Downsides to the global democratization and sharing of content

Beheading

I remember delivering a speech in 2008 during the early days of Twitter in which I mentioned to the audience that this platform may soon be the world’s largest sample of live human thought (good and evil) and also the world’s largest real-time conversation database. I heard a few chuckles. Back then Twitter was typically dismissed as some new time-wasting glorified chat where self-obsessed people shared what they were doing at any given moment (e.g. drinking coffee).  A typical reaction people had to Twitter was “who cares?”.

Save for the horrendous disservice that I think promoted tweets have done by contaminating raw data-sets with non-organic data (at least through re-tweets), I think my statement has materialized quite well over the years.

Where is Twitter at these days?

  • 284 million monthly active users –>This is people actually using the platform and creating content on a regular basis
  • 500 million Tweets are sent per day –>Typically driven by the 80/20 rule, where 20% contribute 80% of the content (a minuscule sub-segment of that 20% is media and celebrities)
  • 80% of Twitter active users are on mobile  –>This has led to content creation anywhere, anytime thanks to data networks and technological smartphone advancements (camera, gps, etc..)
  • 77% of accounts are outside the U.S. –>That’s right, this is a channel with representative global distribution. Asia (including middle-east) and Africa are key growth markets right now thanks to their high mobile penetration rates
  • Twitter supports 35+ languages –>For other languages, a quick right-click to “translate” pages does the trick to get a general sense of what is going on
  • Vine: More than 40 million users –> This short video posting service now owned by Twitter makes it easier for users with data limits to create and share video instantly
  • 3,600 employees in offices around the world of which 50% of employees are engineers –>I would be comfortable placing a solid bet that a large proportion of those engineers are essentially data analysts

So what?

When you combine rapidly rising world mobile usage and internet access with the ability for anyone, anywhere to post easily searchable rich media content (video, photos, text, audio) instantly without a filter (especially where there is poverty, war and civil strife) you get…reality.

There are a lot of evil acts going on in the world at any time. There always have been, this is nothing new. What is new however, is that now more than ever in the history of mankind, these evil acts can be instantly and globally public without the filter of traditional media or the past limitation of not having media resources on the ground to report them. Many have praised this kind of democratization of content online (i.e. social media), seeing it as an essential component of free speech. Well now we have it, and are we really better off?

While I spend a great deal of time talking about the positive aspects of the social/digital space, the other end of the spectrum is growing with incredible intensity these days.

Recent examples of content shared on Twitter…

  • The recent ISIS execution video of 15 hostages, for the first time with high-production value (including cinematography and a soundtrack)
  • A child soldier laughing while shooting civilians with a GoPro camera attached to his gun
  • A drug-lord taking a selfie with the head of one of his victims
  • Any bombing, anywhere, caught on camera, and of course the aftermath
  • Victims of chemical-attacks

Even with content moderation in place, good luck getting rid of the permanent digital footprint that these sort of posts create once they are initially shared. A simple search using free monitoring tools can easily pull them out.

Implications

These days I find myself thinking quite a bit about the permanent psychological implications that these posts will have on global society, especially one that is not yet fully “digital media literate”. Granted, many people around the world would argue that what is shocking content to many is what they have to actually live through on a daily basis, and that it’s about time the rest of the world caught up to reality. However , in defense of the viewers and sharers of content out there, I think this shift to “reality” has been far too sudden for the masses.

With Facebook launching video auto-play, it is now possible for someone on a mission to force scarring visual content into the mainstream global psyche. The key differentiation now is that it would be seen by people that aren’t actively looking for it. Organizations like ISIS know this quite well.

And what do you think is going to happen when one of the major pop-culture celebrities with a massive Twitter following happens to break down during a live chat and do something drastic such as commit suicide? When Kurt Cobain died in 1994, a small wave of copycat suicides ensued. This was before most people had heard of the internet. What would happen if a live celebrity suicide video was streamed  in a world where fans feel more connected to their idols than ever by reading their day-to-day thoughts, looking at their Instagram photos and watching their Vines on a daily basis? Sadly, it’s not a question of “if” but rather “when” something like this will happen. An entire generation is currently growing up with a “post first, think later” mindset. Throw in the content and data that is currently being created with the help of drones, modern satellite imagery, microscopic cameras, connected ‘smart” devices in homes, bodies, cars, etc… and it begs the question, will anything truly be “shocking” anymore? Even hyper-local surprises from mother nature are being captured and shared globally.

Closing Thoughts

My initial point here is reflected in the title of this post. There are major downsides to content democratization. We have no idea what the long-term effects will be on the human mind, however I think better digital/social media literacy would be a good starting point in preventing any potential negative effects.

A few things you can do:

  • Try not to immediately share, like/dislike or comment on a graphic post  that you see based on your emotional reaction. That is exactly what the posters want you to do.
  • Do some research. At the very least “google” the opposite side of the story or at least put “hoax” in the search terms to verify that it is even real (chances are very good that others have already done it for you).
  • Learn to put things into context, think critically, and always ask yourself “why would someone post that”?

Remember, good and evil are playing ball in the same online court these days. Be ready.

Cheers,

@mikekujawski

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