Ten years ago, when I started writing this column, nobody was really frightened of the internet. My first column for The Interim was about the fear of communications technology, opting out and cutting the cable – but the villain was television.
“Every year it seems like a new study is published linking TV viewing with obesity, poor marks, diminishing attention spans or aggression,” I wrote, “with particular condemnation reserved for parents who let the TV babysit their toddlers or pre-schoolers. As a result, parents often compare their TV strictness as a slyly competitive icebreaker, reserving conspicuous admiration for anyone who proudly admits that they’ve gone cold turkey, with no TV in the house.”
Ten years later we’re talking about social media as a far more dangerous media entity than television was in the first year of the Barack Obama presidency – it’s destroying attention spans, making our kids into aliens, breeding hate, ruining lives and destroying democracy. In 2009 Facebook had been around for five years but had only just become profitable. Michael Jackson’s death had crashed the servers at Twitter, which was just three years old. Myspace was at its peak. Instagram wouldn’t launch for a year, and Snapchat not for another two years.
Announcing that you’re leaving a social media platform is considered as socially courageous as those cable cutters a decade ago, but only if you do it voluntarily; there are far more people, famous or momentarily infamous, who shut down their accounts and go virtually dark when scandal overtakes their online life, stealing into the wasteland like refugees.
This particular point in time is the subject of The Social Media Upheavalby Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a venerable blogger and University of Tennessee law professor. More a pamphlet than a book, it’s actually a perfect length for its subject – short enough to engage truncated attention spans but not long enough to propose detailed solutions to a problem that might go away in a few years.
The digitally-powered world of information technology is undergoing a massive transformation, Reynolds states up front, and it seems to be making us all crazier. Ideas are being spread at a speed unimaginable at any previous time in history, but “most ideas are probably bad.”
“Easy” emotions – “which happen to be the negative ones” – are being amplified globally, in a scenario that is best compared to the transmission of diseases in an industrial world where humans are traveling faster and living in closer contact with each other than ever before. Access to information hasn’t had the positive effect on society and politics that was predicted. The links we’re liking and re-tweeting aren’t being read and so we’re basically just shouting headlines at each other.
“Social media,” writes Reynolds, “makes people more partisan but less informed.”
The future, as ever, has not turned out quite how we’d hoped. This was a theme picked up in the tech issue of the New Yorkermagazine this fall, in an article titled “The More Things Change” by Andrew Marantz. As it was with nearly every innovation of the digital age, much was expected from our new social media, and it most assuredly hasn’t delivered.
Chris Hughes, a roommate of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, recalls the optimism with which he reacted to his friend regarding his new creation. “There was a widespread belief in the inevitable forward march of history. I don’t know that that came from books, or from anywhere in particular – I think it was just understood.”
Battered by controversies over real or imagined “Russian bots,” “fake news” and accusations of craven use of marketable user data, Facebook and other social media platforms have had to make contrite noises lately. Zuckerberg himself is quoted in a recent note: “One of the most painful lessons I’ve learned is that when you connect two billion people, you will see all the beauty and ugliness of humanity.”
In an increasingly paranoid age, those valuable users have become wary of the digital venues where they’ve been creating businesses no one imagined existing a decade ago, building virtual reputations, connecting with friends and strangers and wasting many, many hours they were once unaware they had to waste. They worry that the chastened utopians who run their platforms are violating privacy they once had no idea they valued by mining data on their interests, opinions, shopping preferences and movements. They worry that a thoughtless, tossed-off post will go viral and make them the target of mobs of enraged strangers intent on ruining their lives and their livelihoods. And they worry that they’ll find themselves “de-platformed” – banished without appeal from the social media that makes them feel guilty and afraid.
There are, however, a few good reasons for paranoia. In another story in the same issue of the New Yorker, a feature on Tik Tok, a social media app wildly popular with teens, details how the Chinese company behind the app is a leader in facial recognition and data mining software – the sort that the Chinese government is putting to innovative use in surveillance of their citizens and implementation of their next-gen Orwellian “social credit” system. And it’s become commonplace to point out that social media and data mining, enhanced by the ubiquity of smart phones, have quietly built the framework of a surveillance state that East Germany’s Stasi could only have dreamed of using.
As for Reynolds, he tries hard to imagine solutions to this problem without coming up with anything particularly persuasive. The tech companies behind our new digital era – massive, well-funded companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon – have worked hard to curry the favour of government, and will do anything to make sure any regulation proposed by lawmakers will do more to create barriers for new competitors.
While he’s more than happy to propose using anti-trust laws already in place to break up the tech monopolies, Reynolds the libertarian is opposed to proposals to license social media use, as an attempt to curb online anonymity and instill responsibility for postings; who will issue those licenses, and how will offenses against their use be adjudicated? It’s the same argument that comes up when old media try to propose a license for journalists in an age where print is virtually dead and anyone can carve out a virtual space for themselves in the Fifth Estate.
“It’s been a bad few years for ‘reputable authorities,’ alas” writes Reynolds, “and I don’t know who I’d be willing to trust with this sort of power.”
The best thing to do, Reynolds concludes, is basically nothing. Publishers and online platforms need to wait a few days for outraged online mobs to tire of their braying and move on. And extending the disease metaphor of online virality to its logical end, social media users have to develop an immunity to the shallow but bellicose hysteria and gullible re-broadcasting of self-flattering memes that characterize the worst of social media use today.
Twitter in particular has become a hotbed of hashtag mobs because it’s full of journalists and, by virtue of its extremely constrained nature, wholly unable to broadcast a complex idea. (If you know anything about the quality of journalism – or journalists – these days, this should be expected, not surprising.)
In short, Reynolds thinks that policing online content is a bad idea, while learning to police ourselves – our bias, our quickness to wrath, our investment in digital distractions and the limitations of our knowledge – is a better one. But even this modest antidote to the state of social media seems (to me, at least – a pessimist by nature) as utopian as the golden visions that once apparently inspired the people who created the Twitter hot take, the all-caps status update, and the endlessly looping boomerang video on your kid’s Instagram story.