Monday, October 19, 2020

We should regulate virality

It turns out that virality on internet platforms is a social hazard! 

Living in the age of the Covid pandemic, we see around us what happens when we let things grow exponentially. The reason that the novel coronavirus has changed our lives is not that it's often lethal - it's that it found a way to jump from one infected person to several others on average, leading to exponential growth. We are infected with virus without regard to the lethality of the virus, but only its reproduction rate.

For years, websites have been built to optimize virality of content. What we see on Facebook or Twitter is not shown to us for its relevance to our lives, its education value, or even its entertainment value. It shown to us because it maximizes our "engagement" - our tendency to interact and spread it. The more we interact with a website, the more money it makes, and so a generation of minds has been employed in the pursuit of more engagement. Sometimes it's cat videos that delight us, but more often these days it's content that enrages and divides us.

Our dissatisfaction with what the internet has become has led calls to regulate the giants of the internet. A lot of the political discourse has focused on "section 20"  a part of US law that gives interactive platforms such as Facebook a set of rules that result in legal immunity for content posted by users. As might be expected, many of the proposals for reform have sounded attractive, but the details are typically unworkable in the real world, and often would have effects opposite of what is intended. 

I'd like to argue that the only workable approaches to regulating internet platforms should target their virality. Our society has no problem with regulations that force restaurant, food preparation facilities, and even barbershops to prevent the spread of disease, and no one ever complains that the regulations affect "good" bacteria too. These regulations are a component of our society's immune system, and they are necessary for its healthy functioning.

never going to give you covid
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You might think that platform virality is too technical to be amenable to regulation, but it's not. That's because of the statistical characteristics of exponential growth. My study of free ebook usage has made me aware of the pervasiveness of exponential statistics on the internet. Sometime labeled the 80-20 rule, the Pareto principle, or log-normal statistics, it's the natural result of processes that grow at a rate proportional to their size. As a result, it's possible to regulate virality of platforms because only a very small amount of content is viral enough dominate the platform. Regulate that tiny amount of super-viral content, and you create incentive to moderate the virality of platforms. The beauty of doing this is that a huge majority of content is untouched by regulation.

How might this work? Imagine a law that removed a platform's immunity for content that it shows to a million people (or maybe 10 million - I've not sure what the cutoff should be). This makes sense, too; if a platform promotes illegal content in such a way that a million people see it, the platform shouldn't get immunity just because "algorithms"! It also makes it practical for platforms to curate the content for harmlessness- it won't kill off the cat videos! The Facebooks and Twitters of the world will complain, but they'll be able to add antibodies and T-cells to their platforms, and the platforms will be healthier for it. Smaller sites will be free to innovate, without too much worry, but to get funding they'll need to have plans for virality limits.

So we really do have a choice; healthy platforms with diverse content, or cesspools of viral content. Doesn't seem like such a hard decision!