Facebook is digital fossil fuel

Climate Voices

Facebook is digital fossil fuel

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Social entrepreneur Jim Fournier is determined to follow Mark Zuckerberg’s advice and “move fast and break things.” Only this time the target is Facebook and its stranglehold on social media.

Jim Fournier has spent a lifetime working in tech, regenerative design, sustainability and climate and has given a great deal of thought to social networks, and how they are broken. Now, as founder and CEO of Tru Social Inc, Fournier is leading a San Francisco-based team seeking to develop a better global online network — an alternative to existing platforms like Facebook. Unlike Facebook, Tru is a collaboratively curated publishing platform designed to build and connect social networks and preserve individual privacy. Fournier is also a member of the Collaborative Technology Alliance, a network of organizations working on “technology projects that aim to create a more transparent, equitable, sustainable and inclusive world.”

With growing scrutiny on Facebook and other social media platforms, we thought it was a good time to catch up with Jim and discuss his alternative. 

How did we get to where we are today where Facebook is now at the center of a whistle-blowing expose broadcast on 60 Minutes

What we’re seeing with Facebook is the inevitable consequences of their business model. They sell users’ attention to advertisers. So, they want people to keep scrolling, and see more ads. They call this engagement. On average, people tend to respond to things that are more emotionally provocative. They get a dopamine response. And here is the issue: This is not accidental. The platforms are using algorithms to optimize ad revenue at the expense of society, and reality. 

And you believe there is no way to fix this other than completely changing their business model?

You can try to put a bandaid on it, but they can’t fundamentally change their business model. 

With so many disgruntled consumers, why are there no new social media businesses emerging?

Until recently it was basically impossible to provide an alternative to Facebook unless your goal was to get bought by them. It was a sign of insanity to go after Facebook.

As someone who is developing an alternative social media platform, do you believe that if there is a will, there is a way to develop an alternative to Facebook? 

Yes. The way tech and capitalism work are if something is broken, you make a new alternative to it, and customers switch to that alternative. One of the things about tech that people have lost sight of is that tech can be very fluid, things can change very fast if there is a viable alternative that people like better. 

That is a perfect segue to your alternative. As a mission-driven B-Corp, you are developing a social media platform that aims to harness technology to create real community and a good business.

Tru is a collaboratively curated publishing space designed to help keep us all accountable and to elevate truth. We need a network that preserves our personal privacy and satisfies our need for social coherence, a shared sense of community, and now reality. Every person on Tru can choose how to interact without being tracked, profiled, manipulated or censored.

You think it is apt that people have called data the “new oil”? 

Yes, it’s the perfect metaphor. Like fossil fuels, personal data is currently based on extraction and monopolies that are actually toxic and dangerous. Tru is like the new “solar.” We can demonstrate that clean personal data is more powerful when all parties treat each other with mutual respect, rather than a system where people are exploited. It’s a protected and civil alternative to traditional social media platforms free of ads, noise and surveillance.  

A lot of people say the present social media system makes achieving climate solutions harder, not easier because it polarizes the debate and allows for the proliferation of fake news, false data and misinformation. How would Tru accelerate positive climate action?

We focused first on designing a network where people actually working on real problems in the world can be more effective together. Tru is a network where the origin of content can be checked, verified and corroborated. All content is anchored in what we call the “TruLine,” a chain of custody based on digital identity and reputation. Every piece of content can be traced back to the user who first posted it and each party that promoted it.

TruSocial also dispenses with algorithms?

Existing social media algorithms favor unvetted, emotionally compelling content that is often full of misinformation. This threatens truth on a global scale. Our solution is a model where real social groups publish and subscribe to other groups. We are creating an infrastructure for connecting organizations to each other — and do it at scale. We basically set out to create an information nervous system for a planet in crisis. That is our North Star. 

Given the power and scale of Facebook, how do you build a community that can have an impact?

Our mission is to serve organizations, movements and networks of organizations. Tru is built on technology that can actually connect other clean social networks as well as organizations and businesses. We are not going to be like Facebook, where it just replaces everything else. We offer an alternative that helps power everything that already exists and connects what is already out there, but does it in a better way.

How will you scale this to make it have a true impact?

We’re just onboarding some large climate and biodiversity organizations now. We are doing this as a benefit corporation whose mission is to support what we call data integrity, acting as an honest broker.

Written by

Peter McKillop

Peter McKillop is the founder of Climate & Capital Media, a mission-driven information platform exploring the business and finance of climate change.