Free Speech, Social Media, and Network Externalities

At risk of seeming condescending, many arguments about free speech are cringe-worthy bad, such as the common refrain,

“Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences!”

The Soviets could claim the same thing. “We let you say what you want, but the consequence is being sent to the gulag. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences!”

The Nazis could claim the same thing. “We let you say what you want, but the consequence is being sent to a concentration camp. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences!”

So the statement is flatly in error. Freedom of speech does mean freedom from specific consequences by definition. If freedom of speech isn’t freedom from consequences being imposed on you, then what is it?

Perhaps I am creating a straw man interpretation of the bold statement. A more charitable interpretation: “Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from social consequences.”

But even that is erroneous. The problem with that sentiment is that it conflates the 1st amendment with the general concept of “free speech”.

A free speech violation is any consequence imposed on you for the sharing of your opinion. The 1st amendment is a piece of legislation that says that government should not violate any person’s free speech.

I consider myself a free speech absolutist, but that term may be a misnomer. The term “free speech absolutism” actually refers to the latter principle, protection from governmental free speech violations. It might as well be called “1st amendment absolutism”. I and almost everyone readily accept some social free speech violations; for example, if your girlfriend leaves you because you insult her, or your boss fires you because you badmouth him. But they are free speech violations, not in the legal sense but with respect to the principle.

But that doesn’t mean I have no problem with any non-governmental speech violations. Speech violations, governmental or not, which I do have a problem with, I will call “censorship”.

I am not necessarily advocating that all censorship should be illegal, only government censorship. But I will still criticize censorship from non-governmental entities. I can dislike things and still think they should be legal.

Most of the time, blatantly politically-biased censorship is bad PR, so social media organizations will allow most speech. But every now and then, a social media company will do a risk-reward calculation, and decide that censorship (particularly that which aligns with the site runners’ own biases) is good for business.

Invariably, this comment will be hurled:

“They are a private company, so they can do what they want! If you don’t like it, go somewhere else! They don’t have to give you a platform”

This argument is simultaneously both insightful and idiotic on several levels.

To begin, does this mean to suggest I cannot use my free speech to criticize the actions of a corporation that I find objectionable?

Another oft-heard rebuttal is worded crudely:

“But these social media companies are monopolies! They should be regulated as such, and not be treated as ordinary companies!”

This argument is virtually always made poorly. I will attempt to make the strong version of this argument.

The point of contention should not be the fact that social media companies (Facebook, Youtube, etc.) are “monopolies”, but why they are.

In my first-ever post, I list out zero-sum resources. One of the ones I list is access to network externalities. I list it as an afterthought; perhaps that was a mistake.

Network externalities are not just another factor to be added on to the end of an equation. Network externalities are the single, quintessentially most important thing to explain why almost anything on the modern Internet works the way it does.

A network effect, as described by Wikipedia, is the value “that an additional user of a good or service has on the value of that product to others”. In other words, the fact that a service is popular is what helps it stay popular. It’s a feedback loop.

In sites like YouTube (any social media site for that matter), the content is created by the users themselves. They are both the creators and the consumers.

A video hosting site is not like a toothbrush company. When I go to the store, there are many brands of tooth brushes I can choose from. When I go online, there aren’t any popular video hosting options besides YouTube.

Some people say, “You don’t like how YouTube de-monetizes content-creators? Then just create your own video hosting service!” So I will just come right out and say it: there will never, EVER be ongoing, large-scale competition between Youtube and another similar video hosting site.

I do not mean to suggest that YouTube will not be replaced at some theoretical point. After all, MySpace was replaced by Facebook. I only mean to suggest that two widely-used video hosting sites will not exist simultaneously. There might be one or two niche hosting sites like Vimeo, but it will go no farther than that.

A bold statement? Let’s list the network externalities that YouTube benefits from:

  • When you type something in the YouTube search bar, you expect it to turn many results no matter what it is. This is only possible because YouTube has a gigantic catalog of videos. That is only possible because they are popular.
  • When you watch a video on YouTube, suggested videos will appear on the sidebar. This, again, is only possible because YouTube has a gigantic catalog of videos.
  • YouTube has built up an enormous amount of data on people’s preferences, so that it can find videos very specifically tailored for you. Not only do they benefit from their giant catalog, but they benefit from all of the data they have amassed about people’s preferences and trends.

It is a catch-22 situation. To have users, you need to get users. But to get users, you need to have users.

Let’s not forget the biggest network effect, that applies to all of the social media sites:

  • Content creators post their media there because they know a large audience is there. An audience is there because the content creators are there.

To build on that, most people’s favorite video creators are on YouTube because they discovered them via YouTube. Video creators creators outside of YouTube rarely have a large audience because they are less likely to be discovered.

For another website example, the same principle is at play with Facebook. People use Facebook because their friends are on Facebook. If their friends weren’t on Facebook, they wouldn’t be on Facebook. The fact that people are using it is why people are using it.

But, you might ask, doesn’t Facebook compete with the likes of Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and various other social media sites?

No.

A crude understanding is that these companies all exist in the same space, because they are all lumped together under the vague banner of “social media”. But social media is a quality of the websites, not an arena between the websites. These sites differentiate themselves by providing fundamentally different services. They might as well be each in an industry of one. Facebook is for personal, real identity. Twitter is for sharing thoughts widely. Tumblr is for blog-like content and peculiar interests. Instagram is a tricky case, but differentiates itself from other sites with a variety of mechanics, (which I won’t get into here).

The issue is broader than free speech. The issue is that a social media company can do whatever it wants and not be subject to normal competitive pressures.

It gets worse. Whatever social media sites exist are almost guaranteed to pander to political correctness, because of the intolerance of certain groups, and because it is one of the most powerful ideologies of our time.

Solutions

As far as solutions, I can really see only two. The anti-libertarian solution, and the libertarian solution.

The anti-libertarian solution is for the government to pass regulations to forbid censorship by social media companies. This option should be pursued with caution. The morality of coercing a private company aside, government regulations can sometimes do the opposite of what we want them to. It sets a bad precedent, and creates just another layer of decision making subject to the whims of the public.

The libertarian solution is to create a decentralized standard of social media, like email but for publicly shared content. You could have different social media services, just like there are different email services, but without centralized control. In this case, the network externality is shared between all companies. They will be able to each cater to a specific theme, but all “talk” to each other. Different decentralized systems can be developed for different types of services.

Both options, especially the latter, would be unbelievably difficult to pull off. The latter would not require political action, but you would have to set up the system to prevent each service from excluding others from the benefits of network externalities. Maybe someday I will attempt that. Until then, I bid good luck to anyone who might try.

With all of that said, this article will not be persuasive to you if you believe that some views should be censored.

Who believes that? A shockingly large number of people, which includes most people who use the term “hate speech”.

“I am all for free speech, but we have to make a distinction: hate speech isn’t free speech!”

Yes, it is.

I will talk about the term “hate speech” in a later post titled “semantic activism” or something. For now, hate speech is a propaganda term and should never be used (except to criticize the term).

Some language, like incitements to violence, I am okay with banning, but that is a red herring. My definition of speech in the context of this post is the spread of one’s opinion. Telling someone to commit murder I do not regard as falling under that banner.

The term “marketplace of ideas” has become cliche, but it captures the Darwinian essence of thought. Free speech restrictions disrupt the process of natural selection for ideas, which I have written about before, in favor of top-down, centralized control of thought. We are essentially instantiating this particular era’s notions about what speech is acceptable into the future.

What is the government to decide that it knows better than us what speech is correct or incorrect. To think that the state knows more than you about what sources you should and should not listen to is flatly insulting. If the state decides that certain speech is unacceptable, it is only because people did, people who can be wrong, or corruptible. Or, if certain speech is censored, incapable of finding out what speech is ban-worthy in the first place. Someone will make the decision, but not us, freely, democratically. Rather, but by a small number of bureaucrats working as censors, who are among the worst kind of people to make that type of decision.

The ability to decide what is true and what is not is the fundamental right of, and should rest with, the people, which implies right to listen to all viewpoints. The state has no right to control thought by criminalizing the sharing of ideas.

I could write an entire post in defense of free speech, so before I get carried away, I leave you with this.

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