Ethics of Product Design: Social Media

Heather Ostertag
November 30, 2021

As a UX designer working with a client who wants to build a new kind of social media app, there are many things to consider. We have a duty as designers to make sure the content is ethical and that the platform takes the security of its users seriously. We are essentially creating a new digital world for people to interact, connect, and communicate and we can’t take that lightly.

Living in a digital utopia does not exist. It would be nice to imagine a world where everyone was respectful and kind to others. That is never the case. Instead, we must always build safeguards into the design for inherently social apps. One example of this approach in action is Reddit. Users can upvote or downvote comments to identify that content as either good or bad. This collective effort to monitor comments relies on the users themselves to be the moderators. It is our job as designers to create those safeguards for future users and prevent a free for all.

A different approach to prevent hate speech, disturbing comments, or harassment is to include a reporting function. This is the most common button for social media in efforts to keep the peace on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. That said, adopting this method takes resources. Someone has to comb through the comments and deem them worthy of being left for the world to see or erased.

As a woman, I have encountered various harassment in the real world and even more online. Since being online can be anonymous, all it takes is a few keystrokes to say something harmful with little consequences. I’ve also had friends and family members who have been bullied and harassed online. I was always taught to treat others how you yourself would like to be treated. Unfortunately, the internet never learned this lesson so it is our duty as designers to carefully consider the safeguards needed in the apps we design so that others can safely participate in the collective creativity of the internet.

I have a love-hate relationship with the internet. On the one hand, it is like a hive mind for creativity and expression. On the other hand, it is a place for people to be allowed to tear others down and be a horrible person. The internet connects us as well as takes us out of social encounters. Sometimes you can’t have the good without the bad. But if we talk to others with different experiences, we can better understand how humans might behave and prevent immutable consequences.

In the end, if you are in a room where decisions are made, make sure everyone is represented. Make sure everyone is safe. You have the power to do what is right. Even if it’s adding something as small as a “Report” button on a comment section of an app, the more we look out for each other, the better the world will be.


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Heather Ostertag

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