This is cross-posted from here. The post generated some thoughtful responses and discussion, so I’d recommend heading over to Cent to check it out.

Cent is an important experiment, and a valiant attempt at fixing social media, but I don’t think it’s going to work. I hope I’m wrong.

I don’t think many people would disagree that there is something terribly wrong with the state of social media in 2019.

Every platform is rife with bots and trolls, and we’re living through the disastrous unintended consequences of algorithms that optimise for clicks and attention.

Filter bubbles amplify prejudices and pre-conceptions, reinforcing whatever stance the user already has, so that people get pushed to extremes. Whatever the issue, today’s social media encourages divisiveness and a hardening of opinions, leading to a widening gyre of polarisation.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

W. B. Yeats – The Second Coming

Cent is a valiant attempt at fixing this, but I don’t think it’s going to work – at least, not in its current form. Don’t get me wrong – I definitely applaud the effort, and I really hope I’m mistaken, and Cent becomes a touchstone of reasoned discourse…I just don’t think it’s going to happen.

When I typed this post into Cent, there was an option to…

Add a bounty to incentivize thoughtful responses

That’s a laudable goal, but is that really what the bounty incentivizes? As I understand it (and please correct me if I’m wrong), the bounty is a monetary reward which says that, at the end of a specified period, the top N responses (measured by the number of upvotes they have received) will receive a reward. So, this is like upvoting a post on Hacker News, or an answer on Stack Overflow, but where you can earn money as well as kudos if lots of people upvote your comment.

At first, that sounds like a neat idea, and right now a lot of people are posting on twitter about how good the quality of the discussions is on Cent. But the more I think about it, the more I think the reward system is actually going to backfire. Are we really going to get better quality content by monetizing upvotes? Or, are we more likely to see people crafting their comments with an eye on the prize? It’s human nature to like ideas that agree with our own, so I think this is likely to lead to the same sort of polarizing content we see on twitter and facebook.

Hacker News and Stack Overflow seem to generate valuable and thoughtful content without monetary rewards, and I don’t think adding money to that system is likely to make things better. If you disagree, try this thought experiment: A random stranger comes up to you and gives you a compliment, which makes you feel good. Later, you find out someone paid them to do it. Do you feel better or worse than before?

My suspicion is that, if the quality of discourse on Cent is high right now, that has less to do with the design of the incentives, and more to do with the userbase consisting mostly of smart, motivated early adopters.

Like I said, I hope I’m wrong, and that Cent is the first of a new breed of social media platforms that live up to the initial promise. But right now, I’m sceptical.

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