Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Be Social

Origins

Most people nowadays generally remember AOL Instant Messenger and MySpace as their introduction to social media, while the newer generations probably got started on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, or another of the hundreds of social media applications. Most of these were developed relatively recently, and much of their userbase reflects that. However, the first social media ever was launched in 1960 with the PLATO system at the University of Illinois.

First

PLATO, short for Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations, was a computer-based learning system, that came along with:

Email, notes, interactive networked computer games, Instant Messaging, and more

Since then, much more complex and popular software and services have been made, but many owe their existence to the work done on the PLATO system.

Some of the most popular pieces of software ever made, including Lotus Notes and _Microsoft Flight Simulator_, share a direct lineage with the applications produced by students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and other nearby universities more than 40 years ago. Many more, such as Reddit, Twitter, and AOL, carry clear inspiration, whether their creators know it or not. And this platform generated some of the earliest examples of digital culture, including emoticons and interactive storytelling.

Clearly, this was an important first step for social media, but it was, quite literally, just the beginning.

The Golden Oldies

IRC

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was introduced in 1988, and very quickly became one of the most used text-based messaging networks, reaching a peak of around 1 million users in 2003. Since then, the IRC userbase has declined to some tens of thousands of users, mostly limited to open source projects or communities that have already existed on IRC for a long time.

IRC's abandonment by the community is a crying shame. People have exchanged an open standard for the ability to share cat GIFs and emoji reactions. People have, once again, disappointed me.

AIM, Yahoo! Messenger and MSN Messenger

AOL, originally known as America Online, is a name many people fondly remember as their introduction to the Internet, especially in the Western world. One of their most popular products was the AOL Internet Messenger, reaching up to 53 million users in 2006, almost 52% of the instant messenger market at the time.

Soon after AIM was released, web services provider Yahoo! released their very own Yahoo! Pager in 1998 which allowed users to communicate on their Yahoo! Chat chatroom. This was later renamed to Yahoo! Messenger in 1999.

In that same year, Microsoft released their MSN Messenger, which remained under the MSN brand until 2005, when it was renamed to Windows Live Messenger.

Windows Live Messenger was discontinued in 2014, and Yahoo! Messenger met the same fate a few years later, in 2018.

MySpace

Reaching a peak market share of more than 70% in 2008, just 5 years after its initial launch, MySpace was one of the largest social media sites of all time. It even surpassed Google Search and Yahoo! Mail and became the most visited site in the US. However, with the launch of Facebook and the subsequent burst of newer social media sites, MySpace was soon left behind, and slowly forgotten.

The Modern Age

The launch and popularisation of Facebook kicked off Web 2.0 and the modern age of social media. However, it was only the beginning. Soon, tens, if not hundreds, of social media platforms would start popping up, and while only a handful would last, it would be clear that social media is becoming the future. However, the future isn't necessarily bright.

Types of social media

There are different types of social media, and they serve many different purposes.

Social networking

Social networking is exactly what it sounds like, a type of social media meant for networking. Social networks are primarily meant to connect people together, people that may never have found one another otherwise. Most social media platforms fall under this category, such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, TikTok, etc.

Microblogging

Definition of _microblogging_ : blogging done with severe space or size constraints typically by posting frequent brief messages about personal activities

As is the name, microblogging is similar to blogging, where one may write about any number of topics, such as their personal life, a specific subject (like I'm doing right now), sharing news, etc. Companies can also use microblogs to write a short announcement post, or market their products. Some popular microblogging platforms are Twitter and Tumblr.

Social news aggregation and discussion forums

The most prominent social media in this category is Reddit, where users post content which is then discussed in a forum-style format. Reddit allows users to create and participate in subreddits, which are smaller, more specialised communities that tend to focus on a specific topic.

Other social news aggregation sites include Slashdot and Hacker News.

Image and video sharing

YouTube is the 2nd most visited site in the world, and one of the largest social media platforms, though not many think of it that way. It falls under the category of video-sharing platform, similar to other alternatives like Vimeo or PeerTube. There's also a subset of video sharing platforms where you have short-form content, such as TikTok and YouTube Shorts. It's basically to full video sharing platforms what microblogging is to blogging.

On the photo-sharing side of things, exist platforms like Instagram and Pixelfed, which are where people can post cute pictures of their cats for their friends and the rest of the world to see.

The Good

Social media definitely has its benefits, it connects people and forms communities of similarly-interested individuals, and greatly accelerates the transfer of information. It brings people together, whether it's a business using social media to connect with customers, or your grandma sharing photos of her food with her family on Facebook.

So today, as Facebook approaches 2 billion monthly users, its CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed a new mission statement, to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

Goverments

Social media is an invaluable tool for goverments to connect with their citizens. Many goverments use social media to establish trust and transparency by regularly engaging with the community.

The Department of Justice believes its use of social media improves goverment transparency, increases the availability of services and information, and allows it to share news more easily

Social media also allows the people to hold their leaders accountable. This was best demonstrated in Tunisia in the Arab Spring, where protestors used platforms like Facebook and YouTube to spread awareness of what was going on in the country.

Businesses

Businesses are probably the ones who benefit most from social media. Many businesses provide customer support on platforms like Twitter, promote their products on Instagram through advertisements or brand deals with influencers, and have user forums and communities on Reddit.

Science and research

Social media plays a big role in science. Research has shown that scientists use platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to share discoveries and further their professional life.

ResearchGate, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Academia.edu were the top five sites visited by scientists and engineers participating in a separate 2014 survey (https://go.nature.com/2Dk1L6v). Among these, Twitter has emerged as a key outlet.

Sure enough, famous scientists like theoretical physicist Brian Greene, or computer security professional Bruce Schneier both have Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Research projects like GrapheneOS, or institutions like CERN also have social media accounts where they share results from experiments and research to the public.

The Bad

Unfortunately, that seems to be where most of the benefit of social media ends.

Moderation vs Censorship

One of the main problems with social media is that when people are given a platform to express their thoughts to the world, not everyone has pleasant thoughts. However, it's not easy to moderate this behavior from users, since it can be, and often is, taken as censorship and silencing criticism. In fact, the line between censorship and moderation is not very clear.

These companies often face critical human rights dilemmas: aggressively combating what is viewed as harmful content risks silencing ‘protected speech’: speech that, under international law, should be permitted. Intervening with or removing content affects the rights to freedom of expression and privacy, and can easily lead to censorship.

You could go online and try to find definitions for censorship and moderation, and try to differentiate them that way, but that only complicates things further.

the action of preventing part or the whole of a book, film, work of art, document, or other kind of communication from being seen or made available to the public, because it is considered to be offensive or harmful, or because it contains information that someone wishes to keep secret the quality of doing something within reasonable limits

Using those definitions, a few problems are immediately visible:

  1. Who defines "reasonable limits", or even what "reasonable" is? If I were to run a social media platform, I could just say that anything to do with a certain political party is "unreasonable", and so should be removed from my platform. However, the person whose content got removed may argue otherwise, claiming that their content was completely reasonable and should never have been removed, and that I'm censoring them and their political viewpoint. Who's right in this case?

  2. Who defines what's "offensive and harmful"? Something that may offend you might be nothing more than a joke to me. Some people take constructive criticism in an offensive way, and others take offense constructively. As the concept of "offense" is subjective, is there really any way to solve this problem?

One of the main situations in which this problem arises is cancel culture. This is when the public stops supporting a public figure, company or other entity, and instead starts defaming them, usually on social media platforms.

Cancel culture has been around for a few years, and people have had different reactions to it. Some were against it:

People who do really good stuff have flaws [...] I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, that the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people and that's enough. Like if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn't do something right, or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself because: 'Man, did you see how woke I was? I called you out.' [...] That is not bringing about change. If all you're doing is casting stones, you are probably not going to get that far.

Others supported it:

1. Cancel culture allows marginalized people to seek accountability where the justice system fails. 2. Cancel culture gives a voice to disenfranchised or less powerful people. 3. Cancel culture is simply a new form of boycott, a cherished tactic in the civil rights movement, to bring about social change.

Cancel culture has been seen as censorship by those being cancelled, and as moderation by those cancelling. Which you see it as is up for you to decide, but I hope it's clear how much of an issue this can be.

Mental health

Time and time again, social media has been proven to be hazardous to the mental health of its users.

Companies like Facebook have research that shows the addictive nature of their social media platforms, and yet they do nothing to prevent it. This is because your attention is how these platforms make money in the first place. The longer you spend on their app, the more ads they can show you, and the more money they make. This is one of the main reasons for the algorithms that these social media employ to show you the content they believe will keep you online the longest.

So-called ‘social media addiction’ has been referred to by a wide variety of studies and experiments. It is thought that addiction to social media affects around 5% of young people, and was recently described as potentially more addictive than alcohol and cigarettes. Its ‘addictive’ nature owes to the degree of compulsivity with which it is used. The ‘urge’ to check one’s social media may be linked to both instant gratification (the need to experience fast, short term pleasure) and dopamine production (the chemical in the brain associated with reward and pleasure). The desire for a ‘hit’ of dopamine, coupled with a failure to gain instant gratification, may prompt users to perpetually refresh their social media feeds. There could be many reasons why social media has been linked with increased anxiety and depressive symptoms, negative body image, sleep problems and cyberbullying (Royal Society for Public Health, 2017), but increased social comparison is one of the most powerful. [...] Festinger argued people have a tendency to make downward social comparisons with those who are worse off or less skilled than them, and this can raise their self-esteem. Conversely, upward social comparisons can reduce self-esteem, and are more likely with social media. [...] Alfred Adler said “to be human is to have inferiority feelings” (Ansbacher and Ansbacher, 1964), and in the age of social media, this is potentially heightened and amplified. Social comparison in the real world usually involves the self and a few others, while the digital universe of social media presents almost limitless potential for people to compare themselves against others. [...] While social connection offers people many positive opportunities, the more connections, the more opportunities there are for social comparison. [...] Using marketing techniques for the digital self can mean carefully crafting an image and reputation. People often present their ideal selves on Facebook (Zhao et al, 2008) and the same could be assumed for other platforms. The problem is individuals experiencing social comparison can struggle to find anything other than upward comparisons to measure themselves against, so an average day is always compared with the ‘greatest hits’ of others (Box 2). The ‘My Unfiltered Life’ campaign by See Me Scotland argued the airbrushing and editing of real life could also contribute to mental health stigma, with people feeling under pressure to hide their day-to-day struggles with mental health (Love, 2016). [...] Steer et al (2014) found some people became depressed after spending time on Facebook, because comparing themselves with others made them feel bad. Instagram is reported to be the most harmful social media platform for young people’s mental health (Royal Society for Public Health, 2017) and has recently started hiding ‘like’ counts to try to reduce the pressure on users (BBC News, 2019)

There's not much I want to say about this topic, since I'm no expert, but the Nursing Times article I've quoted above is a great read for the effects of social media on mental health. It's been peer-reviewed and is written by professionals of the field. Mental health is a serious issue and I don't want my inexperience to cause me to get something wrong.

Privacy

The modern internet runs on advertisements, and that isn't any less true for social media. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube all have algorithmically delivered content that caters to each user's specific tastes. Have you ever been thinking about something and suddenly you see a ton of ads about it? That's because based on your interests, the algorithms driving these platforms can predict what kinds of things you'd be likely to click on, and serve you ads based on that.

This is also why they want to keep you on the platform, so that they can serve you even more ads and earn even more money. The advertising business is one of the main reasons you can even use these platforms for free, because ads earn the companies behind them far, far more than if they implemented a subscription model or paid access.

An excellent example of this is YouTube, who have both a free, ad-supported tier, as well as a subscription, YouTube Premium. According to YouTube, they reached around 50 million Premium subscribers in September 2021. Sound like a lot? Assuming the average price of YouTube Premium in the USA at $12 per month, that brings their revenue from Premium alone up to $7.2 billion. It sounds like a lot, but in that same year, YouTube made $28.84 billion from ads alone. This means they were earning an average of $79 million a day.

The way that these platforms are able to keep you online is because they know you really well. Facebook generates around 4 petabytes of user data every day, across its billions of users. Assuming they have around 3 billion users, this means, on average, Facebook gets 1.3 MB of data on each user every single day. While that may not sound like much, it starts to add up over time.

Everyone leaves a data trail behind on the internet. Every time someone creates a new social media account, they provide personal information that can include their name, birthdate, geographic location, and personal interests. In addition, companies collect data on user behaviors: when, where, and how users interact with their platform. All of this data is stored and leveraged by companies to better target advertising to their users. Sometimes, companies share users’ data with third-party entities, often without users’ knowledge or consent.

The main privacy issue with social media isn't just that they collect huge amounts of data, it's also that they do it without user consent. Well, technically they got your consent when you clicked "I have read and accept the terms and conditions", because they are fully aware that most people don't bother actually reading them. However, if you do read them, they clearly state what information they collect, from where, and what they do with it.

By user consent I mean that it is not made clear to the user what they're signing up for without reading the often long and complicated privacy policy and terms and conditions. It's far too tedious for most people to sit there and read a boring document about what a company does with their data, when all they want to do is watch cat videos, and so social media companies get away with a lot of things they wouldn't otherwise. These are known as dark patterns, and they are also the reason you always click "Accept all cookies" on every website you visit.

The collection and abuse of user data is a topic I covered in my Intro to Privacy, Security and Anonymity post.

What's in the #future?

As with anything in the tech world, the future of social media is uncertain. From Twitter rapidly losing users (at least temporarily), new social media platforms like BeReal, which tries to remove the "fakeness" that social media often brings with it, to the rise of Web3, decentralisation and federation, such as with the Fediverse.

There's a very good chance that we'll see a shift towards social media platforms that prioritise mental health and decentralisation, especially as there is more awareness about these issues. The Fediverse has been gaining popularity, especially with Mastodon, and BeReal has seen rapid growth over the last few years.

However, there is an equal chance that people will continue to stay on the platforms they're currently on. The network effect is a strong one, and tends to keep people wherever they are, despite how unsatisfied they may be with it. The greatest strength of social media, being able to connect with others, is the very thing that keeps people locked behind the bars of their chosen platform. This is one of the main reasons Facebook can have the lowest user satisfaction rating of any social media, and still have the most monthly active users in the world.

Conclusion

Social media has its benefits in today's world. It has never been easier to connect with family and friends around the world instantaneously. Goverments, scientists, political figures, etc., all use social media to get information out to the public quickly. However, it comes with its drawbacks, in the form of moderation and censorship, mental health issues and privacy violations.

Whether you choose to use social media is a decision I leave up to you. Personally, I don't have any personal social media accounts (except email and messaging apps, if you count those), and I don't intend to at any point in the near future. If you do choose to keep your account, make sure you're aware of what you've signed up for, and that you truly accept those terms and conditions.

Additional Sources

Timeline of social media - Wikipedia

Deceptive Design