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The Good Web

Why we must build social media that can be good for society

Over the past 20 years, social media has moved from a space of aspiration for people who study social change, to a space of profound anxiety. If we believe news headlines, social media is responsible for many of the major scourges of modern life. It is coarsening our political discourse, leading to polarization and division. It exposes vulnerable people to extremist ideology, driving them toward violence. Social media is addictive, can damage our body image and sense of self-worth.

If all this is indeed true, it's odd that our society has not chosen to ban this dangerous new technology. In reality, social media is complicated. Professor Casey Fiesler of the University of Colorado, Boulder, has observed, "Social media is really good for people, and social media is really bad for people. Those two things can be true at the same time." My research at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst on a project called the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, suggests that we can work to shape social media into a pro-social force, not simply push back against the excesses of the form.

For people isolated and lonely, social media presents a crucial lifeline and connections to other people. It can be life-affirming and transformative for people whose gender identity, sexuality or interests are not well supported by their local community. It has helped amplify the voices of people historically excluded from media dialogue, including people of color, queer people and people with disabilities. In notable cases like the Arab Spring, social media has provided support for revolutionary political movements, whose participants have used online tools to expose and oppose authoritarian dictatorships.

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