Evolutionarily, humans are social animals. We gather in numbers for protection, to share common experiences, to celebrate, and even to mourn. Our shared existence can bring us together and tear us apart when profound differences arise. The evolution of computing technology has brought the world together in ways that weren’t previously predicted, and our mutual experiences have changed humanity forever. However, it’s also killing us, and let me explain.
The social aspects of the internet have always been there, ready to be monetized from the start. As millions worldwide began using the internet, instant communication with anyone around the planet became a reality, and communicate we did. Platforms like America Online (AOL), Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and ICQ (“I Seek You”) were all wildly popular. Chat rooms on every topic imaginable were accessible. Enthusiasts from around the globe could gather online and discuss anything. This evolved into a plethora of websites offering forums on literally everything. Then came social media.
Connecting us to friends, family, and strangers alike, social media was initially seen as an innovative way to keep in touch with others by sharing aspects of our lives via written posts, pictures, videos, and more. Unlike chat rooms and direct messages, social media was designed to focus on the individual user first and then a shared experience.
The space people carved for themselves was seen as their own to share with whomever they wished. Early approaches to this interaction, as seen in the now-defunct Friendster, were based on the “Circle of Friends” concept. Essentially the goal was to build an emotional support structure around the user by linking them to their closest friends, who, in turn, could encourage the user in some way. As Myspace and, eventually, the behemoth that is Facebook came to fruition, this concept faltered and devolved. Why? The answer is multifaceted, but at its core, it’s simply this: some people just suck.
That may not be a popular answer, but it’s honest. Instead of the idea that a user is surrounded only by close friends known in person, Facebook exploded the idea that you could have thousands of friends and, thus, an audience to perform for. What the internet, and social media, also allow for is the ability for people to be both anonymous and/or separated physically from those they interact with. While anonymity may good in general or even required for some (especially dissidents living under oppressive regimes), it has also given a de facto license for mean-spiritedness and aggression. If a person is not genuinely face-to-face with another person in a debate or argument, and there is no fear of being physically harmed, the worst verbal traits of humanity come out. We saw the warning signs of where we were heading early when lawsuits for harassment and defamation started popping up due to online interactions in AOL’s chat rooms. The 1996 Communications Decency Act, which famously absolved the platforms for the uncontrollable rantings of their users, was a direct result of this.
As the internet and social media evolved, so did the content media as it relates to politics. Politically biased media ecosystems grew to cater to their audience that leaned one way or the other. Oftentimes hyperbolic, these twenty-four hours a day media delivery systems helped to drive a wedge into society to the point where a presidential advisor could claim that she had “alternative facts,” thus creating a new reality for followers. Social media was the supercharger that made this wedge issue a thousand times worse.
Social media’s current business model is to offer a “free” service that the user pays for by giving up their personal data and information to the platform in exchange for advertisers to target them better for products or services they could be interested in. However, the secret sauce in this equation is artificial intelligence or AI. The AI is configured to try and understand what the user is truly interested in and then prioritize that information to show said user that type of content first. The user, in turn, gets more and more of what they’re interested in, so they stay on the platform for longer periods and thus can be advertised to more. This is a multibillion-dollar ecosystem that has expanded into the daily lives of billions of people worldwide. Where this concept went off the rails was a combination of catering to (and exploiting) the worst traits of people for money while delivering political disinformation to billions that the AI was prioritizing for corporate profit.
Facebook went mobile in 2012 and brought instant and addicting social interactions to the world. They then created the “like” button where users could gauge their posts’ popularity. Instagram brought the ability for anyone to become a star or “influencer” and the software tools to touch up images and make anyone look better. The net effect this had on the world, especially the teens that were the early adopters of this tech, was increased depression, suicide, image issues, and more. For adults, it was the sharing of political disinformation designed to ramp up anger, outrage, and fear, typically against the other side of the political aisle. Studies have shown that Facebook’s AI prioritized anger and extremism in content, pushing it faster and further than it should have been allowed to go. With a legion of adults addicted to Facebook while being amped up on rhetoric, it was the perfect storm to start unmooring societal and political norms. With addicted and depressed kids and their angry parents, the worst of us has been in the spotlight for years.
Everyone has experienced anger, insults, and just downright mean-spiritedness online. Writing for smerconish.com, and others like Forbes, has been a privilege I’ve enjoyed for years, but it comes at a cost. Inevitably, I am called every name in the book for simply stating my opinion in a calm and logical manner. It underscores how broken we are at the moment. So, how do we fix this?
There are no easy answers, and open societies will not start removing elements of free speech from private platforms. We can’t stop anyone from talking about politics, for example, but we can require transparency from the Facebooks of the world regarding their AI and how they deliver information. Forcing them to deprioritize all political speech, articles and posts help to ensure that the social media platforms re-center around that initial Circle of Friends concept. Everyone could still read and interact as they see fit, but not having the most hyperbolic of disinformation put front and center into everyone’s view would do wonders for lowering the temperature. This would also mean less revenue for the platform, so I don’t think it will happen without new laws forcing this into fruition.
So, with the best intentions, this experiment into online social interaction has failed to live up to its lofty goals. Town halls for rational discourse and camaraderie were never really built. Social media will not die; it will be around for years. Hopefully, someone will figure out how to properly appeal to our better angels.
An expert in cybersecurity and network infrastructure, Nick Espinosa has consulted with clients ranging from small business owners up to Fortune 100 level companies for decades. Since the age of 7, he’s been on a first-name basis with technology, building computers and programming in multiple languages. Nick founded Windy City Networks, Inc at 19 which was acquired in 2013. In 2015 Security Fanatics, a Cybersecurity/Cyberwarfare outfit dedicated to designing custom Cyberdefense strategies for medium to enterprise corporations was launched.
Nick is a regular columnist, a member of the Forbes Technology Council, and on the Board of Advisors for both Roosevelt University & Center for Cyber and Information Security as well as the College of Arts and Sciences. He’s also the Official Spokesperson of the COVID-19 Cyber Threat Coalition, Strategic Advisor to humanID, award-winning co-author of a bestselling book, TEDx Speaker, and President of The Foundation.