There is an old saying about the Internet that goes something like “The good thing about the Internet is that everyone is connected. The bad thing about the Internet is everyone is connected.” With so much criticism about social media today, we might easily assert something very similar “The good thing about social media is anyone can post anything. The bad thing about social media is anyone can post anything.”
Today, not coincidentally as tech stocks become the most valued stocks in the world, there is increased commentary about the need for silicon valley to grow up, and make tech a force for good. Classic and preeminent example is the many works of Kara Swisher, including her recent NYT pieces “Who Will Teach Silicon Valley to Be Ethical?” , “Introducing the Internet Bill of Rights” , and “I Thought the Web Would Stop Hate, Not Spread It“. Kara’s assertion that social media platforms are designed to spread awful faster than good could do with some expansion / explanation, especially given the old saying that pre-dated the Internet “Bad news travels faster than good”. Other than that, Kara’s central theme that Silicon Valley should do more itself, or the next “Blue Wave” will do it for it, is a reasonable, and perhaps even unavoidable, point of discussion.
As much as Kara criticizes social media platforms, and agrees that users are as much to blame for continuing to show up, she herself continues to use them, as do many of us. Disconnect? I’d prefer to frame it as seeing the inherent good value of these platforms, in addition to the bad, for good information dissemination, good online experiences, and worthy business goals. Kara said in a recent podcast with Elon Musk that she is “addicted” to Twitter.
I recently traveled through Myanmar and Vietnam. Myanmar is a controversial place to be. Putting off to another post whether I should have been there or not, there was some interesting anecdotes that crossed my path. A young lady in Vietnam who did not know what the word “Internet” meant, but she knew what Facebook is. A young man in Myanmar who said before the Internet came to his village in 2012, people in his village were unaware of protests in other cities of the country. The same young man told me that he uses Facebook as a search engine and it is his primary source of news, including engaging with people in other parts of the country who can tell him directly what is going on in those parts of the country. This young man does not watch BBC or Al-Jazeera, he does not trust them as news sources, compared to talking to someone on Facebook in another part of the country. The current credibility of established news channels, is a subject in and of itself.
It seems only yesterday that we were all marveling at the enabling power of social media platforms to give voices to public dissent in countries like Iran. It seems like only yesterday we were heralding in the age of the digital press that would do even more for humanity than the printing press revolution. And here we find ourselves, unaware of the simple ways the mobile Internet is impacting the rest of the world, and we are consumed in a bog of despair.
While the proximity to an election amplifies our feelings of national despair, and our feelings that the world is going to become unhinged if our team does not win, the truth is, and you only have to get on a plane to realize it, conditions in America are way better than many countries – we live privileged lives – not all of us, but many of us. I would say the same about the Internet and about Social Media. We are privileged to have broadband access to both. With that privilege may come responsibility and obligation to shape those networks and platforms, but nonetheless, we are privileged.
There are clearly things that have not got the attention they needed while Silicon Valley was busy making buckets of money. But that is not the entire story. Many people in tech simply love tech, and that is their major lens on life – how can we build the best tech. I would also be shocked if there is a place in the world where you can see a higher ratio of Tesla’s on the road – not just support for a local business, not just people pursuing a fashion statement, but many people who honestly believe they are making the world better, and specifically its future, by driving an electric car of one type of another. So to assert that Silicon Valley citizens are without social conscious, would be a mistake in my opinion, and perhaps the Google walkout puts an exclamation point on that.
To be clear, I would be very uncomfortable running a website where people were free to post any hateful speech they wanted. In fact, I am pretty sure I would not. I remember a few years ago I pulled down an article about Tesla because one of the respondents made some very personal and nasty attacks on Musk. I think that action represents my basic instincts as a person – not to give a platform to hateful personal attacks, and to get people focused on discussion of important ideas. But that is me, and while I am confident I could apply a consistent speech filter, we all know that determining good and bad speech is not an easy issue to grapple with, though I’d be shocked if in the coming years, with advances in AI/ML, it was not possible for us to elect preferences on what type of speech we want to be exposed to.
I do agree there is more social platforms can and should do. I also remain aware of the small and large ways we are privileged to live in the era of the Internet and social media, I assume we are all still using these platforms because they add value, and I remain optimistic about the role of technology to improve our lives. If you do not share the same optimism, I encourage you to go internationally or domestically and live with people who do not have access to technology. I am confident we are better off with tech, than without tech – something I have never been more confident of as a result of recent travel.
We are privileged. Let’s use that privilege in the best possible ways. To those that much is given…