During the 1970s, when I joined Digital Equipment Corp. (AKA DEC), the company had already developed its own email network, and a system called DEC Notes. Though the DEC Notes system was conceived as an electronic bulletin board, the company’s creative employees began using it to form an extensive series of group hangouts, similar to today’s Facebook Groups. With a large diverse population, we could join or view dialogues on specific sports, teams, cooking, homemade beer, books, science fiction, technologies, medical issues, jokes, and a myriad of company issues.
As I became familiar with these technologies, I began to realize that they were more than tools. They created a new kind of organization that was unlike typical companies. In other companies, management level people hand-wrote memos which were then edited, proofed and typed by secretaries, and delivered by interoffice mail. This cumbersome process limited the amount of written discussions.
Email users at DEC, however, could communicate instantaneously, and could self-edit their messages. They could also send copies to large groups of employees. Email produced high volumes of electronic information sent rapidly throughout the company. It created a huge operational advantage, but there were also downsides to the email culture . People would say uncomfortable things in an email, that they would never have said face-to-face. This changed interpersonal relationships. Few people used off-color language, or attacked one another in email. However, political gloves were off, and many people came across as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
Despite some of the downsides, I fell in love with email, notes files, and a few other related DEC implementations. Along with many DEC enthusiasts, I dreamed of a future worldwide network on which any user anywhere could join the conversations. But like so many futuristic notions, our early technologies were the forerunners of something entirely different. Along with products from other companies, the capabilities we loved became part of Social Media. .
If we add Smartphones as an adjunct to social media, we can safely say that virtually everyone below age 50 uses some form of social media. Some people love it, while others curse it. But we all depend on it for certain parts of our lives.
Is social media good for the world, or is it hurting us? We hear opinions on both sides of the question.
Idealists point to the power social media gave to insurgent groups during the Arab Spring. Without social media, the Egyptian Army would have controlled small groups of dissidents, and Hosni Mubarak would have remained in power.
Political activists rely on social media to articulate their beliefs, support selected candidates, and attack other people in public life. Advertisers and charitable organizations value social media as a fast and relatively inexpensive method of reaching millions of people. Politicians love it, because it provides a method of promoting candidates and soliciting donations. News media members value social media as a source for quoting politicians, and learning about oddball stories.
The detractors of social media are equally vocal. They decry the culture of children who use the media to hurt others. They argue that social media platforms and devices have become the primary way that kids communicate with each other, and therefore retard development of social skills. The vast array of opposing opinions, often make it impossible to separate truth from fiction. This is especially problematic when trusted journalists from cable news and print media use online sources as verified news. Whether voters like or dislike the president, we know that social media has played a role in perpetuating a two-year investigation of a crime that was never committed. Journalists and politicians relying on social media sources were responsible for this major miscalculation.
Both proponents and opponents of social media need to understand it’s fundamental flaws. The first flaw is that it offers equal power to anyone, in any station of life, at any level of education, or belief set. A person of limited intelligence and suffering from mental disorder has the same potential authority as a scientist, a college professor, or a senior religious leader. This equalized platform is troublesome, because many people accept the last statement that they heard or read as being correct if it agrees with something they like.
Recently, politicians have articulated concerns about curbing the power of “big tech” which means Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. Ironically, these companies have supposedly pledged to somehow police social media posts to ensure that they don’t break certain (undefined) rules. The concept of having these companies as arbiters of social media correctness is unlikely to solve social media reliability.
My personal take on improving social media trustworthiness is to educate the public, beginning with kids in school. We need programs as ubiquitous and repetitious as advertising, teaching our citizens how to evaluate social media information, and how to become trusted sources themselves. Journalists must also play a major role, explaining how information is verified and ensuring readers that news is news, that opinion is opinion, and that the two are separated.