What will the next social network look like? I hope it is one that places the privacy and interests of its users first. One that won’t exploit their personal data for its own gain. One that doesn’t try to infer personality traits, sexual orientation, political views, etc. of its own users.1

A few thoughts on what it must do.

  • First, privacy. Keep it simple: provide greatest privacy by default for the user’s profile and timeline. More importantly, make it easy for the user to know who can see what and also make it easy for them to change their privacy settings.

  • Collect only as much data as the user chooses to provide. Don’t record what your users are browsing on the web (via a “Like” button or similar). Don’t create shadow profiles of nonusers, etc. Don’t try to read user data (call log, SMS, address book, etc.) that you don’t need.

  • Don’t retain anything indefinitely apart from things like profile data, preferences, posts, pictures, etc. (all of which the user explicitly provides and does expect to be retained indefinitely). One may need to retain a few additional data points like IP addresses or device details for account security and spam prevention. That’s fine, but this should be the only reason to retain them.

  • Don’t analyze user data for the network’s gain (e.g. don’t infer personality traits, etc.). Analysis for things like spam detection is fine, but almost nothing else is.

  • Don’t use AI or a recommendation engine to decide what a user sees in their timeline2. Keep it simple and show everything that is not spam chronologically. If you have to filter content on the timeline, make it clear to users what’s being filtered (popular posts, etc.) and allow users to clear any filters.

  • Maintain strict control over user data given out to apps and integrations. Manually review apps that request sensitive user data (posts, friend list, photos, etc.). Allow users control over app permissions. Encourage apps to make minimal use of permissions.

  • I don’t like ads, but I think its unavoidable if you want to bulid a social network that is free to use. That said, don’t build an ad profile of your users, nor allow advertisers to do the same. Take steps to prevent advertisers from tracking your users. Provide contextual ads, but don’t run third party scripts. An alternative revenue stream might be to allow users to pay to get ads removed.

  • Protecting against nation states is a really tough one. On one hand the service has to operate within the law of the land where its users are located, but on the other hand it must take a principled stand around protecting user data. That means don’t build a PRISM like tool without fighting for your users. And the lesser data you collect on your users the lesser you need to reveal in courts.

Most importantly, I don’t think a for-profit company is a good fit for these goals. A non-profit would be a better fit, that said I am not sure it is financially viable.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to @zeynep, whose articles on the digital surveillance infrastructure built by Facebook, Google, etc. helped shape my thoughts around this.

  1. Facebook’s Surveillance Machine 

  2. Even Google has a hard time preventing YouTube from turning into a giant radicalizing engine