woman holding finger in front of her mouth - shhhhhhh
PHOTO: catherine

A company I helped found launched an online community back in the late '90s. We got substantial funding and at one stage had more than 50 people working on designing and promoting it.

We opened up lots of forums and discussion boards. What we learned very quickly was that without moderation, a great many discussions quickly became toxic. Keyboard bullies, racists, flock to the online world. Being anonymous can bring out the very worst in people.

At one end, people just love those pretty pictures of funny cats. Lots of people love pictures of dead cats too. Many come to the web to fuel up on hate. On the web you can drive slowly past one car crash after another. On the web, you can find your perfect echo chamber and reinforce yourself into a fit of anger and indignation.

There’s lots of money to be made in the dirt. Hate sells. The melting pot is all well and good, but if you want to get clicks have someone stirring the pot. On the internet, the scammers are always on the hunt for the weak, the gullible. The scammers just love Facebook and Google because, as one scammer put it: “They find the morons for me.”

Most advertising is a form of scam anyway. The original fake news. The web put fake news advertising on steroids. Those who live by advertising learn to love the advertiser. In traditional media they at least had a wall between editorial and commercial. With social media there is no wall because there is no editorial.

Our online community did not survive long. I sometimes wonder what sort of person I would have become had it been successful. Because it became clear pretty quickly that if you wanted to make lots of money in social media you did so by automating as much as possible and keeping the moderation and editing to a minimum.

Facebook and Google are free. You just pay with your freedom. The more they know about you, the more they know about your weaknesses, the more effective the advertising can be. And the more money the advertisers make, the more money Facebook and Google make. We’ve sold ourselves so cheap, thinking it was we who had got the great deal. I mean, what idiot can refuse free?

Content matters. Content is critical. Content can make lives and content can break lives. Content can make or break a society. What content most definitely is not is free. There’s always a cost and someone is always paying.

The social media tech bros knew they had struck a goldmine when they realized they could monetize content that others had created. Under the flag of freedom of speech, they withdrew the checks and balances brought by editors and grew super rich on the poison that flooded through. Now, they’re telling us AI will solve the problem. Will we realize before it’s too late that, increasingly, tech is more part of the problem than the solution?

The solution? Good people. Lots of them. Quality, professional content people using tech, not being used by tech. People making messy decisions, judging, listening, responding, learning from mistakes, iterating, refining, evolving, accountable. Life is imperfect. It’s a messy world. I’d prefer to be judged by another human than an AI, or that there be no judgment at all.