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Platform Wars (part 4): A Public Option for Social Media
Welcome to StateBook. A Public Option for Social Media.
Beginning these debates over ten years ago, I used to joke that the United States should nationalize FaceBook and make it a division of the Post Office. If this was ever truly an option in the past, it seems highly implausible now. But the underlying provocation rings true and is more necessary than ever.
So long as big monolithic platforms are privately owned and operated, lawmakers will perpetually operate decades behind new innovations and their downstream negative consequences. The good news is that the bare essentials for a public utility are relatively simple to design and do not need frequent updates.
A public option for digital communications infrastructure is the only viable way to maintain regulatory control, user privacy, and democratic consensus. This digital extension of the post office will serve as the entry point to tax filing, claiming benefits, voter registration, official identification and more.
In the public option for social media, every citizen will be given a Your-Name-[at]-usps.gov email address at birth. This unique, verified account will be free from any tracking or surveillance and secured with end-to-end encryption. Data collection will be technically impossible, but user privacy will also be secured as a political right. Today, scammers may hack your Gmail account and make you jump through annoying and costly hoops to recover it — but if they open your physical mail, they’re committing a felony. An envelope is very low-tech, but its an important example of how legal rights are often more secure than technical fixes in the long term.
As we learned over the pandemic, having an email address is a necessary step to partake in many state services. To claim simple benefits like unemployment, citizens needed to transact with private email providers. These perverse incentives indirectly require users to produce data and value for private companies, like Google, to claim resources they already own from the state. StateBook elegantly solves this dilemma by stipulating that all state benefits may only be accessed online by verified accounts within its service.
This public option will not be a replacement for private services. Similar to how the USPS operates alongside private couriers like FedEx or UPS, StateBook will run parallel to Gmail, Signal, Twitter, Meta and others. Users are free to transact their commercial business or personal mail through private services, but they may only receive official communiques, like voter registration and tax information, through the digital USPS.
Each year you will receive a prefilled tax filing from the verified account: firstname.lastname@example.org. StateBook will serve as the sole digital gateway to online tax filing. When its time to renew your driver’s license, passport or other forms of official identification, you will receive a friendly reminder in the form of a StateBook notification and access its ID services using your unique account.
These official mandates will spur the greatest network effects of any platform yet to exist. StateBook’s total addressable market is the entire population of the United States (over 335 million) with an impressive 100% saturation rate.
This online extension of the post office will also include a digital deposit box that allows for postal banking. Postal banking is already available in almost every other advanced country. Logging into your StateBook account will allow you to deposit, withdraw or pay bills. Users may also choose to hold their deposits as treasury bills (purchased directly from the US government) and earn a handsome 5.5% interest rate, outpacing any commercially available high yield savings account. Naturally, these assets will be insured by the FDIC.
In instances where customer service is required, citizens wish to make cash deposits or print physical copies of their digital mail, the USPS is glad to offer 30,000 brick and mortar locations already operating and conveniently located in your town.
United States Posting Service
In addition to email correspondence with individuals, businesses and state services, there is a highly popular feature called “Post-To-All”. Rather than landing in the inbox of a unique recipient, Post-To-All messages will be placed into a publicly accessible and algorithmically sorted news feed. But the news feeds on StateBook will be organized much differently than services in the past.
Posts can be tagged as permanent or temporary (meaning they will disappear after 24 hours). Edit histories will be publicly auditable for as long as posts remain up. Text posts must include a minimum character count of 500, to substantiate controversial opinions. Text posts over 1,500 words will have the option to be pay-walled, so creators are appropriately compensated for their labor.
StateBook limits each user to total number of 1,500 ‘Follows’. Similar to the early design of FaceBook, which capped users at 5,000 ‘Friends’, if you wanted to ‘Follow’ a new account (past 1,500) you will need to ‘Unfollow’ another account. These strict limitations will force users to choose between following friends & family or following celebrities & influencers. StateBook rewards long term social connections over attention hacking exploits. Unless ‘Follows’ are scarce, news feeds will inevitably tip towards pop stars and comedy clips. In the near future, users may log onto private social media services for tabloid-like entertainment, but will check StateBook for important updates from friends and family.
Each day, users are given a capped total of 24 ‘Likes’. This number is reset once daily. If you use them up before the time elapses, you may continue to browse further content but no longer assign new ‘Likes’. This limited number of daily ‘Likes’ will encourage users to respond to more meaningful content and carefully consider how they spend their limited up-votes. Unless ‘Likes’ are scarce, news feeds will inevitably tip towards clickbait. To be sure, some users will carelessly assign their ‘Likes’ to pop stars or cute cats, and run out before they scroll further to see their cousin’s baby announcement. This will certainly result in awkward conversations the following day and provide ample opportunity for users to reconsider their values and priorities.
A system of Universal Basic Likes may open up the possibility for some disreputable influencers to attempt to purchase ‘Likes’ on third party websites. This indirect form of advertising, i.e. paying other users to like your content, will be considered analogous to mail fraud. “Obstruction of Digital Correspondence” will incur penalties of up to $250,000, up to twenty years in prison and mandatory public service as a content moderator. There are no bans or TOS violations on StateBook. Breaking the rules is illegal and you get sent to jail. Any noise band that receives over 10 ‘Likes’ will immediately be flagged as suspicious content.
On Statebook’s unique algorithm, engagement has diminishing returns. Lengthy comment threads will decrease with each order of magnitude and eventually become counter-weighted. 10’s of comments are fun. 100’s of comments mark a life achievement, like graduation. But 1,000’s of comments means a post is likely so polarizing that it casts negative externalities onto the rest of society. (Only terrible things happen after 1,000 comments.)
StateBook’s recommendation algorithm is weighted against selfies. Your profile picture is your driver’s license. There are no pronouns or additional information in your bio — just your legal name, which can easily be changed using StateBook’s official service.
While many of these features may seem counter-intuitive to today’s experience of social media, its helpful to recall that on day one, StateBook will have over 335 million active users. This unprecedented scale will allow it to enforce new behaviors that run against the attention dynamics of today’s private platforms. StateBook is not subject to the competitive pressures of the market because it has a unique monopoly on features that are only accessible through its platform. (It’s literally the government.) While these frameworks will not entirely eliminate negative behaviors, they will strongly disincentivize them.
The USPS requires users to purchase a stamp in order to mail a letter. Meanwhile, we send our online messages for free and wonder why the internet is full of spam. A small user fee massively limits the infinite scale exploits of online advertising models and shapes all communication that occurs within this sphere.
On StateBook, all posts and comments, will cost 1/10th the rate of a forever stamp. Data heavy content like long form video will cost proportionately more. Users may purchase digital postage at the set price of the current year and these units will be honored in perpetuity, similar to physical postage.
The average Facebook page posts 1.6 times a day. For most users the monthly cost of participating on public social media will be about 3 dollars and 16 cents, less than the cost of a single Substack or Patreon subscription. (We will explore these numbers in more depth later.)
Placing the posting costs onto users will have considerable social impacts. Commenting on someone’s post will mean something much more than it does now. Although the fees are minimal, it shows that you care far greater than free-to-use social media. Digital user fees will also massively reduce spam and cause users to think more before they post.
Undoubtedly, aficionados will collect these digital stamps for posterity. Some may even treat them as an investment, a hedge against inflation or digital postage rate increases in the future. In fact, this behavior is encouraged by StateBook as it provides a healthy stream of revenue on the retail market and a trickle of royalties on the secondary. Rare stamps from 2024 have been known to fetch hefty prices from connoisseur collectors in 2049. The USPS will also generously maintain a Digital National Postal Museum that users may freely browse for archival purposes, education and aesthetic appreciation.
Civil Servant Moderation
StateBook is not for dissident political meme posting. Its the on-boarding platform to digital public services, attached to the bare essentials of social media. All accounts are unique and given to users as a right of citizenship. No one can be deplatformed (and subsequently debanked). Anonymous, or pseudonymous, political posting may still take place on private platforms.
StateBook employs a robust team of human moderators that carefully reviews all legal speech. There are no disclaimers or warning labels attached to content. All legal speech is permitted and protected under the first amendment. User fees, minimum character requirements and redesigned algorithms, will massively limit the divisive and outrageous content that overwhelmingly dominates on ad-driven alternatives.
Content moderators work in two shifts, from 5:00 am - 1:30 pm and from 2:30 pm to 10:00 pm because StateBook is closed for lunch. Outside of open hours, users will be able to browse content but they will need to wait until the site opens the following day to send new messages. While this was initially perceived as a mild inconvenience, users were ultimately grateful for the new rules because (lets be honest) anything posted after 10pm is usually regretted the next day. Twitter, Meta and other inferior private couriers may graciously accept a small bump in their traffic during these off hours.
The dynamics of free-to-use social media have caused many liberals and progressives to revise their commitments to the First Amendment. Online, certain types of inflammatory speech travel further and faster than others. To combat this asymmetry, platforms have attempted to replace time-tested political freedoms with terms of service and community guidelines. But, unsurprisingly, radical content still continues to dominate across all of social media. It’s easy to forget that we already have rigorous legal frameworks for political speech. In the case of the internet, the problem has always been that social media is free-to-use, free to post and free to browse, because it is wholly and fully supported by advertising. Unless we change the medium through which this speech flows, by introducing digital stamps and paywalls, these band-aid solutions will continue to be ineffective. (For example, imagine what adding the cost of a stamp would do to the Quote Tweet button.) Once we depart from the advertising model, protected legal speech will rapidly become the preferred framework.
To protect the privacy and security of citizen-users, StateBook may only be accessed from inside the United States. VPN’s are not allowed. Additionally, users will identify themselves with a multiple points of personal history and bio-identification. Hacking an account or improperly accessing data will be considered a felony offense, analogous to opening someone’s mail. In some instances it may be considered an act of treason.
StateBook uses end to end encryption (like Signal). Just like physical mail, user’s letters are not visible to the postal service itself. No one can technically or legally open your digital envelopes. When private companies and corporations are inaugurated, we may consider assigning them a unique StateBook address categorized by EIN.
At this point, Reddit libertarians are likely fuming, “Why would I trust the government with my data?!?”
The sole purpose of the Snowden revelations was to impart that all communications by United States citizens on private networks are already illegally surveilled by the worst elements of the state apparatus. Private surveillance is the existing reality. Pending new developments in cryptography, Statebook may eventually stand as a similar risk, but it opens up the radical possibility of new social benefits that the private option necessarily forecloses.
In cases of regime change or authoritarian take over, we can rely on StateBook’s end to end encryption, making surveillance technically impossible. (Tin foil skeptics may prefer to use private digital couriers, which will still remain available.) While rapid regime change is always a looming threat within democratic society, the strongest hedge against authoritarian take over is a robust and political engaged public — which notably, is the greatest advantage of StateBook — achieved by bundling together necessary services like identification, tax payments and banking, with democratic processes such as voting.
Okay, But How Are You Going To Pay For It?
In a political environment where we allot $816.7 billion to the annual defense budget, it feels mildly insane to need to justify any other form of spending. But we will do it anyway.
Right now, you’re getting big web 2 services for free because the indirect subsidy of advertising covers the cost of your user fees. Advertising accounts for a staggering 90% of total revenue for Twitter and over 97% of revenue for Meta. This sole source of income dominates every design decision on the platforms. To get around this core problem we need to find alternative methods of funding.
The good news is that this problem has already largely been solved by an innovative technology called the stamp. Similar to a gas transaction on web 3 platforms, this minimal user fee (or digital stamp) will fund the transmission and hosting of information without the need for advertising subsidies.
Mailing a letter from New York to Connecticut only travels tens of miles, but it costs the same as a letter that travels many thousands of miles from New York to Alaska. In a narrow market logic, this means that users are technically overpaying for messages that are sent to nearby locations (like Connecticut) but underpaying for messages that travel very far (like Alaska). This economic model of cross-subsidization is designed to encourage correspondence and transactions between all users within the greater space, linking them together as a social body. The same protocols will apply here to digital stamps, one flat rate for all messages. Text, image or video (under a reasonable size) will all be covered by a single stamp. Higher fees will apply for sending bigger files, just as with heavier packages. Flat rates encourage customers to reliably and eagerly use a service without incurring surprise costs. So-called “overpaying” for text posts will subsidize the greater hosting resources needed for video. Most posts will fall under the aforementioned flat rate digital postage, just 1/10th of a forever stamp.
In addition to disincentivizing flame wars and negative social behaviors, digital postage will also provide a tremendous source of revenue for StateBook. While these fees are minimal to each individual user, they create an enormous surplus at scale. In 2023, a forever stamp costs 66 cents. Digital postage will cost 1/10th of this price, resulting in a 6.6 cent user fee per post or comment. In the United States, the average FaceBook account posts 1.6 times per day. Over a 30 day month this amounts to a total cost of $3.16 or an annualized cost of $37.92. Multiplied by StateBook’s active user base, 335 million, user fees will bring in approximately $12,730,000,000 per year. That’s a 12.7 billion dollar starting budget in user fees alone.
Each year, the United States sends about 15 billion letters and over 120 billion pieces of mail. Each of these correspondences are also potential candidates to be sent over StateBook at a greatly reduced cost with far less emissions compared to physical mail. All of which can be expected to increase revenue as email increasingly becomes the preferred method of correspondence.
In 2000, the government of Iceland choose to sell its medical and genealogy data for private sector medical research. StateBook will include a data marketplace where citizens may choose to lease their anonymized data to public or private entities. The technical, medical, and social innovations produced with this data will be held as publicly-owned patents, exploited for social benefit rather than private profits. The revenue generated through such leases will be credited to citizens as direct deposits into their StateBook accounts.
Public digital infrastructure is designed for the benefit of society and rightly warrants resources. Similar to the Unites States Post Office, StateBook may also operate at a small loss. But this loss on the side of state ledgers must also be considered as a stimulus to individuals. By design, StateBook keeps prices below market rate to create spillover value for the private sector. New businesses are encouraged by having access to affordable and trustworthy service. The maintenance and upkeep costs of StateBook should be viewed as diffuse investment which facilitates new profitable transactions. For example, a Shopify store may send a digital receipt to a StateBook address (consuming ~7 cents worth of compute while only costing 6.6 cents to send the message) but the transaction itself produces greater sales and results in new taxable revenue. To evaluate StateBook’s profitability, we must look past its immediate balances and account for its broader impact onto society and private business.
Messages sent to a StateBook address from external private services, like Gmail or Meta, will also need to pay for postage in order for their correspondence to arrive. As StateBook becomes the default email address for the overwhelming majority of Americans, this newly normalized user fee will likely be adopted by private services. Instituting a standardized user fee will create a new source of income for private platforms and help shift them away from being fully reliant on advertising revenue.
Perhaps surprisingly, StateBook is also, in part, ad supported! But the ads featured on StateBook are only those that draw attention to the plentiful public services and utilities of which citizens may partake. The vast reach of this public platform will out perform all other physical and digital ad placement, such that the full advertising budgets of all public entities shall swiftly be rerouted to the platform. This secondary revenue stream will further offset operating costs and bring valuable attention to abundant public services.
Lastly, any overrun costs of StateBook should be considered as the obvious and necessary cost of preserving popular democracy against the backdrop of our existing social media platforms whose ruthless libertarian designs seek to inflame differences and irreparably fracture the social body.
That’s All !
Digital public infrastructure is a necessary part of civic life in the 21st century. Years ago, many of us mistook free-to-use, ad-driven platforms as the benevolent generosity of the private sector. We later learned that the hidden costs of these communication networks were offloaded onto journalism, creative life and the political process. Although the platforms purported otherwise, their design was always political. They sought to liquidate institutions, erode social bonds and usher in an era of frictionless and unregulated transactions. To restore political and cultural consensus we need to redesign our communication networks along social democratic principles. Buying a stamp is a good place to start.
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In the 2010’s, I was a cynic against the backdrop of relentless techno-optimism. In the 2020’s, I am an optimist against the overwhelming techno-nihilism. It’s important to remember that big social media platforms broke in the late 2010’s. Between fake news, extremism and disinformation, tech barons were finally confronted with the real social costs of the disruptive tools they created. Tech innovations of the millennial era, like free-to-use social media, disruptive start ups and the gig economy, are now viewed with a deep skepticism by the public. The tools of the next generation will be built with these failed experiments in mind. New technologies and philosophies like platform cooperativism could positively reconfigure today’s online experience. The good part of hitting rock bottom is that it only gets better from here.