Companies are trying to throw algorithms at one of the world’s most intractable problems: the viciousness of online life. If only our technology was good enough, the thinking goes, we could expunge the worst elements from online discourse.
That misses the point, says Kevin Systrom, the 34-year-old co-founder of Instagram who left his company in September, eight years after its acquisition by Facebook. Speaking publicly for the first time since his departure, Systrom said at the Wired25 conference today (Oct. 15) that the tech industry is focusing on technology when it should be focusing on people’s control over their content. “That [control] has nothing to do with robots, AI and image detection. It’s just control,” he said. “It’s a philosophical switch saying you’re in control of your content, not us. And that felt to me like a big shift.”
Companies like Facebook are investing heavily in artificial intelligence for moderation. The company has a 10,000-person strong content safety team, although there are just 60 people on staff to craft policies for its content moderators. That’s the wrong way to prioritize Facebook’s efforts right now, according to Systrom: Before looking for technical fixes, people need control of their online lives much as they have in their real ones, he argued.
As a start, Instagram rolled out controls in the last year giving users the ability to shut down comments on their photos, selectively block words and groups, and other granular adjustments. While AI filters cut down on harassment, the biggest changes came from trusting people to manage their own online lives, even at the expense of people spending more time on the app, Systrom said. ”What I learned about humanity is that if you give people the tools to do things, generally they make the right decisions,” he said. “And you have to trust you are doing the right thing for them….We learned over and over again.”
Instagram is hardly free from harassment, however. It shares the same problems that have driven people off other social media networks from Facebook to Twitter: death threats, bullying, neo-nazis and other abuse. In some cases, it’s worse. Brandon Farbstein, who has dwarfism, said Instagram was his “No. 1 platform” for receiving hateful messages, in an in-depth report on harassment on Instagram in The Atlantic today. After trolls posted pictures of him in his school’s hallways, and Instagram failed to quickly respond to complaints through the company’s reporting tool, he no longer felt safe and left to finish his education online.
Systrom’s newfound philosophy may stem from regret over what Instagram has become as it grew to more than 1 billion users. He hinted Facebook’s failure to prioritize its users over engagement might have been a source of tension between him and Facebook’s CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg. While he hoped Facebook would continue to grow, Systrom said, “there are obviously reasons for leaving. No one ever leaves a job because everything’s awesome, right?”
“Harassment, bullying and, freedom of speech are the main problems of social media today,” he said. As Instagram begins to eclipse Facebook (it’s now the fastest growing social media network, as Facebook sees its daily audience among young people decline) it’s not clear if Systrom’s philosophy will survive his departure.