Systems Thinking 101

Can social media be saved?

Social media’s scale requires more than a design fix – it needs a holistic, systems thinking approach.

Social media is broken. Platforms that once seemed positive or benign have shown their destructive underbellies, from contributing to depression, addiction, and isolation to toxic harassment fueled by trolling and tribalism. Social media is not the only thing at stake, either. The flaws in social platforms are fracturing our most vital institutions, from a healthy free press to the very nature of democracy itself.

The tech industry is used to fixing problems from the perspective of the user, but the challenges facing social media are much bigger than one design solution can address. To solve interconnected and intractable issues, we must treat social media not as a broken product, but as a broken system.

How we approached social media mapping

Artefact’s team of designers, researchers and strategists looked at social media through a systems thinking lens. We mapped the universe of stakeholders involved in social media and studied how issues manifest for users, organizations, companies and even our institutions like journalism and democracy. Then, we traced connections, causes, and intertwined topics and studied them from the source so that the most impactful solutions could emerge. After months of research and analysis – and a healthy dose of tech industry soul-searching – we are excited to share a systems map and accompanying report that we hope will inspire new rigor and inquiry around this critical design challenge.

We must treat social media not as a broken product, but as a broken system.

Systems thinking: a design approach to solutions at scale.

Systems thinking sees the big picture

Systems thinking tackles complex and multifaceted problems like social media in their entirety, rather than fixing problems in isolation. Systemic problems often consist of multiple smaller, inter-related, and reinforcing problems. Evaluating all of these drivers and their effects requires a comprehensive view. Systems thinking helps us piece together the bigger picture with a three-pronged approach to problem solving:

  1. Understanding the status quo at an individual, community and societal level, in order to
  2. Identify root cause, and then
  3. Prioritize the most efficient interventions

Social status (quo)

Systems are made up of several causal loops: a sequence of events that feeds back into itself. Each event in a causal loop causes an increase or a decrease of another event. Unsustainable causal loops typically reflect a scenario where the chain of events only increase or decrease – leading to unintended or negative outcomes.

“Social media’s sheer scale of operations, users, and markets – as well as the stakeholders that influence them – create an ecosystem of dependencies that constitute a systemic problem.”

Root causes

Identifying the factors and relationships that reinforce the status quo reveal common patterns: a quest for user growth at all costs and reliance on monetized attention. The root cause loop demonstrates how:

Thoughtful > disruptive interventions

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. Only by addressing the root causes that drive social media’s outcomes can we begin to surface solutions that are as thoughtful as they are impactful.

Download our report to deep dive into our analysis of social media and our proposed interventions. We’d love to know how you think social networks – and the wider tech industry – can prioritize change. And if you are interested in learning more about how Artefact can bring systems thinking solutions to your biggest challenges, get in touch. We are here to help.

Can social media be saved?

Explore our thinking and proposed interventions in this complementary report.

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