By Deepak Gopalakrishnan Dec. 12, 2019
In the 2010s, from gaming social metrics to gaming democracy, the means on social media didn’t matter, ends did. But even as the promised virtual utopia increasingly begins to resemble a dystopia, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t always like this, and it doesn’t have to be in the future.
In my early 20s, I went to a B-school which provided exceptional marketing education and even more exceptional aloo parathas. And, as I grew up, I leveraged the former while trying to undo the aftereffects of the latter. Maybe that’s what coming of age really means — when you realise the wild excesses of youth are to be compensated for.
While on the topic of excessive, out-of-control youth, it’s worth noting that in 2020, Facebook turns 16. Social media has grown rapidly over the last decade, becoming an inextricable part of our lives, yet is cited as one of the planet’s biggest ills. And the poster boy for this dichotomy remains — fairly or unfairly — Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm project which has evolved from a horny teenager ranking girls, to a hoodie-adorned cool kid who made fuddy-duddy companies cool by sheer association, to a data-sucking mastermind that upends democracy. Woah, that escalated quickly. And all that was while it was still a teenager.
Other platforms aren’t clean either; Instagram sends kids into depression, Twitter is toxic, and so is Reddit but with better English. Even as the promised virtual utopia increasingly begins to resemble a dystopia, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t always like this.
At the beginning of the 2010s, the outlook on social media was different: It’s going to change everything! It’s going to connect people around the world! Imagine the benefits of everyone being each other’s friend. Let’s all make a cat meme and all laugh! Hey, brands, come here so you can hang with the cool kids.
But then… things changed.
Twitter went from being the birthplace of silly hashtags and sillier puns to a place where I personally know people who’ve received a death threat for having the temerity to post an opinion. We’ve already seen how Facebook transformed from being a place to connect with friends to a data-snooping, election-influencing giant that might one day become our corporate overlord. And YouTube, which heralded the dawn of the self-broadcasting generation, is now a vehicle for propaganda and radicalism. Even if you treat death threats and nefarious election orchestration as outliers, there are large societal impacts that are more visible to everyone. Social media-induced mental health problems are becoming more prevalent, even to the extent that Instagram is considering hiding likes, its very currency.
How did this happen? None of these platforms are inherently evil, and if you read articles from a decade ago, you’ll see how bullish tech publications were about their positive impact on society. The leaders were hailed as visionaries. Even today, as maligned as Mark Zuckerberg is, he probably just wants to sit in his room and code, and not have to testify before the US Congress every other week.
Firstly, platforms grew too fast (yay network effect!) without considering potential consequences, awash in their own hubris of increased connections making the world a better place. Twitter’s late reaction to cleaning itself up despite years of clamour is testimony to that.
The second reason is even less sunny. Platforms aren’t evil, people are. In the past decade, clickfarms and IT Cells have been set up to take advantage of loopholes, leading to inflated traffic numbers, and spreading fake news about political rivals, respectively. This is ethically dubious, but wholly legal.
Instagram sends kids into depression, Twitter is toxic, and so is Reddit but with better English.
Heck, you, dear reader, can avail of a number of services to boost your social standing. You can buy Instagram followers for as low as a rupee each, and then pitch yourself as an (ugh) “influencer” and get paid for posting about crap from companies who don’t care how you got there. This is not against the law, but definitely reprehensible in sensible circles. In the 2010s, from gaming social metrics to gaming democracy, means didn’t matter, ends did.
Now, as social media enters its “adult years” along with the millennium it will be so strongly associated with, it has a lot of pondering to do.
Will platforms be mature enough to clean up the house to weed out evil and facilitate good, at the risk of stalling growth and profits? Facebook, with billions in its coffers, should not be scared to put the brakes on some projects and focus more on fixing its many problems. To be fair, it’s already doing this by hiring journalists, setting up a content supreme court that can even overrule The Zuck, and developing an election fake news-fighting war room.
But here’s the thing: this is not just a nice thing to do or a happy PR story, it actually makes good business sense. Zuckerberg cannot take his users for granted, and while a mass migration is unlikely (Mastodon, anyone?), reduced usage over privacy concerns is, and is already happening. Fixing the platforms now can lead to better profits in the future, if that’s what the companies want instead of the “make the world a better place” rubbish their “About Us” section says.
If platforms need inspiration, they can again look to their own users and the good things they’ve done on the platforms this decade. The same “fun, time-wasting” websites and apps also were facilitators of political movements such as the Arab Spring and numerous marches across the world, right down to Hong Kong. Just a hint of their power is demonstrated by the fact that governments feel compelled to shut them down in moments of potentially inconvenient uprising, like Kashmir and Assam at home.
Could the #MeToo movement have happened without social media? The power of these platforms — in India and abroad — brought perpetrators to shame and led to action taken against everyone from movie stars to politicians. Other movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the recent Climate Marches, have also benefited greatly from social media. Internal social media tools have led to marches at tech companies such as Google.
Social media has also acted as a networker in times of crisis — two prominent examples being #ChennaiFloods and #KeralaFloods, where volunteers found help, word was spread, and funds were raised. There must have been hundreds of such movements around the world you and I have not even heard about.
And lest we forget, entire careers and industries have been formed thanks to social media. Social media companies and influencers — whatever you might think of them — have given thousands a source of formal employment. Many have used their social media voice to act as legit influencers, cementing their authority elsewhere (such as journalists and economists). Heck, how many people have found jobs, best friends and life partners on social media (I did. Won’t tell you which one, though).
There is no doubt that the 2020s will herald some unbelievable technology. But before platforms get to shiny new toys, they could do well to adult up and fix existing problems. No longer can they hide under their erstwhile veil of “we are only a platform, we can’t do anything about what our users say” – this passes legal muster, but not a moral one. Not in 2020. Social media needs to accept, humbly, the fact that it’s caused problems and help solve them. Doing so will actually build more trust among users.
Else it’ll be well into its 30s struggling to work off those parathas it once gorged on.
Deepak 'Chuck' Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and marketing guy who lives in Mumbai. He runs two podcasts (Simblified, The Origin Of Things) and a satire newsletter (The Third Slip). He used to work in advertising until his soul couldn't take it anymore, and now spends all his time annoying his cats, listening to prog-metal, cycling and writing bios of himself in third person. He has an irrational love for cold water and Tabasco.