The last decade has had plenty of landmark moments — but one big change crept up on us slowly: our experiences in the liminal space of social media. Somewhere between Silicon Valley and our vibrating pockets, between our closest friends and some faceless trolls, our privacy, politics, economy and above all our attention were reshaped by Facebook and its outriders.
Social media existed before 2010, but not as we now know it. Few of us had smartphones in 2009. Facebook’s active user base has grown sevenfold over the past 10 years, and there simply aren’t enough people for that to happen again. Instagram and WhatsApp were both launched about a decade ago, and swiftly absorbed into the mother of all social networks. As for Twitter, let me simply note that Donald Trump only started tweeting in earnest in 2011.
What effect has all this had? It’s plausible to argue that social media enabled major events such as the Arab spring and the election of Mr Trump, although of course there is never a single explanation for such things. There have been some telling little moments, however — such as when the UK Conservative party press office took the low-rent Orwellian step of posing as an independent fact-checking organisation on Twitter. (No doubt they would describe that incident differently, while adding that Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.)
I should not exaggerate. This isn’t 1984. Partisan news sources were popular long before we self-selected into online echo chambers. Propaganda is not new. And there are benefits from social media: it gives a platform to all sorts of people who deserve to be heard. But it is hard to make the case that social media has led to a more thoughtful, rigorous or compassionate discourse about politics. Amid the bullying, the misogyny, and the endless outrage, it’s hard to tell the bots and the people apart, largely because so many humans have lowered themselves to the level of the bots.
What about the economics? Network effects mean that social media platforms tend to spiral towards monopoly. You want to be where your friends are. It might be hard for a new search engine to displace Google, but if I am tempted by an alternative, I don’t need to persuade my friends and family to move too.
An obvious antitrust measure would be to force Facebook to divest WhatsApp and Instagram, two services that could and should be its competitors. A more radical approach is to require social networks to improve their interoperability and data portability — effectively allowing other services to piggyback, or users to flit among services. If I switch email providers or phone companies I can bring my phone number and contact database with me, or automatically forward messages sent to my old email address. It’s possible to imagine social media working more like that in future, although it would require substantial effort both technologically and legislatively.
Yet none of this solves perhaps the most basic problem. Ten years ago all we had to worry about was email overload. Now we carry around powerful and highly distracting devices. They observe our behaviour, buzz insistently to get attention, and leverage our desire to fit in, communicate and reciprocate. We did not consciously sign up for this, and each of us needs to think carefully about what we really want from social media.
Last Christmas I vowed to spend less time on my smartphone. It worked — until a couple of months ago, when I started using Twitter much more. Why? I had something to sell. That seems wretchedly appropriate. Still, another decade is starting. I cannot break Facebook up by myself, but I can plan to do something more constructive with the time and energy I often spend on social media. I hope I am not the only one.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 27 December 2019.