Right after Netscape launched, I had the privilege of having dinner with its first CEO, Jim Barksdale. This dinner was around 1995, when most of the world had not discovered the Internet yet. Netscape was the brainchild of Marc Andreessen and was based on software he created called Mosaic, which was the first browser for the Internet.
Netscape’s goal was to commercialize the Internet and introduce Internet 1.0, then as a read-only format. This begat Internet 2.0, which became a more interactive Internet that would allow reading and writing instead of read-only.
I remember that dinner with Mr. Barksdale vividly as it was the first time I got a glimpse of the future of interactive, cloud-centered computing. The PC had been mostly driven by local software up to that point. Except for online email transmissions, computing was mostly a localized experience.
Since then, the Internet has exploded and become the essential technology that drives our cloud-based computing world today. It has become a free-for-all medium for everything from eCommerce, social media, content creation, virtual protests, and nefarious things like cybercrime and new cyber threats that threaten us daily.
I recently saw an anonymous tweet, “The internet used to be an escape from reality. Now, reality is an escape from the internet”. This sentiment got me wondering if Mr. Andreessen and Mr. Barksdale had any clue about the negative impact the Internet could have on us when they created Netscape and unleashed a worldwide medium for good and evil.
Although the Internet has been a significant force for driving a new world of information distribution, eCommerce, job creation, and wealth, it has also birthed social media, affecting people’s wellbeing. It does this by allowing disinformation. Almost anything goes with opinions and seems to bring out emotions in some that impact how they feel when confronting offensive content information, statements that contradict science, and, in some cases, serious emotional distress.
This view was echoed recently when former president Barack Obama spoke at Stanford University and gave one of his strongest critiques of tech, which he said: “fostered discord and disinformation at the expense of democracy.” According to MSNBC, “he used his enormous influence to counsel the public to think proactively about tech not just as consumers, but also as citizens. He eloquently made the case against “fatalistic” despair about technology and encouraged people to think about how technology can be reshaped to serve, and not undermine, democracy.”
President Obama’s concern about citizens’ despair from interacting on social media struck a chord personally.
When Facebook and Twitter were first introduced, I jumped on these platforms and initially enjoyed them. However, around 2014, I noticed that both social media platforms turned darker. I began seeing hate speech, anti-science viewpoints, and more negative content released every day. During the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, it has forced Facebook and Twitter to add more people and tools to moderate content allowed on their sites to combat their sites’ negative impact on peoples’ lives.
In my case, this has caused me to alter how I use and consume social media to keep my mental psyche even-tempered. I can no longer trust Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites to moderate content for me, so I moderate my social media content myself.
Facebook is now mainly used to maintain my contact with family and friends. Therefore, I don’t subscribe to political sites and try to stay tuned to newsworthy content that states factually based news and researched and informed opinion.
While I still use Twitter for breaking news, I try to stay away from biased news sources and biased content as much as possible. As for YouTube and TikTok, I sway towards entertaining content and shopping information sites viewed during downtimes.
I share President Obama’s concern about tech companies’ impact on democracy and how people with biased viewpoints permeate so much of social media and cause genuine distress to some. However, I believe personal content moderation needs to become the primary way people manage their social media to avoid negative impacts on their lives.
I realize the Internet is not going away and will continue to be a medium for good and evil. However, while tech companies try to moderate and manage their content more proactively, it is becoming clear that more needs to be done. For example, suppose a person wants to, as President Obama suggests, stay away from the “fatalistic despair” caused by their use of tech and social media. In that case, self-moderation needs to be a big part of one’s tech-based content management.