How social media became a dumpster fire and what to do about it
The internet was funded by the military and developed by the academic community to provide a place to openly and easily share information. It was supposed to be a place to test ideas, to contest theories and to challenge views.
For most of the time, the early internet was hard to access and required special tools and skills to use. The World Wide Web was the nest step and made it easier for more to get online and take part in the conversations. Back then there were many more that would only read rather than create but by 2000 the bulletin boards and chat forums had attracted a much broader group of people looking to post about almost anything you could imagine.
The first social networks were built from those forums and Facebook added the then unique element to post online as yourself, given its origin at US universities to allow students to get to know each other the first public version asked what school and university you attended and when.
That seemingly irrelevant information allowed Facebook to begin connecting users with others that went to the same schools and universities, for the quite young users at the time it was an easy way to find their friends. When an older user began to join they were impressed that Facebook somehow knew their old school friends. Rather than only connecting you with close friends and family you might soon be connecting with a very large group of people you knew and were able to catch up with all them. This was the golden age of Facebook, but because it was free, Facebook needed a way to make money. It did so in two ways, grow by building the mobile version, allowing pages so you could become friends with brands and a newsfeed to curate what you would see when you logged on.
Brands flocked to the platform after so many of the staff were already using Facebook.
Facebook would also ask you about your favourite things from movies to food to places to visit and could determine that you were a car fan by how many times you mentioned it or posted pictures about it. It means they could offer brands the option to target users and have their posts appear on your timeline
It was a hit and has made Facebook one of the largest advertising platforms on the planet.
If Facebook was the platform for following those you did know, Twitter was supposed to be the platform for those that you wanted to know. For celebrities, the option to post and connect with fans without the challenges of becoming friends or fans on Facebook saw many users join Twitter.
Because Twitter typically makes all posts public, it was a useful tool for journalists to follow to track how some stories were developing online. It was also a mobile platform and once adding images are introduced it effectively became a breaking news 1st person reporter and a popular source for rolling news channels to both refer to and to share content.
The first to get a million followers
Twitter became a hit for celebs and news with the battle to see who would first get 1 million followers turned into a bet with CNN and Ashton Kutcher
Kutcher won and set the tone that individuals were going to be more powerful than brands on social media.
Fast forward to now and there are many with huge followings, The EFF’s Julius Malema has over 3 million followers, almost twice the number of votes the party received last year and enough to rate as one of the most popular radio broadcasters in the country. Part of his appeal is how often he is prepared to spill the tea about other politicians and contentious subjects. This is part of the challenge for social media now. You typically need to be brash and loud to be noticed. When you are noticed you might strat trending and get even more attention. You don’t have to be nice, you don’t even have to be correct, you just need to get a reaction.
As others try to emulate high profile people they see as successful they too post allegations and insult others attracting a crowd the way a public fight does. The fact that we have the word twar now indicates how often this happens.
So how do you give people freedom of speech but avoid allowing outright lies and slander to be posted? When trolls and even governments can use the platform to stir dissent among users you have a scenario that allowed the word of the year in 2016 to be Dumpster fire. A potentially dangerous and chaotic situation that attracts onlookers but not necessarily firefighters.
How to fix this
Moderation is the short answer but only Facebook has grown to be profitable and even with a moderation team of thousands simply can’t take down the content that does not meet its own guidelines as fast as it is put up. Twitter has ramped up its efforts to limit what can be posted but with 186 million using the platform daily, they too have a tough mountain to climb.
The efforts to begin to limit content has seen those affected claim they are being censored and while for the most part they are being held to the terms they agreed to, there are enough grey areas to make it hard to apply effectively or even fairly sometimes.
A recent example to illustrate the issue relates to posts about the drug hydroxychloroquine. While it is a regulated drug and coverage about it is not an issue, the specific advocacy of its use as an effective treatment for Covid-19 runs counter to the current best advice for its use. Of the many posts, the challenge is how to determine when the line gets crossed and even if historical posts when there was some potential for its use whether reposting that content once better information is available constitutes a transgression.
When you get banned, move to a new network that is willing to accept the growth but not fix the problem
Parler is a platform that has positioned itself as an alternative to Twitter for those that either has been banned or feel they are being censored.
They have similar rules as other platforms to not allow certain behaviour but in the absence of someone reporting those posts or many people able to monitor what is posted, those posts remain up. Those that join, over a million now according to the founder, will get to see stories that they agree with posted often confirming their views. You can echo comments posted which effectively allows you to build an echo chamber the kind of situation that can do more harm than good.
So what should we do?
I like the view of Sacha Baron Cohen, he argues for a distinction to be made about freedom of speech and freedom of reach.
Comments posted online should only be posted live and to everyone provided, you have shown you can be trusted to do so. There should not be room for anonymous accounts to post publicly, they should only be allowed to post to accounts that are authorised to report their comments. This allows for information to be shared to those that could help and protect those that may not be able to post as themselves.
Will it make social media more sterile, yes. Will there be fewer tears, yes. Why would anyone bother to even use it then? Well, there are platforms created to be dumpster fires and while they may have a place, for those platforms that wish to become relevant nationally and globally the bar for what is acceptable should begin to mirror the requirements placed on broadcasters and publishers.
While most platforms would object to taking responsibility for what is posted on their platform, there is little alternative to them having to play a more active role to limit what can be posted and certainly in the case of social networks for what is promoted.
It is by no means a simple challenge to resolve and it is further complicated by those actively looking to hijack the system.
Relying on advertising has always come with a risk about how information about users may be used in a way that could border on manipulation.
The encouraging news is that as users and the platforms become more aware of abuses and manipulation, they are adding better ways to counter them. There is more moderation, it easier to report posts and more control what you might see. Some platforms are adding more fact-checking and labelling posts if they are suspect.
It is important to note that social media is not the real world, it is a version of it but should not be seen as an accurate representation even for platforms with millions of users.
Each new form of media has had a honeymoon period that was followed but a phase when it seemed to be ruined before settling in something that while never perfect was stable, had clear rules and a functional way to regulate it.
If 2016 was the dumpster fire year for social media, which was about 10 years after the major start of social media. Does it mean that by 2026, the fire would be out and social media will no longer be a dumpster?
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