Beyond Binary: How The Social Web Is Failing Us, and What Comes Next

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We’re constantly told that anything is possible on the web.

Brands / platforms spend massive amounts of money trying to convince us that our digital lives are copies of what we do in the physical world.

Facebook, for example, bills itself as a place for inspiration…

Via The Difference Between Push & Pull on the Web

While creativity and self-expression are foundations for the human experience, there’s just one problem:

The world we inhabit online is still mostly binary.

If you geek out on gender, race, class, or social sciences you’re probably already familiar with the term, but even if you’re not, it’s worth noting that the core definition is numerical— and, up until now, it has been the defining feature of programming underlying the web:

In the most practical sense, when something is binary on the web it refers to duality, or a pair of ideas, options, or answers…

Do you like or dislike something? Are you happy or sad? Are you hungry or not? Will you click on this, yes or no? What’s your favorite book?

That last question is the obvious red herring— but as it turns out, all of the questions are non-binary.

The reason for this is actually fairly straightforward: creativity and human intelligence by their very nature require a variety of ideas and options.

We can be both angry and delighted by something, a little bit hungry but not enough to eat, and we can have 5 favorite things for very different reasons.

However, because we, the users, are subject to a binary web it means we’re limited in our ability to replicate uniquely human concepts like discovery and inspiration (this is starting to change, more on that later).


Binary’s effect on platforms and content.

As the most powerful social network, Facebook is no stranger to binaries.

The strongest signal on the platform is the “Like,” which wields great power, but, as they’re finding out, is a signifier that can become noise instead of signal, and that has a lot to do with binary thinking that is part of Facebook’s structure.

Two recent events do a good job of highlighting the extent of the problem:

Dissatisfied users migrated en mass from Facebook to Ello, prompted in part by transgender and gay/lesbian user concerns around being forced to use a real name (among the binaries: real or fake? male or female? gay or straight?

Ferguson initially barely registered on Facebook, despite the intensity of events on the ground and its trending on other platforms.

You’re X or you’re Y.

A topic is important or not important… and there’s just no room in between.

This has strong implications for the content that people see because of algorithms and filters, and for how we relate to each other, as evidenced via research from the Pew Center around how people consume news on social media

Of course Facebook is a popular target for criticism, but the problem exists across the entire social web.

Twitter, for example, is binary in a different way, via its follow unfollow paradigm.

Right now, the primary way you have of understanding and relating to content is by following or unfollowing someone. A secondary option is the topical list, but that might not be very helpful either if you click on your “People who think about science” list and find someone is currently thinking about and sharing things around what’s happening in Ferguson.

And most other social platforms follow a topical and/or follow/unfollow model, too, including Pinterest, Medium, Quora, and LinkedIn.

On all of these networks if you think I’m a complete jerk you can also block and report me for spam, but none of these things really deal with the core problem: you don’t have to agree, like, or follow everything an entity does to have a meaningful relationship with one of their thoughts or actions.

The same goes in the other direction: you can be skeptical about someone’s words or actions and still find some value in other things they say or do, or you can feel positive, negative, and neutral all at once.


So what’s changing in the structure of the web, and how do we combat the binary problem in the meantime?

Interestingly, after 10 years of building a binary web Facebook is now (maybe) putting resources into doing just the opposite.

This is apparent in how the platform is beginning to ask for non-binary information…

Along with Facebook’s efforts to reshape how the platform works for teenagers, it represents a crucial shift in the social web.

Others are working on the same thing?—?most notably Google, whose AI property DeepMind is working on mimicking the memory/creativity of the human brain, and Wolfram Alpha, whose knowledge engine can actually show you things like what someone with color blindness sees…

What this all boils down to is that insight about how people create, relate, and discover is not binary, and while most people see observations and insights as interchangeable, the two are actually radically different:

  • 12% of users take X action is an observation
  • 12% of users take X action because of their tendency to Y is an insight (and you’d better be prepared to validate that last part)

The latter is, of course, infinitely more valuable and intriguing whether you’re a company, brand, or individual.

And that’s why we’re in the business of insights here at ArCompany.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons

copyright binary

Joe is a product/ops guy working with the ArCompany team on content, growth, and analytics. He digs media, design, startups, data, rocanroll, anything science-y, and thinking about how to become a better human.

8 thoughts on “Beyond Binary: How The Social Web Is Failing Us, and What Comes Next

  1. hessiejones says:

    I love this Joe. I guess like any type of algorithm in the social web, there exists extremes or opposites. Nuances are more difficult to detect by simple semantics. It’s also the reason why sentiment is now read as positive, negative or neutral. I know there exists software that can detect human emotion based on sentence patterns. I’m sure Susan_Silver will be all over that when it happens.

  2. JoeCardillo says:

    hessiejones Susan_Silver I part of the reason for the extremes is that we’re constantly sold the “hey this is about discovery & inspiration” mantra as if there’s no tradeoff and also no alternative, but I don’t think it has to be that way. 
    I believe a social web that allows us degrees of anonymity and identity makes sense and can be built, but something like that requires social platforms themselves to opt out of a zero sum game of “we own and can do whatever we want with literally everything you do as a user or not.” That’s a totally unsustainable model in the long and probably medium term.

  3. hessiejones says:

    JoeCardillo Susan_Silver Everything has to evolve Joe. And you’re right, the ‘grey’ area needs to be addressed because this is where the richer information lies. You realize this establishes more meaning and more context — which in and of itself, has implications on privacy — another facet we will face as this all plays out.

  4. RebeccaAmyTodd says:

    joecardillo ArCIntel popped by to see if this was up yet…happy surprise! Saved for a reread.

  5. ArCIntel says:

    RebeccaAmyTodd joecardillo good one, right Rebecca? ^HJ

  6. RebeccaAmyTodd says:

    ArCIntel joecardillo heck yes. Got a teaser in a conversation a while back and was awaiting the full piece. Lots to think on!

  7. joecardillo says:

    RebeccaAmyTodd Oh yeah, be great to hang / hear your thoughts on this…there is probably a pt 2 coming as well ArCIntel

  8. RebeccaAmyTodd says:

    joecardillo ArCIntel nice let’s do it! I also need to reread when not falling asleep… Chat soon, please!

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