More people come online due to the COVID-19 outbreak. We are building new routines, new social networks and soon enough new habits in the virtual world.
This population bomb cracks open a question worth asking: so, how can we protect ourselves in the virtual world and thrive?
To start with — let us draw a picture of the building blocks of our digital world:
- Individuals’ identities;
- The networks that connect the identities
- The content that enriches them; and
- The governance that manages them.
We have spent two decades creating what I call an A.G.E.D. world; and I predict we are moving toward a 4P world:
- Identity: Authentic → and Protected;
- Content: Genuine → and Preventive;
- Networks: Extensive → and Private;
- Governance: Defined → and Progressive
I have observed the paradigm shift of data privacy and community health over the past five years, watching as we gave away our identities, privacy and safety in the name of convenience.
Cyberbullying, sex trafficking, child exploitation, hate speech and violence — among other toxic behaviors — run rampant in online communities. We usually hear about them only after they’ve crossed the line into real life, with tragic consequences.
This article is a call to our community to understand that if we do not start a movement of forging Trust and Safety for the virtual world we live, work and play in, we will march into a divided world with violence, assault, hate speech, and mistrust.
So what we ought to do differently? I believe we must migrate from the A.G.E.D. world to a world of 4Ps.Let me dive deeper into the concept of migrating from the A.G.E.D. world to a world of 4Ps.
Where we are: Authentic
Over the past 15 years technology has increasingly perfected ways to track you. Which in turn has allowed brands, governments and merchants to understand your identity — your interests, how you use your time, where you’re located, your social engagement, behavioral and buying patterns — promising that this would make life more convenient.
Thanks to tracking, each person becomes a calculation of their lifetime value (LTV) to the brand — the holy grail of branding and marketing — and that calculation is spookily accurate. At some point our real lives become just 1s and 0s viewed through the glass of a moneyball.
Where we ought to be: Authentic … and Protected
Browsers have begun offering an option to block tracking; regulators have begun implementing penalties for data breaches that put our identities for sale on the Dark Web; and we have begun to educate the general population about the value of their own data — and their right to control or even monetize it.
In short, we have started to protect our own identities, or at least, claim our right to do so.
It’s a mistake for any platform or brand to think of identity protection as a hindrance imposed by regulators. Instead, protecting users should be a true opportunity to stand out and actually be preferred by consumers as a community of integrity, safe for users to join, use, and stay in, gladly.
Where we are: Genuine
I used to favor Hollywood-style marketing campaigns for luxury brands, but about five years ago, I started being truly influenced by homemade, organic YouTube videos and aspirational Pinterest pins for small brands (and, well, TikTok — the whirlwind that swept joyously across the globe).
I’m not alone. Consumers today respond to authenticity, which explains why low-budget, grassroot videos go viral. We no longer need perfect-looking starlets or professional athletes to inspire us. Unfortunately, the trend towards authenticity has been polluted by deep fakes and “alternative facts” presented as news — aided by that same low-budget grassroots feel.
Genuine has become an excuse to win at all costs, hiding malicious intent behind the feel-good front of democratizing opinion and content. Whether with photoshop, deep fakes or fake facts, the burden is on the user to determine reality. The perception of being genuine has eclipsed the actually genuine.
Where we ought to be: Genuine … and Preventive
Where do we draw the boundary for our common freedom? Our collective media illiteracy leaves us open to the fake, even as technology increasingly blurs the lines between truth and fiction. We need boundaries.
Churchill said, “trust but verify.” Making sure toxic content and fake news are prevented from reaching a trusted platform actually liberates the community as a whole. Prioritizing the common good of a community is the way to a safer Internet experience for all.
Where we are: Extensive
Monthly Active Users (MAUs) has become the most quoted and critical metric for a platform or network. Facebook’s MAUs, alone, equal the size of several nations combined. Meanwhile, Facebook, Google and Amazon now account for over 70% of advertising revenue — hyper-tailored commercials created to understand your digital identity, change your behavior, and calculate your LTV.
The ads/eyeballs/clicks model — adtech — grew as fast as the internet itself, and in fact bankrolls the free services we’ve come to expect. In the early days of adtech, customer acquisition cost (CAC) was low. Today, the owners of your data, these dominant players in adtech, make CAC increasingly expensive as their tracking becomes just as increasingly targeted.
Where we ought to be: Extensive … and Private
Privacy has become the hottest differentiator for both B2B and B2C software companies. Businesses take privacy seriously today because of regulatory pressure — not to mention brand-damaging catastrophes after privacy is violated on a massive scale.
The Wild West of network expansion — without respect for individuals’ data rights — is over. Investing in data privacy and creating a safe environment will no longer be an insurance policy, but a differentiator to drive retention and community engagement.
Where we are: Defined
In the past 20 years, regulators have begun to take action. We saw GDPR and the upcoming CCPA enacted for privacy, as well as SESTA-FOSTA as a way to monitor and prevent human trafficking. In the private sector, businesses built policies that translated into community governance guidelines. So whether intentionally or accidentally, we have started to define a better online experience.
Where we ought to be: Defined … and Progressive
The digital world is moving with unpredictable gusts, rather than in a straight line. The reflex to update and automatically translate governance into platform moderation is implemented inconsistently; and for the private sector, Trust and Safety is generally not tied to to top-line revenue; it’s a compliance play, a box to check.
But national and state-level regulation do not adapt quickly enough to mirror how the world actually works online. Digital leaders must see regulators as allies, not opponents.
Governance cannot be defined as it was 20 years ago, but needs policymakers to constantly reinvent and modify regulations to reflect what’s actually happening on platforms across the world.
Crises always create opportunities, to think, to act and to change. This is an opportunity for us to make the virtual world a better place.
This framework was first published on Forbes in January, 2020.