“Most social media that we use nowadays are premised on the idea that engagement is to be driven by emotional responses to the content,” says Sorin Adam Matei, professor in Purdue University's Brian Lamb School of Communication, in the United States. “We propose a different process by which we invite the users to reflect first.”

In an interview with BlastingTalks, Matei talks about how Eunomia project, an international consortium funded by the European Commission, develops a decentralised and open-source social media platform that assists users in determining the trustworthiness of information.

One of the key aspects of Eunomia platform is that users first trust then like the content. Can you explain how it works?

Most social media that we use nowadays are premised on the idea that engagement is to be driven by emotional responses to the content. Thus, the main feature of any social medium we now have is this button that invites us to like, or maybe dislike, the content, right? Some social media are trying to diversify these buttons. But still, they invite us to respond immediately. And again, based on snap judgments that are driven by emotion. We propose a different process by which we invite the users to reflect first.

And not only that, but look at the pedigree of the genealogy of the content they're looking at, and then make a decision as to what to do with the content. This is a fundamental departure from the existing methodologies of designing social media interfaces, although it is fair to say that, with a crisis of misinformation, especially Facebook and Twitter, have started to implement some brake mechanisms, as I would call them.

But those are not organic, they are mostly there to prevent certain types of content from being disseminated. So I'm talking about posts that include information about the US election, some of them are selectively tagged as credible or not credible, and this is done by the social media, and then you're reminded that you might or might not send this out.

On our site, this trust mechanism is organic and it applies to everything, no matter what. At the same time, we do not tell people to trust or not trust, we do not tell them that this is trustworthy or not trustworthy, per se. We give them all the information that they need to make a decision of their own, if what they're looking at is trustworthy or not. We allow people to use their own common sense and knowledge in making this decision. So, we are much more collaborative and much more bottom-up in our approach.

And do you think that, in general, people are prepared to make this kind of judgement?

People are people. Obviously, some of them are more and some are less prepared to make the leap, more even to use the information.

But we hope that by generalising the process of decision making, we will reach a point where the good opinions will wash off the bad opinions.

How can the Eunomia project use artificial intelligence to create a healthier social media environment?

We use weak AI, we use machine learning and predictive mechanisms that aim to detect the possibility that the unit of content might be more or less credible. And we basically provide this information to the users in an advisory role. We do not tell people this is to be trusted and this is not to be trusted, per se. We tell people: “there's a lot of emotion, there's not enough information in this post, what do you think, is this trustworthy or not?” So, the decisions that we encourage people to take are facilitated, and are made easier by our cues.

We use, if you want, a nudge approach. Instead of telling people what to do, we try to encourage them to deliberate and take advantage of the cues that we provide. Now, obviously, there's always a possibility that the mechanism that we put in place does not specify the problem perfectly. You might or might not always be successful in providing the best skills. But again, we are not forcing the users to make decisions. We're just giving them the information that they need to make a decision. If what we provide them is not good or accurate, we do give the users a way to talk back to us and say: “this piece of advice you gave me wasn't helpful, wasn't useful.” That will help us improve our AI mechanism.

Mainstream social platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, control the algorithms that select the content that will appear in each user's feed. These algorithms are based on a variety of factors, including engagement, publisher size, payment, and political ideology. Therefore, many media outlets, especially the small ones, struggle to reach an audience. In what sense does a network like the one proposed by Eunomia change this panorama?

Eunomia proposes more than a mechanism to nudge people to make the right decision. Eunomia is a very broad concept. It's a proposal for a platform, for a very new radically different social media platform and experience. If our wish comes true, we could provide a variety of users, institutional and individuals, the ability to roll their own social medium.

To create their own social media platform that would serve their needs in a different way, the way websites serve the needs of various organisations to publish content. At the same time, creating many social medium for your organisation doesn't mean that medium will be limited to your users. We use this federated social media approach, where once you instal a Eunomia node that looks like Twitter or Facebook, where people can come, trust, like, and all that, those same individuals that you have aggregated on your Eunomia site can comment, interact, like, and trust content created by the users on a very different node. But at the same time, the two nodes are separate. So, to the users, these two nodes, these two sites, look like they are one, but at the same time, the content and the management is distributed.

With almost infinite budgets, mainstream social platforms invest millions of dollars in the development of user interfaces that are attractive and easy to use. To what extent do you think independent social networks can compete at that point? And to what extent do you think users are willing to migrate?

Independent social media platforms, independent sites will always have a hard time competing against centralised websites, if they work in isolation. But if they federate, as we allow them to federate, they can compete against the great media companies. We should not forget that Facebook, Twitter and all the great media companies, they don't make their own money, they don't print their own money, they get money from somewhere.

You can get money from advertisers, from companies that are interested in putting their products in front of the people. Those advertisers go to them first and give them the big bucks because they provide the largest number of eyeballs. Now, what makes Facebook strong and Twitter strong is the ability to aggregate numbers. Any competitor that can do the same will be a credible competitor. And again, I think that what we're offering the world is a credible competitor.

In your most recent book "Structural Differentiation in Social Media: Adhocracy, Entropy, and the '1% Effect'" you talk about communities that rely upon commons-based peer production and bring Wikipedia as an example. To what extent do you think the Eunomia project can replicate Wikipedia's successful model?

What are the challenges of this model applied in social media?

Now I need to amend some of the things I just said in my past research. Now, in saying that, we are trying to engage the world outside the 2, 3, 5 monopolies, to participate in this game of publishing and distributing. We need to be a little bit cautious and wise, in the sense that you will never have an absolute perfect equal distribution of anything, audiences, market power and all that. So if you have a 100 publishers in Europe, that will band together to do this and that, you should not expect every single publisher to be of the same size and same power as everybody else, you should expect, actually, that 10, 20, 30 of them do have a lot more market and do a lot better than the other ones.

But that isn't the nature of competition. That isn’t the nature of how these markets work. And at the same time, you should not expect those 20,30 companies or organisations to last forever at the top. Some of them will fight each other, some of them will die, new competitors will come out and new technologies will come out. So in this respect, at least myself, I'm not dreaming of a day when everything will be the same and everybody will do the same thing. I'm dreaming of a world where things change continuously, where instead of having hierarchical organisations, bureaucratic-like, where you have one company, one boss, one whatever, I imagine a world which I called in the book adhocratic, where there are some leaders, but they only last as long as they can last.

They're ad hoc, on the spot right now. They are leaders right now, because they are doing this job right now. But that doesn't guarantee that they will be there forever.

What are the next steps for the Eunomia project to grow and attract more people?

First of all, we want to spread the word and we want small and medium sized organisations, media organisations, to start considering adopting this platform for putting their social media message. It is good for them, it is good for the market, it is good for the people. In order to do this, we intend to create a support organisation called Eunomia Labs, which will help anybody who wants to instal Eunomia nodes and the trust mechanisms on their sites to do so.

We also would like to raise some funds to provide the support on a continuing basis. We understand that we're dealing with smaller organisations. We would also like to talk with larger communication nodes in Europe, traditional corporate players, like consumer goods companies that want to talk to the world, maybe they should consider installing nodes of their own, instead of putting their stuff on Twitter. We want to talk with media organisations, in Europe especially. Big newspapers, for example. Then they would have their own nodes. Help them create that ecosystem in which we could all live together.

How do you think the social media market will be in ten years' time?

It's very hard to predict.

But one thing you can always predict is that nothing will be the same. Nothing stays the same for a very long time, I'm old enough to remember the early 1990s, 2000s. At that time, the hottest media property was a company called AOL, America Online. It was the greatest thing after sliced bread. Very few people remember that AOL bought Time Warner, which was one of the larger media companies in the United States. Somehow, for some reason, AOL, which was a very powerful player, could not translate its early market power into major break breakthrough technology. They did create a lot of enthusiasm, they brought a lot of people online, but then once they brought them online, it could not find a way to keep them within its ecosystem. You can think about social media companies the same way. They were very good at bringing people to the social media experience. But a big important question is, will we stay with this media experience forever?

So, 10 years from now, the experiences will be different because maybe the players will be different. And again, I do expect more players like Eunomia to come into the market and challenge the big players.

Read the interview with George Loukas, the second of the BlastingTalks series about Eunomia.

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