Apple’s social media failure now looks like success

Apple's decision to abandon Ping now looks like a smart move.

The lens of history shows Apple’s most heavily criticized decisions often become justified over time, whether that’s abandoning headphone ports, focusing on on-device AI, or letting the Ping social network disappear.

Apple’s social media failure now looks like success

Introduced in 2010, Apple marketing touted Ping as a “social network for music.” The company had hoped to work with Facebook on the service, but CEO Steve Jobs said the other company wanted terms he saw as “onerous."

Instead, Apple ended up with a hugely limited system that no one really used, and a great deal of friction between Apple and Facebook. Not surprisingly, Ping never became a vibrant social network.

That’s great, as this also means Apple does not now face the kinds of challenges social media firms are dealing with, as it becomes clear the connected nature of these spaces has been undermined by bad actors who abuse the platforms for questionable benefit.

Apple CEO Tim Cook took note of the ugly side of social media in a speech in 2018:

“Platforms and algorithms that promised to improve our lives can actually magnify our worst human tendencies,” he said.

“Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence, and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false. This crisis is real. It is not imagined, or exaggerated or crazy.”

Cook’s comments seem prescient today.

Freedom and responsibility

The need to balance freedom with responsibility for the use (and abuse) of social media will be a central conversation in the coming months. Within the inevitable clash of contrasting opinions that will surround that process, we must somehow find and build consensus around really big questions, questions like:

  • When does a threat made online become an accountable action?
  • How can those who make such threats be called to account?
  • How is accountability balanced against surveillance and privacy?
  • Equally, what about a person’s right to privacy?
  • What’s the balance when every government is not equally benign and the laws of any given nation don’t match the full expectation of treaties, such as the UN Declaration of Rights?
  • Should a person protesting perceived inequity in a Tweet be held equally accountable as someone who commits or otherwise physically supports violent acts?
  • And what about the many more ethical and moral challenges around freedom and responsibility?

Reaching any such judgements sits beyond my pay grade. I have little faith these can easily be weighed against accountability in an any environment outside of the human rights framework we have from the UN. Even so, it is also tragically clear that online factions can also help nurture egregious offline actions, such as the morally repugnant death of US Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick at the hands of an angry mob chanting “USA."

Regulation is coming

Social media regulation is coming. The European Commission’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, has described recent US. events as “social media’s 9/11 moment."

We’ve also seen Google, Apple, Amazon, and others reject Parler from their platforms for its failure to effectively moderate conversations on its system. Poor security protection means many of the conversations that took place on Parler have now been exposed for all to see — permitting the world to decide whether it finds those conversations acceptable.

Breton also warns that the manner in which big tech firm’s were able to dismiss Parler illustrates another problem, this being a need to constrain the market power of tech firms so such decisions are taken within an agreed regulatory framework in future.

“These last few days have made it more obvious than ever that we cannot just stand by idly and rely on these platforms’ goodwill or artful interpretation of the law. We need to set the rules of the game and organize the digital space with clear rights, obligations and safeguards. We need to restore trust in the digital space. It is a matter of survival for our democracies in the 21st century,” said Breton.

‘Great damage to society’

At least one tech CEO agrees. Speaking at the Time 100 Summit in 2019, Cook said:

“We all have to be intellectually honest, and we have to admit that what we’re doing isn’t working. Technology needs to be regulated.

"There are now too many examples where the no rails have resulted in a great damage to society.”

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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