I have a personal story to share about the rise of social media. Although I have not worked directly in the field for over two decades, I was there close to the inception, and have been a steady - although increasingly hesitant - user ever since. But from that online "bulletin board" era of over 20 years ago, about which many stories are yet to be told, some important lessons can be gleaned about our social media present.
In 1996, I left my attorney position in Microsoft's legal department, where I supported the business, to become Director of Business Development for MSN (I no longer work at the company). In typically clumsy marketing fashion for Microsoft, MSN was the TLA (three letter acronym) name - "MS" being how people inside the company often identified it - of the online network that it started a year or two before to compete with AOL (America Online) and Prodigy. Like those platforms, the initial iteration of MSN was based on proprietary technology, as opposed to the open protocols of the Internet which, at the time, were accessible through only a few browsers - Netscape and the equally new "IE" - and led to maybe a few hundred thousand primitive (by today's standards) sites. Since most consumers were dialing into proprietary services back then, that is what Microsoft decided to build to compete, but it didn't work very well. The company had immature server and database technology at the time, and scaling up a service that would support millions of simultaneous connections proved next to impossible. Recognizing (as noted by the title of Bill Gates's famous internal memo) that an "Internet tidal wave" was coming, led by increasing usage of the World Wide Web, the decision was made to switch gears and reinvent MSN from the ground up, using "the Web."
As I started my new position, the VP in charge of MSN made plain what my immediate and most pressing priority must be: figure out what to do with the hundreds of "member forums" that had been created on MSN's proprietary version, which were intended to build "community engagement." Here again, as in so many things, Microsoft attempted to be a "fast follower" of the more popular online networks, devoting considerable resources to making the service "interactive" through message boards and group chat rooms. But the project was deeply troubled. How would the MSN community team decide which forums to offer, and what should the agreements with the necessary "forum managers" say? These were people from far flung places with widely varying resources, technology skills and levels of passion. Would they understand their rights and obligations? And what rights, anyway, should they have, and how would we oversee them to make sure they were meeting their obligation to monitor their forum's posts and messages and keep them "vibrant"? The result was a mess. By design, Microsoft was not a company set up to manage business relationships with thousands of private citizens. Those people were always customers, not "partners." And yet here they were, demanding the attention of our deliberately "lean staffs."
Meanwhile, as the team began to realize that thousands of real businesses - as opposed to wannabe forum managers - had started building their online presences on the Web, MSN management could not help but notice a question it could not answer: what good was MSN to such companies? The obviously better play had become clear: facilitate business adoption of Microsoft technologies that "extended" emerging Internet standards. Let the millions of consumers who wanted to use an online service pay for a "premium" offering that MSN would "curate" (and even fund) for them, while offering a handful of key technologies - email being foremost among them - that they would otherwise work better than on the proprietary platform. Hence, Microsoft purchased "Hotmail" - an email startup - and started its laser focus on how to get companies - media and other "consumer-facing" companies in particular - to produce "premium content" for MSN branded channels. Think of Star Trek for the entertainment channel or Disney for the family channel. Yes, I worked on that deal - but those companies were much tougher negotiators than forum managers. Anyway, the idea that people would "turn on" their computers and watch, as opposed to doing so on their TVs, did not, as it turned out, "have legs." But that, as the saying goes, is a "whole 'nother story."
Anyway, as the vast majority of the MSN team headed in a very different direction, my most urgent assignment remained how best to deal with the "legacy" of the prior business model - the MSN "forums." Toward that end, I set about coming up with a detailed plan: let the forum managers leave MSN and spin up the same thing with "standards-based tools" on the open Internet, using someone else's infrastructure (highly preferred) or give them a convoluted way to "migrate" to the new MSN (not so subtly discouraged). Toward that end, my team started to communicate to this audience, carefully describing the steps they would eventually be asked to take to account for MSN's critical shift in strategy and direction. After a series of emails and printed mailings (yes, we even did those back then), we topped it off with a two-day conference in Seattle, so that our forum manager friends could ask any questions they wanted of us, and have them answered in real time. The larger purpose served was to assure them that Microsoft still had their best interests at heart, so that we minimized a bad publicity backlash we were all expecting.
The conference, unsurprisingly, did not go smoothly. There were many unhappy souls in the audience who had invested significant amounts of their time and savings in their forums. Only the year before, they had been very excited by the prospect of being "business partners" with such an important technology company as Microsoft. Letting them down gently that MSN's forum era would prove to be short lived was never going to be an easy task. But what I found just as interesting were the reactions of my MSN colleagues who were exposed to the frustrations of people my team had been dealing with for some time. They were shocked by how unsophisticated these conference attendees were. How could MSN's prior management have thought a Microsoft business could efficiently sign contracts with thousands of small time companies or private individuals, and have it "scale"? This challenge relates to one of the crucial by-products of the social media revolution as it has manifested itself in recent years: the introduction of media that goes beyond what we once called "one-to-one" or "one-to-many," to "many-to-one." I will return to the long term implications of that momentarily. But the other aspect of the MSN team's reaction to dealing with the forum manager exodus was more immediately telling.
They simply had no idea that people could get so excited about about their itsy-bitsy online forums, catering to dozens or at most a few hundred people, covering such diverse but relatively narrow topics as Kentucky horse farms, collecting Beanie Babies or thousands of other personal passions. Did they really think it was a good idea for Microsoft to be their "go-to" business partner? Apparently so. But no one on the side of the MSN team (including me) grasped how this urge might eventually translate into the digital Trojan Horse they gradually engulfed global society. If we had been shrewder, Microsoft might have taken far better advantage of the opportunities seized by dozens of other businesses that emerged over the years that followed: the monetization of search engines (like Google, which perfected but did not invent it), the rise of online video (like YouTube, acquired by Google), the creation of digital versions of "offline" tools (like Mapquest, for maps), the appeal of shopping through ecommerce from home (like Amazon, for books and then everything else), or ultimately the gathering and harvesting of granular level advertising data for mass market purposes (like Facebook, which came back to the root of the online urge that these forum managers knew needed scratching - forums). Instead, apart from its ongoing foray into video games (namely, Xbox, which competes with Sony, a business it could see in front of it), Microsoft's "emerging media" businesses largely struck out. Today, it is quintessentially an enterprise software company, focusing on desktop software and cloud (but not really online service) offerings for small-to-medium-to-large-to-massive businesses.
But let's return, for purposes of understanding the upshot of this bygone era, to that other surprising takeaway: how we were so surprised to see people so up in arms about taking away their online platform for expressing their passions about narrow, everyday interests. We can now see, 20 years of online experience later, from the hopes and aspirations of these unhappy MSN forum managers, a critical fact about social media: it was the missing piece of the puzzle for culminating what we described as our consumers' "digital lifestyles." It provides the critical third element of a trifecta of value for digital reach, beyond "one-to-many" business models (ecommerce, search, corporate messaging) and "one-to-one" utilities (email, text messaging, digital telephony) that people would pay for. It offers the user an ever widening array of "many-to-one" interactions. The question then was, "how could you monetize that?" The answer today is, "never mind that - the real question is, how can you weaponize it?"
Think about it. When you use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest or any of a dozen or two other well-established social media channels, you end up "following" (or getting targeted by) specific individual users, user groups, news media outlets, commercial companies, non-profits, governments or other types of accounts. You thereby subject yourself to a model of "many-to-one" interactions. You, the one, get to 👍🏿your "many" friends on Facebook, or "many" public figures or otherwise opinionated people you ❤️ on Twitter, or ooh and ahh over the many cool, artsy, or trend-setting types on Instagram, or copy to your own Pinterest board the stuff you see posted by many other obsessive hobbyist types. It's like drinking from a firehose. But the question becomes, what exactly is in this firehose? And that is where, as it turns out, we find a pivotal truth about the reality of social media: despite their claims to the contrary, and their supposed good faith efforts to monitor and enforce good behavior online, the guardians of the social media universe - Google, Facebook, Tumblr, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube - don't really have a clue. Nor do they really want to.
The reason is simple: the companies behind these platforms still care primarily, instinctively, about monetization, and the money is big enough to keep them investing and expanding their businesses to make more money, in any number of a thousand different ways. The cost of managing what passes through their systems, however, is on the expense side of the ledger. It doesn't generate profit, like targeted advertising, or handling users' money, or selling them stuff, or providing any number of valuable services and freebies to active users, to keep them cranking out unpaid "content." But a lot of the people taking advantage of these platforms, and thereby willing to pay the going rate to promote a (potentially fake) news post, do so not because they expect to see a financial return on their investment but because, in doing so, they want to see some turn toward or away from some narrow goal or interest in the public's mindset. They want millions of people to think in a certain way ("those people are trying to steal our guns"), or vote - or not vote - in a certain way ("Hillary's missing emails prove we need to lock her up"), or doubt in a certain way ("the mainstream media is all fake news, isn't it?") or attack others in a certain way (too many possible mentions there so imagined quote unnecessary). They want, in essence, to weaponize information, not to monetize it.
We have seen this trend become ever more brazen in recent years, where the technical many-to-one equivalent of a "distributed denial of service" is openly admitted by some of its social media purveyors. A recent example is a news story lately showing how far right wing fringe groups have talked up Tulsi Gabbard and sent her campaign a buck to make sure she has a place on the Democratic party's national debate stage, even though she is hard to recognize as a "Democratic" candidate, or as having a snowball's chance in Hell of getting enough votes to sway an election. Or maybe, just maybe, she does - and she will. And that's the whole point of retweeting her and bashing the people who point out the obvious that her views are largely indistinguishable from those of neo-fascists.
So, where does this leave us? I can only say where it leaves me, which is with a profound sense of unease. The powers unleashed by social media have created a sort of "digital lifestyle" Hell, where there are so many snowballs that maybe Hell is no longer burning bright red, but rather snowing in a beautiful way. How can we know for sure? How can we trust the sources our friends recommend or share, or the news media sources they take their "facts" from, or the various and sundry other sources of information pushed by the social media honchos into our feeds, whether what they posted - words, photos, video - has been faithfully and accurately vetted? How do we even assess whether something that looks entirely real is instead a "deep fake" that sure tells a horrible story, but maybe we shouldn't worry because it was just invented by "somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds"? Or maybe we should worry because even though it's not true, we should be alarmed that millions of us are seeing content created by just such a person, or thing?
I don't have any words of wisdom to close with here, other than, perhaps, we in the civilized world - and that includes the vast majority of us, at least to the extent we like to assess what's happening inside our own minds, even if our societies are struggling to define their concept of civilization - must take new precautions. We may not all equally appreciate the history of how we got here, but we all better jump up the learning curve on what the implications are. We must be mindful that social media is a two edged sword. It can destroy just as easily as it can enlighten. It can be a hugely entertaining and a vital source of information, but it can also be powerfully alienating, and a nefarious source of disinformation. The best advice might be, at this stage, simply this: instead of, when shopping, we recall the sound advice of "buyer beware," in our everyday instincts, when browsing online, we should keep in the back or even front of our thoughts, "social media user, beware."