A Modern Fable about Social Media with Meta as the Protagonist, 2040’s Ideas and Innovations Newsletter, Issue 80
Issue 80, Nov 3, 2022
Over the past 18 years, social media has become a way for organizations to market their products and services. It has also enabled society at large to remove physical borders to connect, express their thoughts and opinions, and share the events of their day-to-day lives. Social media offers efficiency and immediacy in a highly-connected world. Before the internet, connecting took time — whether in person, writing letters, telegrams or via the antiquated rotary phone. Today, a post, tweet or the like can be seen by many at the same time, removing the need to interact with each individual separately. A positive by-product of the efficiency of social media is the ability to engage with many when we are time-pressed and victims of overcommunication.
When social started, the shift was radical to many but was also quickly adopted and embraced like a shiny new toy — that quickly became addictive. Mass participation on one or many social platforms opened a Pandora’s Box of opportunity for advertisers and marketers wanting to be where their customers were, exploring new ways to raise awareness for their brands and products and feeling compelled to be perceived as current.
User data, more specifically, the data generated by users in what they like, how they comment, what emotions they convey, and what they share as well as what they ignore, became the source of revenue along with targeted advertising using the data. This practice allowed the platforms to remain free for users (an advertising-based model, not subscription-based). People always like free. Many didn’t question how the platform companies got their money to continue to operate. But you always get what you pay for, in this case, lack of privacy.
Historically, the internet and technology seem like the Wild Wild West where everything is possible. There also seem to be few limits, questions, or concerns as to how these tools may impact us. Innovation rules and we worship the tech gods as we forge ahead without questioning the costs of making lives better.
But the frontier is shutting down. Reality is setting in and we have a clearer realization of how data is used and collected. And how a business or bad actors can compromise individual privacy and security. We hear daily reports on the negative influence of misinformation and how the medium can encourage violence. There is a persistent trend of the mental and physical consequences of social media including anxiety, depression, cyber-bullying, and dangerous activities, especially those inspired by short-form Tik-Tok content. Even more dramatic, a new report from the American Educational Research Association (AERA) states “US schools and school districts have shared an estimated 4.9 million posts that include identifiable images of students on public Facebook pages, unintentionally putting student privacy at risk. Further, the researchers estimated that 4.9 million of those posts had identifiable images of students, and 726,000 of these identified students’ first and last names potentially giving access to a range of actors, including government agencies, predictive policing companies, and those with nefarious intent.”
Government is catching up. Policy, even regulation historically lag behind innovations. Elected leaders see the potential of innovation to create new jobs, additional tax revenue or even transform a regional- or country-based economy. Over the past 20 years we have operated under the philosophy to allow innovation to grow with limited regulatory or policy control.
Times change. When the darker side of the impacts and consequences of social came to light, public sentiment became expansive and louder for action to be taken. We are at a point in time when the US has been slow to react whereas other regions of the world are taking action, and setting policy and regulations to recognize that although innovation is wonderful, its impacts on society and day-to-day lives cannot go unchecked.
This is a fable, or more accurately a cautionary tale, about what has happened over the nearly past two decades with Meta as the protagonist.