December 22, 2022 at 5:32 p.m.
- Social media evolved from 1980s bulletin board systems like Wildcat BBS.
- Like most technology, the rise and fall of social media platforms like MySpace, Friendster, Orkut, and Google+ demonstrate the industry’s volatility.
- Globally, social media usage plateaued, with some platforms like Facebook experiencing steep declines.
- Research shows Gen-Z cohorts don’t use Instagram because of too many ads and influencers.
- After unprecedented social unrest and election misinformation, many blame social media for enabling despots to come to power.
- Social media may have peaked during the pandemic, with individuals now favoring in-person interaction over social media.
A Brief History of Social Media
Long before the Internet, people dialed into servers to exchange messages and files. These primordial social networks, known as bulletin board systems, or BBSs, enabled people to meet online before a public Internet existed.
Running a BBS required a dedicated phone line. Most BBS servers were set up in professional offices. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals hosted these computers as a hobby or to reach more clients.
I used BBSs when I was a child. It was an interesting experience. A lot of times, you’d try to dial in and get a busy signal. This was around the time of the first home computer revolution when movies like War Games popularized hacking. Back then, an IBM PC with a 2800 baud modem was considered the ultimate in home computing technology.
The first online chat room existed a decade before I dialed into bulletin board systems. Dubbed the PLATO system, the University of Illinois developed this nascent online chatroom known as Talkomatic. U of I’s early social media platform also featured instant messaging and a crowd-sourced newspaper. Of course, you’d have to walk to the computer lab to use any of this because home computers were non-existent in the 1970s.
The creation of a public information superhighway, known as the Internet, in the mid-1990s led to an explosion in social media. Websites popped up like mushrooms after rain, many of which featured comments or threaded discussion forums. It was the public’s first taste of interacting with strangers, and people seemed to enjoy it.
These were simpler times because most people obtained news from legitimate sources. CNN and FOX News were much less polemical, with many preferring major network sources like ABC, NBC, and CBS. Back in the 1990s, there were all sorts of Internet scams, but for the most part, educated people created web content. There was a bar. You had to know HTML, which wasn’t difficult; however, it prevented uneducated people from creating content.
Soon after the Internet solidified, we saw the rise of web apps. Developers learned to fuse the web and relational databases, crafting primordial web-based applications, many of which were as impressive as anything you’d see today. It wasn’t easy. You had to know SQL and design databases that could scale to high traffic demands. Eventually, Java brought easy-to-use queues that could help manage and scale high-volume websites. Clustering technology enabled multiple servers to combine, providing even more scalability and performance.
As web technology matured, social media evolved alongside peer-to-peer filesharing (or file stealing) apps like Napster. This new era of social media already had a dark side, as recording artists saw CD and iTunes sales obliterated by piracy. But the bigger problem was misinformation.
Posting something on the web no longer took technical skill. If you had enough intellectual ability to use a computer in the most basic way, you could voice your opinion online. The first iMac made it easy for anyone to get online, and just about anyone did. Cheaper Windows PC’s similarly streamlined the process of becoming a netizen.
Social media grew at a tremendous pace in the decade spanning 2003 to 2013. Dozens of platforms launched, matured, and either withered away or prospered. This era saw the rise of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, along with the morons they enabled.
For a long time, social media platforms were lax about moderation. These platforms became havens for ideas that one couldn’t express on TV. Without standards and practices departments to control content, users went hog wild with racism, conspiracy theories, and general misinformation. Alex Jones had a YouTube channel for years, and the company didn’t think anything was wrong with it. (If it weren’t for the public outcry, he’d still be YouTubing today.)
This brings us to the present, where misinformation and conspiracy theories have worsened. Social media companies demonstrate a token will to moderate content by de-platforming “small fish” — users who don’t even create content but only espouse a few unpopular comments. YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram regularly sacrifice these users to spare their lucrative sacred cows, defecating cow patties of misinformation for hungry idiots to gobble up.
For example, a regular YouTube user can be de-platformed for commenting that Irish people were refugees in the United States. Such statements uttered by a commoner are considered hate speech on YouTube. A celebrity like Joe Rogan can use the “n-word” or refer to black people as “apes” hundreds of times on the same platform and not only escape de-platforming but become one of the most celebrated and wealthy talents in social media.
Social media providers ban regular users en masse to create statistics for lawmakers. They can report that they deleted thousands of accounts while Joe Rogan spouts racial epithets with impunity. It’s not working. Most people can see through it, but division in government, mainly created by social media, prevents action. Action will come, however, as our political leaders perceive social media an existential threat. Established representatives and senators are unseated by conspiracy theorists all too often, placing the target squarely on “Silly Con” valley.
(I don’t consider social media companies part of the Silicon Valley. They’re media companies, like TV networks or magazines. There’s more advanced technology at Frito-Lay than at Twitter. There are much better things happening in the city by the Bay than Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.)
Social Media Threatens Democracy
Social media companies like Meta, Twitter, and YouTube only care about profit. They allow lucrative creators to spout racial epithets while placating lawmakers with symbolic bans on casual users who don’t even create content. They realize most people will create new accounts and continue consuming content. Social media companies claim they handle the issue and have statistics to prove it. Anyone with eyes and a brain can see this is false. I’ve witnessed racist YouTubers brag about being “de-platformed” multiple times, yet they’re back making videos again.
Joe Rogan, PewdiePie, Ye, Donald Trump, and countless others are free to spout racist rhetoric without fear of de-platforming. If they are, they have to do something extremely horrible, like an insurrection. Later, social media companies reinstate their accounts because the revenues are too good to pass up.
Even Ye will be reinstated on Twitter again. Musk is just giving him a time-out. He even supported Ye’s bid for the presidency. If you’re profitable, you get unlimited mulligans, just like Donald on the golf course.
Social media’s drive to place profit over peace directly threatens democracy. Allowing celebrities to troll the world, these companies give carte-blanche to high-earning misinformation peddlers as they turn the public against people of color, Jewish, LGTBQ+, and other marginalized communities. Social media enables a minority of mostly white, male, far-right influencers to brainwash the less educated into adopting extreme political views.
The January 6, 2021 insurrection is one of many examples of how social media threatens democracy. Planned and directed on social media, the revolting affair wouldn’t have happened without constant messaging to enable the assault. Twitter provided the platform for Trump, who would otherwise resort to FOX News or a poorly-run website for messaging. These platforms couldn’t muster an insurrection. Even FOX News is too intellectual for the insurrectionist crowd.
Indeed, without social media, we wouldn’t see the rise of Trump, Duterte, Bolsonaro, and other despots who threaten democracy. All of these political figures use a simple strategy of social media misinformation to obtain and hold power. All you have to do is read their social media posts, and it’s obvious. Even FOX News won’t give people a platform for blatant and extreme misinformation, like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Tucker Carlson can only go so far, but he can pass the ball to one of many social media stars who will take it to the racist end-zone.
As lawmakers are utterly inept at handling the situation, the problem worsens. Many are turned off by social media and are leaving platforms entirely. We deleted our Twitter account last month, but we rarely used it. Unfortunately, this still leaves a die-hard core of followers who have nothing better to do than revel in racist, misogynistic, and homophobic content.
Nobel Peace Price Winner Condemns Facebook for Duterte’s Rise to Power
Journalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa knows the true impact of social media misinformation. The Rappler.com founder experienced, first hand, the rise of Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, due to a vast and pervasive social media misinformation campaign. She became a dissident, currently under prosecution by the Philippine government.
In a recent PBS NewsHour interview with Judy Woodruff, Ressa blames the January 6 insurrection on social media, claiming that platforms profit more from hateful lies than truth.
The fact that there is no legislation to prevent this insidious manipulation — I mean, think about it like this, right? If you have kids, would you tell them to keep lying? You reward the lies.
That is what gets the greatest distribution online. It’s lies laced with anger and hate, fear, us against them. If you do this all the time, what kinds of societies do we create?
Ressa also blames Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook for election interference leading to Rodrigo Duterte’s election. Under his rule, the Philippines is now under a reign of terror brought about by misinformation about drug users. Death squads have killed thousands, all because social media instated a monster.
The interview shows us the chilling reality that social media misinformation isn’t just about political correctness and hurt feelings. It’s killing people. A few people died here on January 6, but it’s even worse in other parts of the world. Social media is an industry soaked in blood that pretends to be cute and helpful. It takes more than a few cute cats to counteract the damage.
It’s all done for the sake of profit. Hate speech and lies are unique to social media. Even FOX News can’t get away with this level of dishonesty. Social media nurtures the seed of anti-social behavior for profit. You won’t see Joe Rogan saying the n-word on FOX News, but it’s almost encouraged on YouTube.
Good People Will Abandon Social Media, Bad Actors Will Stay
The future of social media is complicated. The industry can evolve in many ways, but it will likely become more extreme, specialized, and home to the alt-right. It’s already happening under social media providers’ promise of greater control and moderation. It’s a lie. They only care about profit.
Beyond the alt-right, social media is full of gold diggers. From scammers to influencers, many are seeking fame on these platforms. Few attain it. Eventually, they’ll give up. But the experience of influencer posts interwoven with ads is commercial overload for many people. The lies, racism, and greed repelled me from social media for good, but I don’t miss the rampant marketing and ads. I mean, the content is an ad in and of itself.
Sane, rational, educated citizens already have their spaces — network news, public discourse, friends, and relatives. After two years of sequestration, the last thing any real person wants is to argue online. Thus, we see social media hitting a plateau, with some long-standing entities like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter taking significant hits.
The true losers of society still seek solace and community in social media. It gives them what no other institution will — the right to be openly racist, homophobic, and anti-social. This makes it even more potent in its ability to organize the worst elements of society to defy common decency.
The End of Social Media
When I first moved to the SF Bay Area, I lived in Mountain View. A company known as Silicon Graphics seemed to own the entire town. Everywhere you went, you saw enormous Silicon Graphics buildings. Today, a small office suite in a shared building houses what’s left of a colossal technology empire. A mere shadow of its past grandeur, Silicon Graphics is a perfect example of how most tech companies seem to fail eventually. AOL, Compaq, HP — the list goes on. Most tech companies fail eventually. Even the big ones.
IBM is one of the few long-standing tech companies. I can see a day when Apple, Google, and Microsoft are no longer. When I say this, people think I’m overreacting. Look at what’s happening to Meta. Eventually, it will go from a large organization with a sprawling campus to less than 500 people in a shared office building.
Like all technologies, social media will have an ending, but it won’t be happy. As sane, rational people abandon these platforms, they become cesspools for uneducated cretins. Despots who need an army of brownshirts to do their dirty work can easily recruit them with a few racist dog whistles.
These people have always existed, but social media gave them a voice and connected them. To this extent, social media threatens democracy, but the government will eventually shut it down by transforming it into something unappealing to society’s lowest common denominator.
Both sides of the aisle are unhappy with social media for different reasons. On the right, social media censorship is at issue. Progressives feel that platforms shouldn’t allow racism and misinformation to thrive.
Gen-Z is falling out of love with social media stalwarts like Instagram. The problem isn’t racism or misinformation. It’s too much influencing. Anyone who’s been on Instagram recently can see that it’s all about pushing some junk onto viewers. Most YouTube videos spend several minutes covering unrelated subjects to extend video length and increase ad revenues. Since YouTube profits from ads, they do nothing about the syndrome that’s driving away users. Many corporate leaders, at their core, have the same short-term outlook as a junkie.
TikTok’s rise to fame is due mainly to YouTube’s failures. Most YouTube videos are crap. If they’re providing instruction, a how-to guide, or a review, it’s bloated with nonsense to generate ad revenue. TikTok’s short form requirement ended up being a genius idea, copied by everyone.
Even TikTok will likely fade away. When it comes down to it, real social networks are the ones we create ourselves. Apple’s iMessage is the largest social media network because, when all is said and done, people prefer positive interaction over arguing with anonymous creeps.
The problem is one of damage control. Between now and the demise of social media, the problem will get worse. Corporations tend to squeeze as much out of a business model as possible, especially if it’s declining. We’ll see social media companies placate lawmakers with token changes while they allow top creators to spew more misinformation, vitriol, and hatred.
It’s a race to see who wins — decency or corporate profit. Social media is inherently anti-social. If we’re to personify social media, it’s like a sociopath — always telling us what we want to hear, then doing whatever they want. Will decency win out, or will despots use social media to overthrow democracy?