Before we get carried away with unhinged disgust at mainstream social media, much less reconsider even the merit of its very existence, we should consider what life was like before all this technology came along. Spoiler: it was vastly worse. In terms of information distribution, we were in the hunter/gathering stage of civilization.
When the history of this epoch is written, it will be divided into the light and dark ages separated by the flip that occurred in the mid-1990s, just as these new technologies were being conceived. This was when the new world was born.
It was 1992, and I had just moved to a new office in a new town. Until then — it’s so hard to remember exactly when — we found out about the lives and views of others through books (hard to get published back in the day), television, radio, and newspapers. In other words, you had to be famous, to have connections, to reach people.
Otherwise, you had to rely on letters. And there were faxes, which themselves were wonderful, new, and exciting. I had to convince older friends of mine to get a home fax machine. When they did, it was the best thing ever. You lived for that curly paper to come rolling out of the fancy box plugged into the phone line. It was the newest and best thing, a way to instantly send letters and documents that had previously take many days to arrive.
A Future Born
All of this seems like the dark ages. But it wasn’t that long ago. We didn’t know what we were missing. It was just how things worked.
Email was already starting to make a splash, but it was mostly just person-to-person. It was like a non-physical letter with extra speedy delivery. We sent and received them with wild abandon. It was glorious. And surprising. When I first heard about email circa 1989, I couldn’t personally think of a use case for the technology. Modem connections, sending text in real time, seemed to work just fine. Again, we didn’t know what we were missing.
The first real experience I had with the development of group conversations was this thing called a listserv. It was a trademarked email technology made available to universities by a company called L-Soft International, Inc. It was designed for a select crowd, just like the internet once was. People would sign up to receive every email sent to a particular address, so that you could have actual conversations, more or less, among many people, even hundreds or thousands.
Think about the meaning of this innovation. It was the first time in the history of the world in which a group of people not connected by geography could engage in ongoing conversation, with every person granted the opportunity to read and participate in real time. The first time in history. We couldn’t have known how social media in the future would inspire so much networking, information sharing, life saving, and community building
I was on a listserv for Austrian economics, a school of thought that had been around since the 1880s. We knew who the big players were in the field. We knew some students by reputation. But now we could actually talk with each other, not at an event but from our own desks. A note would come in, and it was shocking and thrilling.
Hard to describe, but it was like Isaiah 29: “And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness.”
The sense of thrill was palpable — and exotic. It wasn’t seen as necessary yet. We didn’t yet know how to regard the communications. Can they be cited? Can they be forwarded? Is a person actually responsible for the things they write on them, even when in a temper? I can recall one established academic offering the view that the opinions expressed on the listserv should be regarded like cocktail conversation, interesting and provocative but not canonical. Everyone seemed to accept that.
Just the Beginning
Nor did we foresee what was next. Remember the web browser wasn’t release to the general public until 1995. We didn’t really have websites. When they came along, they too seemed interesting but hardly necessary. They were like billboards on the internet drive. I resisted getting a mouse or even a browser because my computer did everything it was supposed to do.
In time, the listserv became the basis of modern communication. It was all about putting together communities that could talk. The circles widened with each passing month and year. I had heard about this Facebook thing and wanted in. I signed up for a .edu address just so that I could be part of the action. By the time the university bureaucracy got one for me, access had already been rolled out to larger groups. (I had eschewed the previous versions of social communities.)
Community discussion became the norm thereafter. Facebook overcame every competitor: GeoCities, Classmates, Six Degrees, LiveJournal, Friendster, Myspace, and so on. We made new friends, formed new communities, and found out many things about the opinions of others that we didn’t want to know. We saw that there were limits to the formation of community. We learned about blocking. As the years went on, we saw that as glorious as this new technology could be, the dream of a social media utopia was elusive.
I think about the unexpected achievements that have come since those times. I could never have imagined that email would be displaced. But some entrepreneurs did a hard study of the information flow and saw that teams of workers could use a different platform designed just for their use. Slack became the new normal in companies, further enabling efficiency in communication within our work spaces. And then of course there is the entire vast universe of the app economy, which emerged organically out of the tremendous advance of smartphones. No one planned it this way. No one is finally in charge of it. It is fueled by user needs and supports vast wealth creation the world over.
The Facebook scandals of the last couple of years have flipped us again, and we wonder if we inadvertently fell in love with a beast. But when the big sites goes down, the entire world starts to panic. And now that the same company, and presumably the same servers, runs Instagram and Whatsapp, our communications are vulnerable to mass outages, not to mention sudden takedowns.
Here is likely the next challenge, to preserve what is glorious about communication technology without the centralization, trolls, surveillance, and censorship that vexes us every day. It’s a process. We’ll get ever closer to making it right.
As with all innovations, we went from deprived to entitled in a relatively short period of time. The age of not knowing became the age of knowing in a few short years, all thanks to astonishing innovations in service of making the world a better (but never perfect) place. Let no man claim that less information is better than more.