“[…] it’s the technology that leads the way it’s and only later society asks the question of whether it’s something that we really want in our lives. And that I think is a trend that we’re going to have to deal with a lot more in future”Professor Hannah Fry, The Secret Genius of Modern Life: S1E3 Virtual Assistants
This, very astute, observation is a concern. Virtual assistants are a branch of the technology field known as artificial intelligence. But they’re not the only examples of technology created without consideration for their impact on society.
As created, technology is neither good, nor bad. Whether it becomes one of those things is about the way we use it.
All too often, we invent something and then work out how to use it. And all to often, the techies decide the way, with society left to mop up the issues.
Social media is one such example.
Social networks come of age
This week, Facebook turned 20.
Facebook is 20 years old today. A bit of software, created by young students in a college dorm, which changed society. There's a generation now that has only ever known life with social media. At its best, it brings people together. At its worst, it destroys them.— Zoe Kleinman (@zsk) February 4, 2024
Gen-Xers like me didn’t grow up with social media but we’re heavy users of the technology. Or we were. Now, as the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk work out how to make money from the vast platforms, they are losing their purpose.
Once it was easy: Facebook for social sharing; Instagram for photos; YouTube for videos; WhatsApp for messaging; LinkedIn for who knows who; Twitter for brief micro-blogging; blogs for long form prose. But Google killed blogs; LinkedIn tried to be Facebook for business (small B, Facebook also tried to launch Facebook for Business); and the other platforms copied each other until they all had versions of similar features. Meanwhile, one of the world’s richest men appears to have delivered a lesson on how to destroy a social network.
Modern politics – and modern media – seems to be about setting groups of people against each other.
Cyclists against motorists. Brexit or remain. Guns or no guns (in the USA). Your choice of political party (red or blue – on both sides of the Atlantic). Woke or anti-woke (whatever that means). Even whether it makes sense to park a car forwards or backwards.
Social media should have been a force for good. but everything was reduced to a soundbite. It lost the nuance, context, critical thinking. As Zoe Kleinman wrote in the tweet I embedded earlier, “at its best, it brings people together. At its worst, it destroys them.”
Where did it all go wrong?
I stopped using Facebook a while back. The Cambridge Analytica data scandal showed how the information we were giving away freely was being used by others. Not just to advertise but to target for political means. Even, some might say, to subvert democracy.
My experience of Twitter in recent years is that it has descended into a place that’s full of hate, division, bots promoting porn, and with very little genuine engagement. Instagram became very needy, with notifications trying to encourage the growth of Threads, or cross-fertilisation to other Meta properties (like Facebook).
I’m still on LinkedIn, reluctantly, and scaling out my use professionally.
But what replaces Twitter/X (I still can’t bring myself to use the new name)? I don’t know but it’s probably not Bluesky, Post, Hue or any of those similar sites. Certainly not Mastodon. That one network where everyone came together is gone… the future looks like it will consist of small niches. Special interest groups.
Writing last year for Wired Magazine, Jason Parham said that first-gen social media users have nowhere to go. That article is from a Millennial perspective but it resonates with Gen-X me too. Fifteen years of scrolling for news and entertainment. And fifteen years of having a platform to share, discuss and learn. What do I do now? Increasingly, I feel lost.
I’ll work out a new content strategy in 2024. We’re already a month in and I’m not sure what it is yet. One thing I do know is that you’re likely to see less from me on Twitter/X, once I work out where and how to host my history. And I’m too old to start again somewhere else.