Unfathomable Scale – moderating social media platforms

There’s a really nice piece by Tarleton Gillespie in Issue 04 of Logic themed on “scale” that concerns the scale of social media platforms and how we might understand the qualitative as well as quantitative shifts that happen when things change in scale.

The Scale is just unfathomble

But the question of scale is more than just the sheer number of users. Social media platforms are not just big; at this scale, they become fundamentally different than they once were. They are qualitatively more complex. While these platforms may speak of their online “community,” singular, at a billion active users there can be no such thing. Platforms must manage multiple and shifting communities, across multiple nations and cultures and religions, each participating for different reasons, often with incommensurable values and aims. And communities do not independently coexist on a platform. Rather, they overlap and intermingle—by proximity, and by design.

The huge scale of the platforms has robbed anyone who is at all acquainted with the torrent of reports coming in of the illusion that there was any such thing as a unique case… On any sufficiently large social network everything you could possibly imagine happens every week, right? So there are no hypothetical situations, and there are no cases that are different or really edgy. There’s no such thing as a true edge case. There’s just more and less frequent cases, all of which happen all the time.

No matter how they handle content moderation, what their politics and premises are, or what tactics they choose, platforms must work at an impersonal scale: the scale of data. Platforms must treat users as data points, subpopulations, and statistics, and their interventions must be semi-automated so as to keep up with the relentless pace of both violations and complaints. This is not customer service or community management but logistics—where concerns must be addressed not individually, but procedurally.

However, the user experiences moderation very differently. Even if a user knows, intellectually, that moderation is an industrial-sized effort, it feels like it happens on an intimate scale. “This is happening to me; I am under attack; I feel unsafe. Why won’t someone do something about this?” Or, “That’s my post you deleted; my account you suspended. What did I do that was so wrong?”

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