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Could a reboot make social media a nicer place?

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The academic institute, a new initiative from Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society (BKCIS), is being funded with $2m (£1.5m) from the John S. and John L. Knight Foundation, as well as Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

“While the identification of problems may vary, it’s hard to find anyone defending the current environment of social media,” says BKCIS co-founder Jonathan Zittrain.

“It’s important to better assess (and make known) how social media is evolving,” he says, in order understand how it might be possible to reconfigure it.


“When social media started, it was supposed to bring about this new renaissance of thought because everyone would have a voice. Clearly, something is off,” says Mitchell Marovitz, director of the communications, journalism, and speech program at the University of Maryland Global Campus.


Part of the new institute’s work will be to strengthen these benefits of increased online communication, while minimising its harmful parts.

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“There is a consensus, even among people who run social media companies, that there are growing problems with the way we interact and communicate, and share information online,” says Ashley Johnson, a policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

However the sheer scale and reach of social media will make reform difficult.

“It’s not as easy as saying there’s a problem at a company, let’s figure out how to change its culture,” says Karen Kovacs North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at the University of Southern California.

While social media has some societal benefits, it can have some very harmful effects on people, says John Carroll, a media analyst and journalist based in Boston.

“In many ways, it’s structured to exploit people’s weaknesses and opportunistic in maximising its own use,” he says. “The ‘gamification’ and addictive response of social media is something that’s really hard to disrupt.”

“Any time you get together millions or people, you’re going to amplify the best in people, and you’re going to amplify the worst,” she continues.

“We’ve definitely seen that, and we haven’t figured out how to maximise the good and minimise the bad. That’s what I think of when I hear ‘reboot social media’.”
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