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.

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 guide 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.

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.

Explore our thinking and proposed interventions in this complementary guide.