We’ve created an online dystopia

Ten years ago things were looking very promising for the Internet. Steve Jobs announced the iPhone in January of 2007, ushering in the Mobile Web era. A slew of other major product launches happened that year: Android, Amazon’s Kindle, Tumblr, Facebook’s developer platform, Dropbox, 23andMe and more. Not to mention Twitter’s first tipping point, in March of 2007. It was an incredible year for innovation.

For a while it seemed like a utopia, especially when Facebook and Twitter hit their strides around 2009. Smartphones and social media gave each one of us a platform for online discourse and debate. We could now access the Web anywhere and anytime, through our phones, and contribute our two cents on social media. What could possibly go wrong?

Fast forward to 2017: a reality tv star is the President of the United States and Twitter is his megaphone, Facebook dominates the Web and controls what news we see, Tumblr is overrun with pornography, robots are set to take our jobs, teenagers are depressed because of their smartphones, and on it goes.

So much for our utopia. The tools that were released in 2007 have let us down after just a decade of use.

Or perhaps it’s a case of user error. Yes, smartphones and social media gave everyone a voice. But instead of talking with each other, we talk at each other. Instead of listening to others, we shout our opponents down. We get outraged every fifteen minutes. We insult and shame those people who don’t like what we like.

Just as television made us dumber, the Internet has made us close-minded. On social media, everything is black and white; there is no nuance.

In short, we’ve used the tools of 2007 to create a dystopia for ourselves.

Not George Orwell’s 1984 version of dystopia either. This isn’t about “the man” oppressing us, despite what your Facebook or Twitter feed tells you every day. No, this dystopia is the one envisioned by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. The cultural critic Neil Postman said it best: “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

Is it too late for technology to be an enabler of great conversations, as promised back in 2007? Of course not, but we do need to make changes to our tools – and how we use them.

The first thing we need is smarter filters. Wait a minute, I hear you say, aren’t filter bubbles one of the big issues? Yes, but the problem is how Facebook and Twitter do the filtering. They’re using the wrong signals. Social media algorithms use what we ‘like’ and who we follow to filter our news feeds. But as we’ve discovered, the result of that type of filtering is limited world views and biased news.

Social media algorithms need to work harder to dig up diverse and meaningful content. Instead of showing you more of what you’ve already liked, show alternative viewpoints. Instead of prioritizing content from celebrities and over-sharers, do more data analysis when deciding what to put at the top of your feed.

We have made some progress this year, for example the fight against “fake news.” But so much more could be done to improve the quality of content we’re exposed to on social media, using tools like machine learning and techniques like topic mapping.

Another way we can move out of the dystopian web is to implement rules for civil discourse. Stuff wisely decided to moderate comments on articles such as this one. In an ideal world, that shouldn’t be necessary. But it’s the only way to keep comments on topic and civil. When I first began blogging back in 2003, comments were a key part of that community. Since then, trolls have forced many sites to close down their comments sections.

Perhaps our biggest challenge is to find a way to stop the rampant egoism that social media like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat encourage. You can see the effects on the latest generation, those born between 1995 and 2012. They’re sometimes called “iGen,” because this is the first generation to be born into the Networked Age. The pressures of growing up in an era defined by likes and follows is unique to them. And it’s making kids depressed.

Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, claimed that social media levies “a psychic tax” on teens. They have a fear of being left out and crave affirmation in the form of likes. One young girl quoted in the story said about Instagram: “I’m nervous about what people think and are going to say. It sometimes bugs me when I don’t get a certain amount of likes on a picture.”

All of these issues – filter bubbles, uncivil behaviour, online egoism – contribute to the poor state of discourse in 2017.

With that said, I’m still a believer that technology can help solve these problems. We have the tools, we just need to use them better.