What the world needs is a new social network.

It sounds almost like a joke, right? Really, a social network? The thing that we are just barely learning to live with, the apparent cause or trigger of polarization and political escalation and Trump Being President and so much human anguish? Yes, I know. It doesn’t sound at first like this is the kind of fire that we want to kindle by adding yet another stick to it. But hear me out.

Nick Bostrom has this great concept where he talks about a kind of lottery of ideas; humanity is constantly playing the lottery, he says, and drawing ideas out of big lottery wheels of Science and Culture. Some of the balls in this wheel are colored white; these are good ideas. They contribute to human good, and we’re glad we found them.

There are also black balls, though. These are bad. They are things that, on the whole, don’t produce anything good. Nuclear power seemed for a bit back there in the cold war like it was this; perhaps mutually assured destruction could have resulted in an apocalypsis. But it didn’t! aren’t we lucky? If (and it’s a big if) things stay this way, we got away with something dangerous. Perhaps we can use the idea for whatever good it holds (clean-er power?), or perhaps we decide to bury it underground in a big vault of ideas (this one doesn’t have to ever spin) that says Do Not Go There, Trust Us. For now, though, the idea might still turn out to be black; we could, perhaps, represent this situation as a grey ball of whatever shade we deem correct.

Now, an apology: I don’t like the fact that our culture encodes bad things as black, it’s associated with death, etc. I think associating black with badness is horrible because of how terrible the world is right now for anyone at particular shade of yellow. It’s for some seriously horrific set of reasons through history which I do not endorse, even though I clearly benefit from the privilege that I derive from the outcome (I’m the “right kind” of shade). Please just let me know that I’d like to fix it; I don’t know how. I don’t know of any other way of getting the point across as clearly, and it’s the original metaphor of the author. If you think of a better way, please let me know. I’ll drop the metaphor and I’ll just call ideas/balls Good or Bad instead.

So: social networks might be Bad. Perhaps we weren’t ready. Perhaps humanity will rip each other apart.

I hate to think that, though. I want to believe better flow of information is always Good in the end. Then perhaps I don’t have to worry, and things will sort themselves out. But what if we should worry and think about the merit of this particular ball? It doesn’t seem like things are stable. If we just started a fire, we can’t just ignore it and assume it will just put itself out. What would that be like? People that support Trump and Brexit just hug the people that support Sanders and the world moves on? Yeah, no, let’s talk about the bad cases. You know, just in case.

Social network wise, we have the problem that they all sucks. Which one sucks the least? Perhaps Twitter? It’s about interchanging ideas. I like that. I mean, they are short… I really don’t get it. It’s a bit limiting. It’s nice that it exists, but it’s not enough.

Facebook has longer stories. But Facebook, really? Come on. Next.

Instagram is nice but can be harmful (people suffering when they see their contacts seem to have nicer lives than they do; or people actually acting a character, but not being honest about it and harming people that way). Also, images are necessary but not sufficient.

We need a social network for ideas. For talking about Bostrom’s lottery urn, and also about other Good things that we already have. Our culture — if you’re a sci fi fan, you can even think of it as Iain Banks’ Culture; I don’t know if he knew of Bostrom’s idea as he died before the article was published but I think his Culture, like any utopia, is an exploration of this idea.

So, you see, if the social network is about this it’d would essentially become a composite of utopias; every person sharing their ideas is, at least partly, describing their systems of values and wishes and hopes. These ideas describe, at least in part, a possible place: the place where that particular person is happy.

What do you want? Yes, you! What do you want?

Would you like other people to know what you want? Do you want to tell them? Are you willing to also hear?

If you’re some sort of utilitarist: would you like to talk to others and have a stab at maximizing human happiness?

What if there’s a way to maximize human happiness while also increasing everybody’s happiness? What if there are Good ideas in that urn that everybody likes, or at least the majority prefers (if there is nothing better than democracy)? What if, taking incremental steps that everybody can live with, we get to a post-scarcity society? I think of a sort of average technological utopia where everybody in the world has at least a universal basic income, nobody starves, everybody is free to do what they want with their lives as long as they don’t disrupt others. But you can picture your own utopia. That’s the beauty of it! I’m not sure I’m right. Everybody can be wrong about mostly everything and still get by. But we only need to each contribute bits of vision, discuss, sometimes reconsider each other’s positions. Try not to get that angry all the time. Sort it out.

Well, I’d love to be able to try that. I guess we all need to adopt, perhaps first build, some sort of ethics-and-culture-oriented social network where everybody can freely discuss ideas that don’t infringe a minimum set of rules. The set of rules bit is going to be hard — perhaps different people can even have different set of rules, and fully customizable filters? Unsure. The nice thing is that this place doesn’t have to replace Facebook, or Instagram, or anything really — it should actually leverage it in many ways. I picture as having pointers to your profiles, plus your story for each one if you have it:

Are you honest about what you post? How much? Are you playing a character? There was this story recently of an Instagram couple that proposed to each other in a fully orchestrated way, pretending spontaneity along the way, even though they had acquired sponsors for some of it and all. Perhaps we should talk about how real we want to be at a particular moment. Even if you’re not an actor, you don’t share all with everybody. It makes sense.

So this place would essentially be an agora, or a set of agoras (you know, this whole thing could just be Reddit, if Reddit just gets their game straight — I like to think Google could pull off this kind of thing well, but perhaps I’m naive and that ship has sailed). Perhaps the Classical Greeks were on to something, you know. They have a pretty solid track record.

About this Agora:

  1. You can share who you are, to whichever extent you want. I, myself, like to think I could go with fully honest. Or, I don’t know, 99% honest? Perhaps we should have an honesty bar, just saying.

  2. You write about your ideas, or about your positions with regard with certain things. Perhaps you don’t think you have ideas; I’m pretty sure you do, everybody does. You might just not notice them, if you’re not paying attention.

  3. Everybody can participate.

  4. You cannot encourage or endorse any physical violence. About other kinds of violence: the network tries to ensure nothing violent according to your definition crosses your very explicit filters about the kind of stuff you want to even read about. We do this with filter bubbles now, but I think it needs to be very explicit and prominent so everybody can be happier and know exactly what’s going on, as much as they want. It’s just more ethical that way.

Defining violence is a problem in itself. In a way it ultimately stands for Bad. People will differ on what they consider violent or Bad, of course; discussing what is Bad (the filter itself) is sort of the point of the network after all.

The Agora is located in Flancia.


Next up: ?.