Even before the Cambridge Analytica story broke in March, public trust in social media was at an all-time low. The Edelman Trust Barometer published in January reported concern around bullying, extremist content and lack of transparency, with only a quarter of the UK population saying they’d trust social media as a source of information.

Cracking up

The seismic shift in the way we see social media was summed up nicely by a former Silicon Valley executive speaking on Radio 4 this week (The New Age of Capitalism: the Attention Economy). James Williams was working in search advertising at Google, when he realised things weren’t right:

“I looked around the industry and saw all these high-level goals of maximising the number of clicks you make or times you view something and I realised nobody has those goals for themselves. Nobody thinks ‘how many ads can I click on?’ or ‘how much time can I spend on this site?”. And I realised that there was a fundamental mis-alignment between the goals of this emerging attention economy and the goals we have for ourselves as humans.”

There has always been this disconnect. It’s only now, at the end of the adoption curve, that it’s become a glaring problem. Now that 2.23 billion people use Facebook and everyone, including your gran, your newborn nephew and next door’s dog are on social media, we’re beginning to appreciate the severity of this massive great big crack in the system.

Can we fix it?

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe social media is a force for good. I still think we benefit hugely as a society from being better connected and better informed. But it’s the way in which we connect that matters. And, of course, the quality of information.

Clearly, social media needs to be re-built with people (and user needs) at the centre.

Is that even possible? I don’t know. Will we still call it “social media”? Probably not. But this may not be an innovation my generation can make.

Design thinking

That’s why I’m so excited about Design Club.

Design Club is a social enterprise I’ve set up with Noam Sohachevsky. It puts design thinking at the heart of the creative process. And it works with young children, teaching them design thinking as a life skill.

Design thinking is a user-centred approach to problem-solving that involves empathy, prototyping and testing. It works well alongside agile delivery (the sort of projects I’ve been working with on UK government contracts over the past two years). And it works brilliantly with anything digital.

Since I started working with Design Club, and thinking about design thinking, it’s amazing how many times its application – or potential application – has cropped up.

Of course retro-fitting anything can be tricky – and maybe using design thinking to “fix” social media in its current form is impossible. But at least we can do everything we can to ensure we don’t make these mistakes around privacy and personal data again.

Photo: page from student workbook, Design Club Balkans