There are positive aspects to social media. Social media provides a platform to share thoughts and a place to engage with family and friends separated by distance. But there are a lot of complex issues that come with social media, leaving many users to reconsider the value compared to the mental toll. Some users are trying to approach social media in a new way by utilizing decentralized social networks.
There is value to decentralized platforms that could eliminate at least part of the negative impact on mental health caused by social media. Tech entrepreneurs like Leonid Radvinsky are paving the way for new social media options.
Mental Health and Social Media
From controversies surrounding fake news to algorithm shifts that show fewer friends’ content, social media is often a place of anxiety and frustration. The platforms often require an “always on” approach that provides funny (but not offensive) and picturesque (but not staged) content. It’s exhausting and undermines mental health in a number of ways. Social media users often experience increased:
- FOMO (fear of missing out).
- Privacy invasion.
Despite that, social media is like a drug – pulling users back for one more hit of the engagement that they crave from others. Studies show that teens are more depressed and anxious when they increase their screen time – especially due to social media use. Social media use has been linked to poor sleep quality and low self-esteem as well. Adults have increased symptoms of anxiety that can be correlated to time spent on social media.
As people are using the platforms, however, they often don’t feel the negative impact. Algorithms on these platforms work hard to show the things that keep people hooked. They calculate what content you slow down to read and respond by curating your feed to include more of it. That means that everything from the posts that make your blood boil to a friend’s adorable new kitten are all working to keep you hooked.
In one report, Instagram was found to be the most negative of the popular social media sites, warping body image confidence, negatively impacting sleep, and increasing bullying and FOMO. It had high negative impact rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness too. Facebook was ranked even worse for causing sleep loss. Interestingly enough, Facebook ranked almost as high for bullying and FOMO as it did for emotional support. YouTube was ranked worst of all for poor sleep habits and ranked extremely high for positively increasing awareness – even though the platform has been smack dab in the middle of controversies over censorship since it was acquired by Google in 2006.
Money Trails and Centralized Social Media Bias
Much of this pressure to keep users on social media comes from a connection to each platform’s paying sponsors. Social media platforms don’t make money unless they are getting their billions of users to look at and click on sponsored ads. Many people believe that this has warped the purpose of social media – taking away from what is good for users and placing the focus on what is best for the highest corporate bidder.
It has caused major issues with social media platforms that choose to weigh in on political slants as they silence certain groups or talking heads. Twitter and Facebook have caused a number of groups to claim restriction of speech because of their content being banned, deleted, or muted. With billions of people using social media to share thoughts, having corporation-controlled platforms curate feeds and cherry-pick ideas can start moving down the slippery slope of censorship.
A recent issue of a content ban was just one more in a long line of concerns. As CBS reports, “the criticism wasn’t limited to Republicans. Glenn Greenwald, a prominent left-wing journalist, wrote that the platforms ‘cross[ed] a line far more dangerous than what they censor.’”
How Decentralized Social Networks Work
Social media faces major challenges of misinformation, privacy, political neutrality, user control, bullying, hacking, and censorship. As these platforms try to keep their sponsors happy, the result isn’t usually good for the mental well-being of their users. Decentralized networks are formed around the idea of keeping corporations off of social platforms and giving control back to users. A decentralized network doesn’t have an overarching head that makes choices on direction or terms of service.
Rather than having a central decision-making figurehead, decentralized networks are broken down into independently run servers. This gives a lot of autonomy to the users, but it also means that the moderators aren’t there, for the most part. No corporation or site administrator can make changes to or delete content generated by users. Each of these servers governs itself within a Fediverse.
What Is the Fediverse?
In a decentralized social network platform, user-hosted instances make up the Fediverse. This is a collection of interconnected servers that are all individual communities that include activities, like social networking and blogging. Unlike centralized social media platforms (like Twitter and Facebook), federated networks can interact with other networks in the Fediverse. The Federation’s growing collection of instances just surpassed more than four million users total and contains more than 446 million posts.
This means that when one problematic group takes a stance on the platform (like white supremacy or conspiracy theories), the platform itself won’t take a hardline stance on the content. Individual instances, however, can block that server to isolate the group. This leads to moderation from communities rather than an overarching central force.
Twitter has considered a decentralized approach, announcing at the end of 2019 that it would be pursuing a project with open-source architects, engineers, and designers to “develop an open and decentralized standard for social media.”
Pursuing the Decentralized Platform
Leonid Radvinsky has been a believer in decentralized social networks for years. In 2018, he invested $3 million into developing free social platform, Pleroma within the Fediverse.. The goal was to make a lighter and more simplified platform than some of the current decentralized options.
The Pleroma server is compatible with Mastodon, GNU Social, and other ActivityPub servers. This free platform is a microblogging server with a default maximum of 5,000 characters. Servers within Pleroma can set their own restrictions to any value. Like most social media platforms, Pleroma allows you to like, repeat, and reply to posts. The Public Timeline shows posts made on the server, while the Whole Known Network shows all local posts, along with posts from other servers in the Fediverse. Each user also has a main timeline that contains content from the people they’ve chosen to follow and a real-time chat feature for users of that instance.
Pleroma has very few rules in its TOS, and they are written in plain language for all users to understand. These rules include requirements for tagging adult-only/sensitive content and no doxing, malware, or mass-advertising content.
Improving User Experience
The expectations are starting to shift as people realize how their data has been mined and how social media platforms are taking advantage of their use. The Netflix documentary-drama “The Social Dilemma” showed a fairly in-depth conversation about how invasive and abusive social media has become in the interest of business.
People are starting to leave social media. It is a slow trickle, but the numbers dropped for the first time in 2018 since the start of the trend. There are a number of reasons behind this shift, including:
- Free speech and censorship resistance.
- Private data protection.
- Invasive advertising.
- Stress and anxiety.
- Time management.
There are some major advantages to shifting away from centralized social media and increasing the popularity of decentralized social media platforms:
Removing Centralized Bias and Platform Oversight
Censorship is a huge problem, and many people, like Leo Radvinsky, see the dangers of the current mainstream social platforms. Companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook are all using algorithms with unquestionable biases that control where consumers are directed. They are often pushed and manipulated to view certain posts, while not being allowed to see others. Decentralized social media returns the platforms to transparent peer-to-peer interactions. Without a central server, there is no oversight or control over users in the Fediverse.
Protecting Users From Abuse
Investors like Leo Radvinsky see the threat to users as twofold: Not only are they abused by having their information sold to the highest bidder, but they are also susceptible to governments being able to access their personal information. Authorities have been cracking down on users who share political messages, but decentralized social media doesn’t require actions or messaging being tied to a singular person. Advertisers that want to collect information or show ads will pay the consumers directly. This improves user experience by increasing transparency on the user end and trust in the Fediverse.
Reducing Fake Activity
Another big issue with the current centralized social media platforms is their notorious algorithms that make interaction extremely hard for influencers and larger accounts. Some accounts will try to use the current lack of transparency to combat these algorithms that have started penalizing their posts – resulting in bought bot “likes,” shares, or followers. Decentralized social media can use smart contracts to verify influencer audiences as real, eliminating the value of bot accounts. With a decentralized network, users could be in control over which brands have access to their information.
Through networks, like Pleroma and others, the control of content goes back to the end users. With more control over what they see and no more algorithms motivated by corporate dollars for time spent on the platform, users will find social media a more valuable experience. For the good of everyone’s mental health, a major change needs to occur in social media to improve the impact.
About Leonid Radvinsky
Leo Radvinsky is a venture capital fund investor, entrepreneur, and e-commerce pioneer. He has invested in Pleroma and B4X.com (a free open-source software language tool that’s ideal for beginners). He focuses his current efforts on Leo.com to invest in technology companies as a boutique venture capital fund. He majored in economics at Northwestern University. Leo Radvinsky wants to be part of lean startups dedicated to innovative solutions for next-generation internet applications. He has a visionary perspective on technology, including his support for decentralized social media networks.