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Roger Clarke's 'Consumer-Oriented Social Media'

Consumer-Oriented Social Media
Key Features, What's Held It Up, How We Get It

Version of 27 June 2022

Speaker's Notes for the IEEE Int'l Symposium on Digital Privacy and Social Media -
'Applying Engineering Solutions to a Complex Set of Issues' - San Jose CA USA - 1 August 2022

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Roger Clarke **

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We've long known that that consumer-oriented social media needs the features of Distributed Architecture, Interoperability and Portability, and suitable Terms of Service and Privacy Policies. It's also been apparent that, at least during the years of transition, business models are challenging. Innovators need all the usual encouragement at start-up and scale-up levels, but they also need support to achieve the 'network effect' breakthrough. The will has been shown, in Australia, the EU and the USA, to impose regulatory measures on technology platforms in relation to inadequate control over content such as child porn, defamation, hate-speech, false news and scam ads; false or misleading statements about the provider's behaviour; unfair terms of service; and dominance of the provider over the ad-tech supply chain. What we need is for the norms of competition and anti-trust laws to be imposed, and requirements enforced in the areas of interoperability and portability.


1. Introduction

Social media aka social networking services burst into prominence early in the new century (Clarke 2004). They have diversified along the lines of text, short-text and images, and into variants that appeal to particular market-segments. They show considerable regional variation in adoption patterns, overlaid by rapid generational change in stylistic preferences. In large markets worldwide, there are currently about 6 giant providers, a dozen further providers that have achieved substantial networks, and a flood of small players. Regrettably, rapacious approaches to users' data, manipulation of user behaviour, and entrapment inside the particular provider's 'walled garden' are features of most offerings that have achieved large-scale adoption (Lua 2022).

I'm a long-term admirer and critic of the Privacy-Enhancing Technologies scene (Clarke 2001, 2008, 2014c, 2016). The need for consumer-friendly social networking services has been long-recognised, and many attempts have been made to deliver them, to attract sufficient users to achieve both critical mass and sustainability, and to cope with ongoing rapid change in taste. However, the proportion of the user-population taking advantage of such services remains tiny. This presentation considers what's already well-known about what I refer to as Consumer-Oriented Social Media (Clarke 2014a, 2014b), and what's necessary for it to achieve the breakthrough.

The paper briefly notes each of the areas in which providers already have the necessary insights - including the characteristics of the latent demand, key architectural features, exemplars both good and bad, business models, and remaining impediments. It is then argued that the critical missing link is positive use of competition law, to force entrance-ways into and out of 'walled gardens, in the form of interoperability and portability requirements.

2. Understanding of the Latent Demand

People bare their souls in social contexts. It's necessary to move far beyond the long-discredited 'Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability' (CIA) feature-list. A brisk summary of 'social media user-security' needs is:

The extent to which these features are real or at least perceived needs, or are desirable, nice-to-have or irrelevant, varies enormously by user-segment. A rough categorisation distinguishes:

  1. People with real needs - the various categories of 'persons-at-risk'
  2. People who regard the intrusiveness of conventional services as 'creepy'
  3. People who would prefer privacy if they could get it
  4. People who are oblivious or reckless
  5. Hedonists, who actively trade their privacy in return for what they desire

The volume-market is in segments 2 and 3, but it is to-date largely unreached. Even in segment 1, far less penetration has been achieved than is desirable, and far too many people are highly exposed to well-organised repressive regimes, government agencies and corporations, and to other categories of organised crime.

3. Architecture

The key architectural features to address people's needs are also well-understood. They can be summarised into:

We also know a lot about how to get there. The principles of layering and modularisation developed for data communications are applicable in the applications development and deployment arena as well. This depiction dates back decades:

Interoperability has been the subject of research and experimentation, across both federated and distributed architectures (e.g. Cabello et al. 2011, Silva et al. 2017); but widespread deployment of established protocols, and operation at scale, are still lacking. Similarly, too little progress has been made in the establishment of formatting standards for controlled extraction of personal profile data, and of text, image and video postings, and re-loading into an alternative service.

4. Exemplars

A host of bad exemplars are available. Critical analysis of the market-dominant players (Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Messenger, Instagram, WeChat, TikTok, Tumblr) and a few selected others (Pinterest, Twitter and LinkedIn) delivers clear guidance on what not to do in a consumer-oriented service. They also provide ideas on features that appeal to various segments of users, energise them, and even compel them to contribute.

Some good exemplars also attract attention, and hence are also worthy of critical examination (Aether, Crabgrass, Diaspora*, Duuit, Friendica, Funkwhale, GNU social, Kune, Mastodon, MeWe, Minds, Mobilizon, PeerTube, Pixelfed,, Signal, Telegram, WriteFreely). People with a long-term involvement in the field will have seen many more exemplars come and go, many with a range of good ideas, but none with a complete package that survived the ravages of time. The term 'Alternative Social Media' reappears from time to time, and a proportion of the services that are referred to using the term evidence reasonable degrees of consumer-orientation.

5. Understanding of Business Models

Another area in which a great deal of experience has been gleaned is in answering the questions 'Who pays? For What? To Whom? And Why?'. As regards 'Who Pays?', each of the following categories can be made to work for consumer-oriented social media, if appropriate choices are made:

For each particular provider, two or more business models are possible, and so is switching from one to another, provided that enough care has been taken with the product conception and architecture. A flexible, articulated product can support all of wholesale, custom-retail and prepackaged-retail delivery.

6. Remaining Impediments

It appears that the primary reasons for failures and limited growth can be summarised into these four groups:

  1. Product/Service Inadequacies, particularly Delivery, Quality, Scalability, Flexibility and Adaptability
  2. Ineffective Business Model Conception or Implementation
  3. Lack of Demand / Failure to Convert Latent Demand to Adoption
  4. Stifled Network Effects / Anti-Competitive Behaviour of Incumbents

Given the amount of information that's available, the first two can be managed around. Number 3 requires a combination of funding, efficient use of the available promotional resources, and network-effects / reference-selling to broaden the quantum of users and enthusiasts.

IEEE conferences can solve technical problems and come up with elegant designs, eBusiness consultants can devise suitable business models, and entrepreneurs can market their wares. But no amount of effort by individual entrepreneurs can overcome the dead weight of the fourth of these impediments. If the environment is hostile to innovation, intervention is needed to remediate the environment.

7. The Positive Use of Competition Law

Economic theory argues that competition works to provide greater choice and power to consumers. Naive economic theory (which still abounds) postulates that magic exists, in the form of an 'invisible hand', such that greed-motivated behaviour by individual actors is self-correcting at the population level. The public knows from experience that such magic is in short supply.

Prior pressure by business, the public, some economists, and regulatory specialists, have given rise to competition law, which is sometimes effective. However, greed-motivated behaviour does generate a great deal of economic activity and a lot of material progress; so there are good reasons why regulatory interventions have to be carefully justified, and must be designed to be targeted and proportionate.

The criterion most commonly applied to justify intervention is 'market failure'. This is perceived to exist when monopoly providers are buffered from the competitive impacts of alternative providers and from pressure by customers. Consumers pay unduly high prices for products, the products are designed to meet the needs of the supplier much moreso than those of the customer, and innovation is stultified by market structures and processes.

Primary causes of market failure that are well-recognised by the more realistic economic theorists, and by regulatory specialists, include lockin mechanisms on suppliers (achieving control of essential resources), lockin mechanisms on customers (such as high switching costs, and control of distribution networks), and lockout mechanisms on competitors and new entrants (such as high entry costs, market dominance and service-bundling).

Recent economic and regulatory theory has identified several additional forms of market failure. One is refered to as 'the tragedy of the (unmanaged) commons' (Hardin 1968, 1994, Ostrom 1999). Two others are what Stiglitz (2008) refers to as 'market irrationality' (which describes the very low prices at which consumers permit use of their personal data, and justifies the use of circuit-breakers to stop bandwagon effects in stock markets) and 'distributive justice' (evidence in such interventions as safety nets and anti-discrimination measures).

The large tech platforms don't work in a law-free zone. In particular, Uber and delivery services have run foul of labour laws in many jurisdictions, and a variety of measures have been imposed on social media services in relation to various forms of undesirable content, including child porn, defamation, hate-speech, false news and scam ads.

After a slow start, competition regulators in Australia, the EU and the USA have been much more activist recently in relation to the anti-competitive and anti-consumer behaviour of the major tech platforms in the social media arena. For example, the Australian regulator has taken steps in relation to

Meanwhile, the EU's Competition Commissioner has pursued three cases against Google in recent years, in relation to Google Shopping, the Android operating system and Google AdSense, resulting in fines of over EUR 8 billion (Aulner & Chee 2021). A new front has now been opened up against Google and Meta/Facebook, in relation to online display advertising services (EC 2022).

The US regulatory regime is pivotal, because it is the domicile of so many of the tech platforms. On the other hand, the record of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is extremely friendly to very large businesses. It failed to pursue Google in 2012-13 in relation to search bias, resulting in innovation in the online search and advertising markets being impeded (e.g. Bergqvist 2021). A decade later, Congress members are again pressuring the FTC to act against the large tech platforms' practices (Morrison & Ghaffary 2021), and the spotlight is also on advertising-specific tracking IDs built into iOS by Apple and Android by Google (Publift 2022), and on abuse of children's privacy (Fowler 2022).

What's needed to enable the breakthrough of Consumer-Oriented Social Media is further development of competition regulation in two areas:

To unlock the scope for consumer-oriented social media, there is an urgent need for concerted efforts by frustrated new entrants and consumers alike to effectively communicate the existence of seriously anti-competitive behaviour, and the nature of the regulatory interventions that will re-establish a competitive and innovative marketplace.

8. Conclusions

Consumer-oriented social media is deliverable. Providers are capable of ensuring that their product conception matches current and changing market needs, their architecture enables flexibility, adaptability and multiple, adequately-differentiated services over the same base investment. They can arrange their microeconomic and financial models to be realistic and sustainable.

But more than tech-engineered and business-engineered solutions are required. There also needs to be sufficient levelling of the playing-field that the dominance of a few operators can be ratcheted back in order to recover a healthy marketplace. The IT services industry and IT professional associations alike must devise and execute communications strategies to legislators and regulatory agencies, conveying the urgent need for interoperability and portability requirements to be imposed on all providers of social media services.

Reference List

ACCC (2019) 'Google allegedly misled consumers on collection and use of location data' Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, 29 October 2019, at

ACCC (2020) 'News media bargaining code' Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, 31 July 2020, at

ACCC (2021) 'Digital advertising services inquiry - final report' Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, 28 September 2021, at

ACCC (2022) 'ACCC takes action over alleged misleading conduct by Meta for publishing scam celebrity crypto ads on Facebook' Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, 18 March 2022, at

Aulner F. & Chee F.Y. (2021) 'Google loses challenge against EU antitrust ruling, $2.8-bln fine' Reuters, 11 November 2021, at

Bergqvist C. (2021) 'Revisiting FTC's 2013 Google Decision' Kluwer Competition Law Blog, 28 March 2021, at

Cabello F., Franco M.G. & Hache_ A. (2011) 'The Social Web beyond ÒWalled GardensÓ: Interoperability, Federation and the Case of Lorea/n-1' PsychNology Journal 11,1 (2013) 43-65, at

Clarke R. (2001) 'Introducing PITs and PETs: Technologies Affecting Privacy' Privacy Law & Policy Reporter 7, 9 (March 2001) 181-183, 188, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2004) Very Black 'Little Black Books' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 4 February 2004, at

Clarke R. (2008) 'Business Cases for Privacy-Enhancing Technologies' Chapter 7 in Subramanian R. (Ed.) 'Computer Security, Privacy and Politics: Current Issues, Challenges and Solutions' IDEA Group, 2008, pp. 135-155, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2014a) 'Privacy and Social Media: An Analytical Framework' Journal of Law, Information and Science 23,1 (April 2014) 1-23, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2014b) 'The Prospects for Consumer-Oriented Social Media' Proc. Bled eConference, June 2014, PrePrint at

Clarke R. (2014c) 'Key Factors in the Limited Adoption of End-User PETs' Proc. Politics of Surveillance Workshop, University of Ottawa, May 2014, at .

Clarke R. (2016) 'PETs 2.0 - Getting it Right the Second Time Around' Proc. Conf. Stiftung Datenschutz, Leipzig, November 2016, at

EC (2022) 'Antitrust: Commission opens investigation into possible anticompetitive conduct by Google and Meta, in online display advertising' European Commission, 11 March 2022, at

Fowler G.A. (2022) 'Your kids' apps are spying on them. Apple and Google just look the other way' The Washington Post, 9 June 2022, at

Lua A. (2022) '20 Top Social Media Sites to Consider for Your Brand in 2022' Buffer, 16 March 2022, at

Morrison S. & Ghaffary S. (2021) 'The case against Big Tech. Will Amazon, Apple, Meta, and Google survive the antitrust onslaught?' Vox, 8 December 2021, at

Publift (2022) 'Device IDs in Advertising: Everything You Need to Know' Publift, 2 June 2022, at

Sadler D. (2020) 'ACCC rejects Google's Fitbit promises' Information Age, 22 December 2020, at

Silva G., Reis L., Terceiro A., Meirelles P. & Kon F. (2017) 'Implementing Federated Social Networking: Report from the Trenches. Proc, Conf., August 2017,

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor associated with the Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation in UNSW Law, and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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