Start with hippie good intentions. A generation embracing new technology as a tool to transform the world for good.
- Can Duruk: You were going to Facebook not to work but to make the world more open and connected.
Mix in capitalism on steroids. To save the world, you first need to take it over. Turns out the scale and power was also good for making money.
After the stock market crash, Wall Street came looking West. FB had become a social-media success.
- Garcia Martinez: It wasn’t just the hippies showing up anymore. There was a lot more of the libertarian, screw-the-government ethos, that whole idea of move-fast-break-things-and-damn-the-consequences that still flies under the marketing shell of ‘making the world a better place’
To avoid charging consumers for the internet they turned to digital ads. They needed a large audience and personal data.
- Rich Kyanka: They wanted more people on their platforms. They didn’t care if the people were good. They just wanted more bodies with different IP addresses loading up ads.
Everything was designed to be really
- Jaron Lanier: Anger is the emotion most effective at driving ‘engagement’ - which also makes it, in a market for attention, the most profitable one.
None of the companies lied about how their money was made. But as users became deeply surveilled, the leading digital platforms became wildly popular.
No one from the Valley was held accountable. Why bring such a wealthy, dynamic sector to heel? Algorithms have no moral agency, they said.
Even as social networks became dangerous and toxic, user security and protection from abuse took a backseat to growth and engagement.
The more features they added, the more data users willingly, if unwittingly, released to them. Concerns were drowned by the oohs and aahs of consumers, investors and journalists.
Come 2016. Twitter was Trump’s megaphone. Google helped pro-Trump forces target users most susceptible to crass Islamophobia. Reddit & 4chan were breeding grounds for the alt-right. Facebook was the weapon of choice for Russian trolls and Cambridge Analytica.
Employees are starting to revolt. There’s less of a moral positive now - you go to Facebook to write some code and then you go home.
To fix it, we’ll need a new business model. Maybe something radical like charging users for goods and services. And some tough regulation. Maybe nothing will change - the incumbents are too rich, powerful and addictive.