The problem isn’t that it’s impossible to create a profitable, privacy-focused social network that supports free speech while also protecting people from harassment.
It’s that the current platforms don’t seem to have any incentive to do that.
Part of the issue is that mining and monetizing people’s data has been so damn profitable. Therefore, the more data you can gather, the more you can sell and the happier your shareholders are.
Let’s be real, Facebook has no real assets beyond our attention and our data. They’ve been unable to come up with a monetization strategy that doesn’t handsomely reward them for deeply invading into our privacy.
The same is true for Google. Every bit and byte of data that you give to Google is used to assemble an advertising profile of you. This includes everything you search for and interact with across the entire Google network (Google, Maps, Youtube, Gmail, etc)
With the introduction of voice activated assistants, Amazon has joined this illustrious group of
Each of these companies have become masterful at using the data that they collect to show you ever more relevant ads (or products), and in many cases have been more than willing to give advertisers access to your information.
The more you learn about the privacy practices of these large data-driven companies, the more concerning it becomes. The hoops you must jump through in order to protect your privacy is mind-boggling including VPNs, sandboxes, private browsing, do not track settings, and deleting apps from your phone. It’s become staggeringly complex.
There is, however, one company that has shown a commitment to privacy, with a solid, vertically-integrated product offering capable of replacing nearly each and every one of these tools. This is the sole company with the capabilities, the infrastructure, the business model, and the funds to save us from a truly awful dystopian future: Apple.
Apple already has all of the tools, albeit many need vast improvements to be truly competitive. But, more importantly, they have the brand and business model that supports their ability to build the social network I’m about to describe. Building this network is a way to get people even more invested in the Apple eco-system (i.e buy more hardware).
While I believe that something like this would be profitable, I also think this move has the capacity to boldly reshape the web as we know it.
I believethat we have reached a point where people yearn for an option that respects our privacy and gives us the ability to connect with our friends and family on our terms.
I believethat the rise of toxic social media behavior is making us unwell as a society, and much of that has to do with the incentive structure of these networks.
We must have an alternative to the existing platforms who have an inherent conflict between fighting hate speech and harassment while their algorithms favor activity and who invade more of our privacy as their advertising requires it.
This is not a short term plan but if anyone has the ability to change the current course we are on, it’s Apple. So, keep in mind that what I’m about to describe is probably a 5-year plan, or potentially longer. Facebook and Google will not sit on the sidelines. Apple should double down on privacy and build this platform.
Me.com: A Prologue
Before getting into the features of this proposed social network, it’s important to go over the factors of why this is feasible.
Apple already has everything it needs to support this endeavor. ANY other company would have to start from scratch, including building a brand that respects privacy.
Apple has the hardware and because privacy is built into their hardware, Apple is the only company that could do this. They have iPhone, iPad, MacBooks, iMacs, AppleTV, and Homepod. I’ll explain how AppleTV and HomePod come in later.
Safari & iCloud
…and the possibility of iCloud Pro
Apple also has the beginnings of their own the online ecosystem, which is essential for this platform to exists. Ask anyone who has tried to ditch Google how difficult it is when your browser is Chrome, your email and calendar are through Gmail and you search through Google.com.
Apple already has a pretty decent suite of tools: Email, Contacts, Calendars, Notes, Reminders, Drive, Pages, Keynote, Numbers, and iMessage. They should continue working on the web versions of each of these apps.
Apple has a solid web browser in Safari which is both fast and has excellent security features.
Me.com should be used to build this social network and they should introduce iCloud Pro as a Google Apps competitor with a robust suite of additional business tools and the ability to use your own domains.
Apps, Marketplaces, Payments, and More…
Apple already has marketplaces for mobile apps and games, desktop apps and games, music, movies, tv shows, and books. They’ve also got news, podcasts, and a forthcoming arcade.
Apple even has a Maps app….and it’s ok. It has been gradually getting better.
Finally, they even have payments through Apple Pay and the forthcoming credit card.
So, Apple has everything that Facebook has been trying to build. Now, let’s get into how this social network could work. Everything should be tightly integrated with these tools and applications.
Me.com: A Proposal
For people who are tired of being the product and having no control over their data, Me.comis a social network designed for people who want the benefits, convenience, and utility of a platform to connect with friends, family, and professional peers, but without sacrificing their privacy or security. The site will use an ethical freemium model that puts the user in total control of their data and privacy.
It’s time for a new age of social media.
Profile & Privacy
Me.comwill take much of its inspiration from blogs and the best aspects of various social networks.
The profile will be similar to an about page and give users the freedom to put whatever they want on there. All profile pages will include an archive of posts. These posts will be searchable by date and keyword, like this tweet archive.
Privacy settings for profiles are simple: public or private. If your profile is public, it can be found in a search/directory and anyone can follow it. If your profile is private, it is unlisted and people must be invited to follow your profile. No complicated settings.
There will be no publicly visible follower counter. We don’t need another platform for people to measure their relative popularity. Instead, let’s make something valuable and fun.
Content & Privacy
Privacy settings for content are simple: public, or private and unlisted.
If your profile is set to public, your content is public by default. If your profile is set to private, your content is private by default but any post can be made public.
One of the big issues with privacy on social networks is that it’s not just about what you post. I have friends who don’t have a Facebook account but who have been included in pictures posted to Facebook. The problem with this is that content is being shared without their consent. Me.comseeks to fix this problem.
In the event that someone else posts a photo with you in it, the photo will be set to private by default and cannot be made public until it has been unanimously approved. Using facial recognition technology the photo (or video) will be scanned and you will be notified. The photo cannot be public unless you approve it. If there are multiple people, everyone has to approve it or it cannot be made public. If someone is in the photo that does not have an account, the photo cannot be made public. There will likely be exceptions for celebrities and public figures.
Me.comwill support status updates, long form blogs, videos and photos.
The like button will be replaced with emoji responses (like in Slack). There will also be a comment field. Private posts cannot be reshared and screenshots are restricted.
Photos can be managed via the Photos.app. Inside the photo app, on both mobile and desktop, there will be a section that photos can be added to. Albums can be added inside of that section allow for better organization. Albums are private by default and can be made public.
Videos are managed similarly using a new section in the photos app. Each profile/account has an AppleTV section where public videos can be published. These channels can be subscribed to via AppleTV or the TV app on iOS. Popular publishers will be able to monetize their content and earn revenues from ads shown on AppleTV channels, like Youtube.
The ads shown to video viewers on AppleTV will use the same ad preferences described below.
Newsfeed is comprised of channels that the user decides, delivered in non-algorithmic real time, and you choose who and what is in each feed.
Every account will have the following channels:
- Email Subscriptions
- Close Friends
In addition to those default channels, users can create curated feeds with whatever informations sources they want, including RSS and email subscriptions.
Build the Wall
People can post to your profile, similar to the original Facebook wall. These posts will be publicly viewable (but can be hidden) and will not go into a newsfeed.
Groups are among the most important features of any social network. Me.comgroups will be a mixture or Facebook Groups and Slack channels.
Anything available to individuals will be available to brands, and vice-versa. This should encourage authentic social media behavior. Brands will not get any preferential treatment, nor will they be punished. Unlike Facebook, brand pages will not have their organic reach artificially diminished.
Me.comwill be a meritocracy where users will decide if they want to continue hearing from the brand.
Ads & Privacy
What is the big problem with today’s social networks? It’s the every morsel of the data you put on the site is for sale, right?
The problem is that data you never even agreed to share is being used to target ads to you! This may include location data, purchase history, websites you visit, and data collected from less-than-reputable sources. In some cases, you have little or no control over this. You didn’t explicitly agree to let Facebook work with third party data providers. When you deactivate your Facebook account they are still collecting data about you.Even if you’re not logged in anytime you land on a site with the Facebook pixel you are being tracked.
Individual examples aside, the bigger issue here is that data collection is often opt-out, rather than opt-in. This is the fundamental problem.
What if instead, we flipped it?
What if instead of tracking down all of the information that we’re sharing by default, and turning it off, the ONLY information that could be used to target ads to you, was information you explicitly put into your ad preferences?
On me.com, a new way of showing ads could be introduced: 100% opt-in.
Me.comwould have an ads preferences dashboard, with a simple on/off switch at the top. This would turn on or off ad targeting entirely. The it’s on, ads would follow your preferences, when off, the ads would be completely untargeted. Additionally, users could pay a monthly or annual fee to turn off ads completely.
In the ads preference dashboard, users would select from a series of available categories, decide what demographic information they’re willing to offer for targeting purposes, and edit a whitelist and blacklist of advertisers and categories.
On me.com, remarketing would be different as well. There would be no customer lists (email/phone lists) and website remarketing would be entirely opt-in. When a user visits a website, they would receive an unobtrusive notification in a browser extension. When clicked it would display the following message:
Would you like to receive ads on me.comfrom this website?
The user could click yes and the advertiser would be free to target ads to this user. The user can revoke this individual permission at any time.
Advertisers on me.comwould have an online portal where they could run targeted and untargeted ads. Untargeted ads would be run in place of target ads when the users preferences lack enough information to run targeted ads. This way, ideally, when a user fills out enough information, they should only see relevant ads based on information they’ve chosen to offer up for targeting.
The final point on advertising is that all data would be anonymized and encrypted. Advertisers would not be able to pull any information out of the system and if they did it would lack any usable information.
Safety & Privacy
The friction between free speech and censorship is a thorny issue. In my eyes, there are two factors that are at the center of the problem.
The first is something that far more progress has been made. Twitter is a good example. While Twitter is still a cesspool of hate and bigotry, the company has implemented (albeit too slowly) tools that give the user more control over what they see and who can message them.
You can mute accounts and keywords. You can mute notifications from people you don’t follow, or who haven’t confirmed their account, or who don’t have a profile photo, etc. While none of these steps have solvedthe problem, they have been steps in the right direction.
The issue that has been more difficult, and generally brings about cries of censorship, is visibility. This includes who gets banned and, more importantly in my opinion, who gets amplified.
On me.com, comprehensive mute filters will be available. This includes keywords, accounts, and other criteria.
Screenshots and screen recordings will be disabled whenever possible, like on Netflix. Screenshots will be seen as a violations of the terms of service with an immediate suspension, followed by full bans for repeat offenders.
Me.com will only work on Safari, Firefox, and iOS native apps. If some sort of privacy container can be created for Chrome, then that should be added as well.
Login are always required including on the mobile app. Logging in requires three factor authentication. Password. Questions. Text/Authenticator OR FaceID or TouchID.
Android apps should be developed for me.com, iMessages, and Photos but should add warnings about Android privacy implications to serve as a Trojan horse to bring people onto Apple’s more privacy focused platform.
Things Needed or Suggested
I think Apple should release a Chromebook competitor.
It should be cheaper than the current offerings. Ideally this device would be $500 and have the form factor of the 12” MacBook but with a stripped down iOS that has Safari and complete Me.com(iCloud) integration through mail, contacts, calendar, notes, reminders, and drive. It should also have iMessages and Facetime. No other apps should be installable, everything is web-based.
The camera should come with built-in cover, for privacy. It would use TouchID for the login.
As many people from the Gmail spam team at Google as possible. Gmail’s spam filtering is the best in the industry, without question. Apple needs to beef up their game.
Ideally they should also hire people from the Gmail team for email filtering and categorization, as well other features and UX.
In other words, if you can’t beat Gmail, hire all of their best people away.
Acquiring DuckDuckGo is Apple’s way of ensuring that they always have access to a great search engine that is committed to privacy. It would likely cost less than the annual maintenance on Apple Maps to acquire and even improve DuckDuckGo.
Apple acquired Topsy in December 2, 2013…but it doesn’t appear they’ve ever done anything with it. They could add to DuckDockGo’s capabilities by adding private social search into the product.
Apple could then make DuckDuckGo the default search for Siri and obviously they should still allow people to change back to Google.
Keychain is good. 1Password is epic. With their commitment to privacy, Apple should make it easy for everyone to have strong passwords that can be stored and easily accessed, securely.
Dropbox is still the best cloud based hard drive in the business in my opinion and light years ahead of iCloud Drive. This would be a platform AND talent acquisition. By merging iCloud Drive with Dropbox and adding Dropbox Paper to the iCloud Office suite, Apple would be on their way to competing in the small business cloud.
First, someone needs to save Twitter from Jack Dorsey.
Second, the exact same ethos of me.com works for Twitter. Someone could finally turn it into the public utility it was destined to be. Further, with Apple owning Twitter, they could remove all of the incentives that cause Twitter to collect and store user data.
Will it happen and should it happen?
I personally believe that we need something to usher in the post-Facebook world. Facebook has proven itself completely undeserving of our attention and data. Instead, we need someone to come in and bring us the control over our data that many of us crave but have become resigned into thinking impossible.
What do you think? Is this crazy? Is it possible that Apple has already started moving in this direction?
Also published on Medium.