There is a birthday coming up some may want to celebrate. In February, Facebook turns sixteen. That’s the age of consent in many jurisdictions, but people have been consenting on Facebook for years.
And if you miss that birthday, Twitter turns sixteen in 2022, and Google, now all grown up, turned twenty-one last year. But like teenagers and young adults, wisdom remains in short supply in the social media, especially in the social ecology of the new media.
The problem is simple to state but hard to treat. Unlike what some call the ‘legacy’ media, online media, especially the social media, have evolved much faster than its users experience, caution and understanding of its strengths and weaknesses. Platforms that started life as simple message services, have become vast communication spaces, run by algorithms, autonomous computer programs of startling complexity, and secret stores of formerly private information.
And that makes us all vulnerable, no longer the user now the used.
All new media, including the legacy media, aroused anxiety as it was introduced but, in the past, that introduction was slower and we grew with it.
Print media had been around for millennia when moveable type gave it a boost in the 15th century, but books remained in monasteries and manor houses. By the middle of the 18th century pamphlets and journals were common and popular among the middleclass, but mass newspapers came only with widespread literacy, working class literacy being driven by the needs of the industrial revolution.
Community understanding of print took four centuries to grow up and even now, print propaganda still shapes opinions.
Cinema, after a shock and awe phase, was a source of anxiety in the 1920s. The then ascendant moral lobby was alarmed by the whole spectrum of human failings. From thirst to lust; six o’clock closing for sobriety, and chastity and fidelity in the fight against venereal diseases were high on their agenda. They particularly identified the cinema as a major seedbed of corruption, and the source of the decline in moral values could be found in the behaviour of the ‘Valentinos and vamps’ on and off the silver screen.
Radio had an easier time, as it tapped two earlier models: vaudeville and the concert hall or theatre, and, later, books and newspapers. Nevertheless, its first decade and a half is a story of commercial endeavour and failures and, briefly, an attempt to lock in audiences with fixed tuned receivers.
Television had a divided response at its Australia debut in 1956 but it had been around as an idea since before 1929, when some radio stations experimented with ’Radiovision’.
To some, it was the idiot box or the goggle box, that was good only to rot the brain, but government headed off the 1920s’ anxiety over cinema by imposing strict licensing conditions on the commercial operators and binding state television to the ABC model. There was also a high barrier to having television in the home: money. The earliest receivers cost $400 to $800, when the minimum weekly wage was $38.00.
So society took to television gradually, standing in the street outside sales rooms, watching through the showroom window. And in any case, television took directly for earlier media models, radio and cinema.
But the arrival of the Internet and social media followed no familiar models. As Mark Zuckerberg of Face Book put it: Move fast and break things. The social media exploited the idea that they were mere platforms, that is, places where users put things that others could choose to pick up on not. All care but no responsibility, like common carriers, responsible principally to deliver goods in the condition in which they came into the possession of the carrier.
And they rode the waves of techno-optimism that followed the development of the World Wide Web a decade earlier. That was a decade when it was widely believed that the WWW marked the beginning of an era of free communication, of understanding across communities, across nations, a time when the good in humanity might flower. A time before trolls.
Two others aspects of the new media without precedent were the unsorted flood of information and access to an audience for even our most trivial thoughts. And photos.
With some prescience, author and philosopher Aldous Huxley, writing in Brave New World, feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance; that we would become a trivial culture awash with information but deficient in knowledge and understanding.
Legacy media, for all its limitations, acted as a filter on the torrents of information. The reputation of newspapers, in particular in the 20th century, rested on reporting that was timely, accurate, balanced, relevant and authoritative. What can social media claim in those departments?
And in unfiltered news flows, half truths pass as facts and falsehoods accumulate like grease in a mental grease trap. As choice of competing information becomes unlimited, choice of effective action becomes impossible, so fastening onto any attractive idea, however irrational, is like grasping a branch as the flood swirls past. At least it seems to bring stability in an unstable world.
Just as we are showered with information, social media allow us to contribute to that tide of trivia. And the integration of the mobile phone with social media has turned that shower into a deluge which we eagerly suck-up hoping for morsels of emotional sustenance.
And all this has happened in a mere fifteen years. It is little wonder that social media now rules, but not by our active or informed choice.
What we do on social media with our personal experience is our business, but when social media starts to undermine societies and the political processes that have delivered relative peace and stability for almost eight decades, we need to wake up to its pernicious potential.
With little doubt, manipulative social media postings, either by people or bots, are dividing societies: black against white, East against West, even the Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam against each other. The future does not augur well. If we cannot control social media then social media will control us.
Maybe Huxley was also right on the place of technology in society: ‘Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards’.
Media analyst and Researcher.