An Option Isn’t an Option When It’s Mandatory, Even Online

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Later this year, Instagram users will have the option of a chronological feed of the accounts they follow. This option is already available to activate on Facebook and Twitter and is the default setting for Parler.  Whether consumers will prefer the experience remains to be seen, but either way, the offering is significant because algorithms are the subject of recently proposed social media regulations.

The Filter Bubble Transparency Act (H.R.5921), sponsored in the House by Reps. Ken Buck (R-CO), David Cicilline (D-RI), Lori Trahan (D-MA), and Burgess Owens (R-UT) and in the Senate by Sen. John Thune (R-SD), would mandate social media platforms to offer feeds that are chronological and not informed by algorithms steered by user’s personal data.

Recently, politicians have blamed algorithms for everything from addictiveness, privacy violations, and political extremism to being a tool for censorship. Some of us would pin those pitfalls on human nature, but I digress. The point is that we’re all about to get a look at consumers’ real tastes for an un-curated is online experience—and, perhaps more importantly, whether taking algorithms out of the equation solves any of the aforementioned ills.

While some of us are skeptical that chronological order will prove to be either popular among users or a silver bullet for complaints about social media, the option does illustrate how superior experimental market solutions are to mandatory government regulations (though the threat of regulation may have loomed large in Instagram’s decision).

If users love it or it turns social media into a utopia, it will be a competitive advantage for platforms to offer it. If users find it clunky, annoying, and too time-consuming to digest their social media that way, or mankind continues to be fallen, the option can—and should—be abandoned.

The dispersed preferences of millions of users, voting with their toggle buttons, are sufficient to answer the question. There is no market failure here, just transitory bumps on the economic frontier—and thus, no justification for regulation.