Can We Have Social Media Back?

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    The socials

I met Brian at a Toronto tech meetup in 2011. I was hanging around the back of the room when he introduced himself, and we connected over a mutual fascination with all things social media. Brian shared his plan to import a concept from Britain, the social media café, an informal gathering over beverages to learn about these new media. Five months later, Social Media Cafe Toronto was born.

Fast forward to 2018: Social Media Cafe Toronto has been put to bed. What was exciting and cutting-edge in 2011 became a commodity by 2014. By 2018 it had become a threat to democracy, a super-saturated ad channel and kryptonite for our attention spans. How did it all go so wrong?

In 2011, social media was fascinating. It held out the promise of linking people in meaningful ways. The idea of building authentic online communities and connections was intoxicating, and we few, proud pioneers felt like we were on the cusp of some great societal change. It turns out we were, but for all the wrong reasons.

The beginning of the end

Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election, fake news, a dangerous level of distraction, fear-mongering and division… we didn’t see any of that coming when we were organizing meetups for social media dabblers and die-hards. How could we have?

The rate of change in social media is staggering. In 2011, nobody predicted Facebook would have a population greater than China, the U.S. and Western Europe combined. Back then, no one ever thought Twitter would become so clogged by robots that it needed to cull them by the tens of millions. The idea that people could form entire careers on social media by influencing others to buy clothes and shoes was absurd. But it all came true. And more. And worse.

That’s why I want social media back. Not the relentless advertising, bots spewing misinformation day and night, fake news inciting hatred and division, foreign governments trying to dismantle our own…. I want what we had without all the crap clogging up our little dream of something meaningful.

The Summer of Social Media Love

It was meaningful. I remember the excitement as we were building these communities, connecting with people, talking to them across countries, languages and interests. I remember the potential and the hope we had that these media could actually fundamentally change the world. For a while, it looked like they would. During the Arab and Persian springs, social media threatened to help upend entire countries. I sometimes thought this must have been what the hippies felt in ‘67 when they took over San Francisco and tried to establish a new order.

Maybe that’s too much meaning and melodrama to put on a bunch of electrons shuttling back and forth across phone and cable lines. Perhaps we were naïve to think these media were going to change the world in a way that all the hippies on earth couldn’t 50 years ago.

I still want to believe, and have that moment in time back, when the whole thing hadn’t become an exercise in crass commercialism, when we were sharing ideas and communicating. I don’t give a damn about the novelty or nostalgia, but I know we lost something – potential or real – once things started to fall apart, and money and agendas and corruption took over. We lost the chance to change the world and do something meaningful.

So I have just one question: can we have social media back?

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