In 2008, Ben Parr at tech super-site Mashable wrote about the 5 Ways Social Media Will Change Recorded History. His focus was primarily on how we will look back at social media after the fact and the lasting record it would leave behind. But there was certainly some prognosticating in his post as well.
He was right that everyone would know who you are and what you're doing on a daily basis, that analytics and trend analysis would become basically its own industry, that your past social media posts would serve as a guidebook for and a check on your current behavior, and that an ethical war would come about over who would control all that information.
He did swing and missed when he said we would use information to prevent making mistakes before they happen, obviously overestimating humans and their capacity to do dumb things. But, his thoughts were remarkably spot on.
Fortunately, we have the benefit of hindsight, and ten years later we can look back at the growth of social media and dissect some of the things we never saw coming with its rise.
The spread of propaganda.
Not everyone who uses social media has the benefit of history with online conversations. Some are older folks who never got online before Facebook. Others are kids who grew up with it and couldn't tell the difference between real and fake information. For those of us who grew up with a very raw version of the internet and witnessed the explosive growth first hand, we learned to cast a wary eye at anything or anyone that sounded out of step with reality.
It also came as no surprise to us that gullible people without the experience would fall for scams and schemes, and that there were plenty of unscrupulous people out there ready to exploit them. Sure enough, there were all the Nigerian prince scams and the catfishing. And the 2016 election took it to a new level of nefariousness. The only hope is that we do learn from these mistakes and begin to gain some foothold on reality, but we aren't hopeful.
That people would become celebrities just from social media.
Something else we probably should have seen coming is the rise of the social media celebrity. It makes sense. If rich kids and B-list (or C- or D-list) celebrities could turn their mediocrity into careers, there is no reason to think the same wouldn't be true of people on YouTube or Instagram or Twitter. From pundits to analysts to models and singers, social media has spun gold for people many of us have never heard of. Talent scouts now scour social media for talent and social media influencers — yes, that's a real thing.
Hell, if Journey could find a replacement for Steve Perry in the form of a Filipino cover band singer via YouTube, why shouldn't the next big star be found online?
The echo chamber it would create.
Perhaps only sociologists and psychologists could have warned us about the power of group think and confirmation bias to erode confidence in experts. But, who could have imagined that the collective power of thousands and thousands of people online could turn the tide against science in the climate change debate or cause anyone to believe the earth is flat or bring white nationalism back into prominence?
The power of people with similar beliefs was supposed to save us from such things, not reignite interest in them, but we need only look around at our politics and the media to see how conspiracy theory and hate speech has thrived online. It hasn't helped that social media has been slow to respond and the fires of these ideologies have been stoked by those who seek to gain power at the expense of people who believe them. Now the question is how do we respond?
How it would alter the news.
For anyone who didn't grow up prior to the internet, it's probably almost impossible to imagine the only news sources were traditional media outlets like TV, print and radio. Go back prior to the explosion of cable news networks and most people got their information via the daily paper or the evening television news. And, as a result, news was heavily curated with only the most important stories getting top billing with longer time and print space to explain the intricacies of them.
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The news cycle was, back then, 24 hours. Now, it's 24 seconds. Twitter has become a de facto news wire service blasting out the news on a minute-by-minute basis with nary a second of down time to process one story before another breaks. In order to cut through the din of noise, stories must be bigger and more outrageous. Nuance is largely lost and people tend to forget about important news items as quickly as they learned and tweeted about them.
That the President would use it as a platform.
In Parr's story, he said, "But when someone of the current teenage generation runs for President, what do you think will happen to every tweet or blog post they ever wrote?" My guess is he didn't think the first social media President would come so quickly, but Donald Trump, more than any politician ever, has leveraged the platform — Twitter in particular — to blast his message out without the filter of advisers or the context of the media. And all of his tweets, many of them completely contradictory to what he says today, are out there for all the world to see.
And somehow it doesn't seem to matter to those who support him and his ideologies. Right or wrong, good or bad, President Trump has changed the way people in power create policy and reach their constituents. No one could have possibly imagined a world where the ruler of the most powerful country on earth would post some of the outlandish things he has, yet it happens on an almost daily basis. As Gene Hackman said in the movie Enemy of the State, "It's a brave new world. At least it better be."