experiences online with people they know, or people they will never meet in real life, but have something in common with, even if it is a disagreement, as long as those disagreements are productive and civil. Right. You know, it's okay to disagree. As long as you do it in a reasonable way. I think that's, that's, that's what's important, and these polarised hostile discussions are driven by the need to keep your eyes on a screen, and that's what's destroying society, I think, right, or accelerating the destruction of society?

TW.  Absolutely, and you know, over the past few years, we've explored a number of different options, and we always come back to the subscription model is the only true alternative. It's one of the only ways consumers can hold networks directly accountable, and make sure and make sure incentives are aligned all the way through. We've thought about this problem is so many different ways over so long. But every single time we come back to that, and I think and I think that's right, and until we start funding social media networks, that think about things this way, and that push that as an option. I think we're just going to be stuck in this cycle.

TW.  But we'll continue this discussion next time, where we will think about what's next in social media, both in terms of how the larger platforms are likely to evolve and where true challenger networks might find some success and some wins despite the funding challenges that we've discussed this episode. 

TW.  In the meantime, we'll post a transcript of this episode with references on our website. You can find this and more about us at TheBrightApp.com.

SJ.  Until next time, I'm Steven Jones,

TW.  and I'm Taryn Ward.

SJ.  Thank you for joining us for Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines.


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