In defense of social technologies

Many of us who promoted social media when it was young are now wondering if we made a mistake. For example, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya has said “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.” So I decided to take a look back at what has worked and what hasn’t.

In 2008 Charlene Li and I published Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social TechnologiesOne of the defining features of that book what that it took a broad view of what the term “social technologies” encompassed. We defined the groundswell as:

A social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations.

In Chapter 2, we listed some of those technologies. Which of those have proven to be forces for good, and which for evil? In each case below, I ask, and you should ask yourself, would be better off without this?

Self-created media: blogs, user-generated content, and podcasts

Blogs are a good thing. Anyone hoping to get the word out about their opinion can, with no limitations — it’s hard to remember, but before blogs, this wasn’t really possible. If your opinion is interesting enough to enough people, Google will make it easy to find. Blogs gave us Mashable, fivethirtyeight.com, Politico, Huffington Post, Gizmodo, and thousands of other essential sites.

The ease of video production has created a similarly beneficial explosion in content. Anyone who’s ever had to oil a bicycle chain, access a file in Python, or hang drapes is grateful for all the how-to video content.

As we were writing Groundswell, I told Charlene that podcasts didn’t belong — they weren’t social enough. Of course, I was wrong and she was right (in case you are wondering, Charlene is always right). Podcasts are exploding now that production tools are easily available and the podcasts themselves are easy to find and consume.

Let’s be fair. The advent of self-created media has generated a mountain of crap — worthless musings, conspiracy theories, memes, and lies. It has also created a world where those who tell the useful and insightful truth can get the word out to anyone, unmediated. On balance, we are better off with these tools for creating and consuming user-generated content. Could you imagine going back?

Wikis, open source, and forums

Collaborative content creation is a fundamental part of the groundswell.

Wikipedia is an amazing resource. I cannot imagine living without it. When it comes to making useful information available, it’s a powerful force.

There are lots of other wikis, including InvestopediaWikiHow, fan sites like Star Trek’s Memory Alpha, and countless wikis within corporations.

The other source of collaborative creation, the open-source movement, has been fundamental to the growth of technology. Projects like Linux, Apache, Hadoop, and Github have revolutionized the way code moves forward.

Sites like Quora and Stack Exchange now make it possible to get a community of experts to answer any question. Online discussion forums deliver a similar benefit. If you need an answer to a tax question, the Turbo Tax forum will supply it.

Collaborative content is here to stay. It is the truest example of how people empowered by social technology help each other. I don’t want to live in a world without Wikipedia, Linux, and Quora.

Ratings and reviews

This is the easiest case of all to make.

Would you buy a refrigerator without checking the ratings and reviews? How else could you pick a hotel in Singapore? Would eBay, Amazon, AirBnB or Lyft even exist without user ratings?

Online commerce thrives because of ratings and reviews. We depend on them.

Tags, RSS, and widgets

RSS is less popular than it was, sadly, but remains an important element of the plumbing of social media. And widgets are long-forgotten.

Charlene and I had the foresight to recognize that tags were an essential way to organize content. If you can find what you’re looking for in the great morass of social media, tags probably helped.

We did not foresee hashtags. Hashtags are now central to popular movements like #MeToo. On balance, these are good — they can elide the details and generate a rush to judgment, but they also bring important topic to the fore.

Social networking sites

Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are what we all think of as “social media,” but they are only one element. So let’s answer the question: are social networking sites good or evil?

LinkedIn has created an essential resource: the ability to instantly see anyone’s complete resume. It’s become essential.

Twitter enables the prominent to quickly communicate with the rest of us. It also enables the small and unknown to become instantly popular, like this guy. You can blame Twitter for Donald Trump if you wish, but I’d rather know what a president is thinking. Twitter is also full of trolls; this is a problem.

Instagram does for pictures what Twitter does for text. By making it easy to share, it connect people.

But what about Facebook?

Sure, we all love to see our friends’ baby pictures. But is Facebook’s addictive quality destroying our ability to think?

Facebook spreads both real news and fake news. This is a problem.

I find Facebook’s groups extremely valuable for professional networking and information.

Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are problematic. Would we be better off without them? That’s arguable. For them to be forces for good and not evil, they need to improve.

Looking back on social technologies, what works and what doesn’t?

Naturally, all these technologies are interconnected and bleed into one another. But I do see a pattern.

Useful technologies like collaborative content, ratings, reviews, and question-and-answer forums tend to be far more good than evil. In these environments, balance creates success. This makes people a lot more likely to be helpful than hateful. They are, and should be, an essential part of our experience. Notice also that since these technologies don’t make that much money themselves — because they tend to help other companies and people succeed — they don’t create centralized sources of power.

Technologies that thrive on viral traffic are where the problems are. Facebook succeeds based on how much time you spend there. They need it to be addictive; they need things to spread. Balance is not the objective, nor is being useful. Traffic is the objective. Traffic leads to ad viewing and revenue. This inevitably leads to corruption and distortion, because attractive lies spread quickly.

It’s also notable that these problematic social media sites are subject to central control by two main companies: Facebook and Twitter. The rest of social technology is, by contrast, decentralized.

Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s recent pronouncements, the problems with social networking sites are going to be very hard solve. Does Facebook really want to stop the spread of lies, slow down its own traffic, and throttle its revenue? Does Twitter?

Even so, let’s not trash all the social technologies for the sins of two companies. The groundswell has transformed our experience for good. Now we need to fix the parts that are a problem.

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