Creating a free speech social media site is no easy task

Only a few years ago, the idea of online censorship being a problem for Westerners would have seemed like the paranoid delusion of a conspiracy theorist, but at this point it is difficult to find an example of a mainstream social media site which isn’t cracking down on anyone who strays from an increasingly narrow range of acceptable political opinion. Once you would have had to post extremist or illegal content to get banned from Twitter; nowadays they will kick you off for tweeting memes that the media don’t like. It is against this backdrop that University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson recently announced his intention to create a new product with the aim of reversing this trend. Provisionally titled ThinkSpot, the site would seek to avoid removing content unless required to do so by law, thereby providing a safe space for the discussion of contentious topics which are steadily being purged from the regular internet.

Although ThinkSpot has a domain and a landing page, there is nothing usable as yet and concrete details on its intended features are limited. It appears that it will aim to fulfil two roles simultaneously: a Patreon-style subscription service, and a discussion forum similar to Reddit. It is not difficult to see why Peterson feels the need to replace existing contenders in both of these areas, as Patreon has been indulging in political censorship of its own, prompting many creators (including Quillette and Jordan Peterson himself) to abandon the platform. Trolling will be discouraged by up and down-voting of posts by users, along with the more unusual imposition of a 50-word minimum post length, which Peterson claims will force people to “put a little thought into” what they write — a hope which seems a little over-optimistic, as a quick perusal of Time Cube will show that verbosity is no guarantee of intellectual rigor.

A common response to criticism of social media censorship is to point out that private companies can do whatever they like with their own websites, and anyone who doesn’t like it is free to create their own alternative. This is certainly true from a legal perspective — companies are not obliged to provide a platform to anyone, and taking them to court for banning people would be unlikely to meet with much success. For those who believe in the free market, setting up a competitor like ThinkSpot is the natural and sensible way to deal with this issue, and far more appealing than allowing the government to step in and start dictating how web sites must operate. But this is not the first time someone has tried to create a better, freer alternative to Facebook and Twitter, and the numerous problems which have beset these other sites should give some idea of the obstacles that Peterson will face in his attempt to bring his new idea to the world.

The first challenge is getting people to care about the new site and actually start using it. Any communication tool, whether it’s WhatsApp or an analogue telephone, is subject to a phenomenon known as the network effect, whereby the value of the product scales rapidly with the number of users. A telephone system with a single user is worthless, but ten users can make ninety different calls and twenty users can make almost four hundred. Likewise, the value of a social media site is not derived from its features, but from the number of other people you can use it to interact with. People may dislike Facebook, but if it’s what all their friends are using, they are unlikely to switch to a lesser-known competitor. Services like MeWe, Minds, Diaspora and the now-defunct Google Plus have all managed to build their own loyal fanbases, but none has so far achieved the critical mass necessary to start pulling large numbers of users away from the mainstream giants.

If an alternative site does manage to attract some users — perhaps by appealing to groups who are particularly dissatisfied with the behaviour of the major sites, or through the efforts of a few celebrity cheerleaders — it may still have difficulty gaining a sufficiently diverse population. Just like the so-called “ghost towns” produced by the network effect, the “echo chamber” phenomenon is strongly self-perpetuating. Once a site gains a reputation for being mainly popular with a certain demographic (such as conservatives, or male fans of Jordan Peterson), it naturally becomes less desirable to people who don’t fit into that category, which in turn prevents the population from diversifying and makes the echo chamber even more extreme. There are of course those who are quite happy to converse exclusively with people on their own side, but such one-sided discussions do not lead to the sort of intellectual progress that ThinkSpot seems to be aiming for.

Any newcomer to the field of social media faces the risk of becoming either a ghost town or an echo chamber, but there are further challenges for a site which takes a strong position in favour of freedom of speech. The first question is where the line should be drawn. No site can be completely free of censorship; at the very least it will have to prohibit illegal material such as child porn or pirated movies if it wants to avoid legal problems. However, allowing any content that isn’t outright illegal is still a risky policy. Sites like 4Chan, Voat and LiveLeak have their place in the world, but they are not communities that most ordinary people would wish to join. A totally uncensored discussion forum is likely to become a cesspool of hardcore pornography, shock images and Islamic State beheading videos — but as soon as you try to implement any kind of acceptable content policy, the site is no longer strictly uncensored, and you now have the problem of deciding what to allow and what to ban, while somehow avoiding the subjective political crackdowns we are now seeing on Facebook and Twitter.

A more serious problem which faces low-censorship services is that it is currently impossible to set up a web site which doesn’t require the cooperation of other commercial entities. You might promise not to remove lawful content, but your hosting provider, domain registrar and payment processor might have other ideas. In some countries, the state itself might intervene and decide that the moral purity of its innocent citizens will be threatened by your dangerous content, possibly resulting in a country-wide block. This is not just a hypothetical problem — Gab has been kicked off numerous app stores and web hosts because of its refusal to remove posts from the far right, while 4Chan and LiveLeak (amongst others) were blocked in Australia after the terror attack at Christchurch. No doubt many would say that these sites host a lot of unacceptable content, but that’s beside the point. We can’t insist that free market competition is the solution to social media censorship if those who do try to compete are promptly shut down by forces outside their control.

It may seem that many of these problems are avoidable for a newcomer like ThinkSpot. For example, if it functions as a pure discussion forum with no support for images or video, it is not going to end up full of porn or videos of terror attacks. Perhaps the complex issue of what content should be permitted can be made easier by splitting the site into Reddit-style communities with each sub-forum free to choose its own rules. What is clear, however, is that there are no easy answers. With too much moderation, you’re no better than Facebook; with too little, you have an extremist free-for-all which ordinary people won’t visit and web companies won’t host. If you want any kind of income, whether it comes from subscriptions or ads, you are now at the mercy of sponsors and payment processors to decide what content is permitted; with no income at all, paying for hosting and development becomes a problem. If you refuse to ban people, as Thinkspot says it won’t, you will be smeared by the media as a safe haven for Nazis, and collectively blamed if even one of your users turns out to be a violent criminal.

If it were just a few big social media sites who were carrying out censorship, then “build your own alternative” would be a good response. But the internet is not, and has never been, anything close to a free market. It is an interconnected web of gatekeepers, monopolists and Silicon Valley ideologues who have long abandoned any notion of content-neutrality, and instead decided that their role is to fight on one side of the ongoing culture war. Jordan Peterson has a large media presence, and despite what the more paranoid sections of the media would have you believe, most of his audience are not swastika-tattooed skinheads goose-stepping around their living rooms. Perhaps he will succeed in creating a forum which is popular, civilised, uncensored, respectful, editorially independent, financially secure, welcoming to outsiders, accountable, intellectually diverse and full of high-quality content — but if so, he will have achieved something which nobody else has yet managed to do.