I spent an entire week in Siargao some months ago, before the pandemic became a big thing. And while it may as well be the closest thing I'll have for one this year, it wasn’t a vacation. Or at least, it wasn’t mostly fun and relaxation. I was invited as a facilitator in ColLaboratoire 2020. With pristine blue waters and colorful horizons as backdrop, I was assigned to work with a handful of fellows whose task was to cover the challenge of fixing social media. It was a peculiar theme, implying that social media as we know it today is somehow broken. But is it?
As the fellows went about their business coming up with some project proposal to enact this fix, I found myself weighing the question on my own. It occupied my mind that entire week. On one hand, social media has been the ground upon which some of the most egregious displays of bad behavior have prospered. It has provided a platform for malicious intent with a reach not thought possible a few decades ago. On the other hand, at its base, social media is essentially just a means to an end. It’s essentially the same argument as something like gun control. And I think it’s apt. After all, social media in recent years had been weaponized in the sense that it has been the venue with which people are being heavily influenced en masse. For example, while I cannot prove it, there is word that the Duterte campaign and subsequent administration employed a troll army to muddy the waters not just for the benefit of Duterte and his supporters, but just as importantly, the detriment of his opposition. The documentary, The Great Hack, thoroughly tells the story of how Cambridge Analytica clandestinely mined personal data from Facebook users and used it for the benefit of the Trump campaign in 2016 without the knowledge, let alone consent, of said users. And I don't want to start on how social media has become the main battlefield of an on-going Culture War. I'll save that for later.
Perhaps it would be prudent to figure out what being broken means in this context. To me, being broken means being shattered into multiple smaller pieces, to the point where a thing can no longer function as it was meant to. So, in that sense, is social media broken? I've tried coming up with a simple answer and failed. Asking other people's opinions yielded various answers. It occurred to me that people look at social media differently. Or perhaps more accurately, people focus on different aspects of social media when they talk about it. That means I had to deconstruct the question in order to come up with a clearer answer. I hope you can bear with me on this.
When I think of social media, I see three aspects to it.
- the concept of social media
- users and content
Social Media as a concept
When we see try to define social media, we immediately think Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Twitch, Discord, Tiktok and the like. But these are social media platforms (which we'll get into that later). What social media is at the conceptual level has often been taken for granted. Trying to come up with a definition without doing a Google search will require significantly more effort from most of us. Do a Google search and you'll still have to deal with several ways of defining it. The first article cited by Wikipedia wasted no time defining social media as something that employs mobile and web-based technologies to create highly interactive platforms via which individuals and communities share, co-create, discuss, and modify user-generated content (Kietzmann and Hermkens, 2011). It's ambiguous, making it possible for just about anything operating under the Web 2.0 paradigm qualify. The same goes for derivatives of this definition. But perhaps it's just as well, if it's important to hold on to a definition that can remain valid for a long time in the face of rapid technological obsolescence.
Now, let's assume that the above definition is generally accepted. I would argue that for social media, as a whole, is to be considered broken, it should no longer be able to function as stated. Is that the case? I don’t think so. Concepts can be flawed, but they'd never come even close to getting applied in real life if they were really broken.
The technology of social media
Again, the platforms are what people tend to think of first at the mention of the term social media. Platforms, like any other piece of technology, can and will break at some point. Also, platforms, like any other information system, are always subject to purposeful attempts to compromise system stability and data from the outside. We popularly identify it as hacking. I personally prefer to call them attacks.
Indeed, websites, including our favorite platforms deal with attacks on a regular basis. For example, while rare, we experience crashes in Facebook. I forget when exactly, but there was this one time late at night when it just stopped loading for a number of minutes. I actually froze with eyes on the monitor and fingers over the keyboard and mouse, not knowing what to do. Then I just laughed at myself a moment later, telling myself, you soft and whiny idiot... Just wait patiently and it'll be fine. True enough, Facebook went back online shortly thereafter. When I checked my newsfeed, lo and behold... a bunch of angry and frustrated posts greeted me. I could only smile and shake my head. Facebook has, of course, been subject to far serious incidents, such as the data breach back in 2018, which reportedly affected around 50 million users. On a different front, a huge scandal erupted in 2015 when Ashley Madison, an adultery site, was hacked and compromised the personal information of over 30 million users, much of which were leaked in public. The most recent high profile incident, as many of us know, is the Zoom fiasco. As an online teacher and student, Zoom had already been important to me early on, as it provides powerful videoconferencing capabilities through free or reasonably priced professional accounts. It didn't surprise me one bit when its user base ballooned in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. I won't get into the technical details in this blog. Suffice to say that accounts were compromised. Uninvited users were able to intrude into meetings (coined as Zoombombing). And at a time where distrust is at a high level, Zoom was forced to admit and apologize for its data being coursed through China, claiming it was a mistake committed in their scramble to cope with the surge of their platform's usage.
I can probably dig up many other cases, but I think the above are enough to prove the point that social media as a technology works as it should. However, it is and probably always will be vulnerable. I think that's an important distinction to be made. Any IT expert can tell you that such is the nature of any information system in existence. While you can build it as sturdily as you can, it will inevitably have problems at some point. The good news is that with competent people working on a soundly designed system, solutions are likely to be formulated with relative expediency.
Users and content of social media
Here's where it gets messy.
The Web 2.0 paradigm under which social media operates still works as it should, as evidenced by the plethora of platforms available to us. However, regardless of whether or not you believe the concept or any specific platform is technically, it is undeniable that there are any issues in social media that need to be dealt with. And yes, there are a LOT of them, some of which continue to have a huge impact in our lives as netizens.
This is where things get really messy, and as I thought about it more, I decided it would be a good idea for me to stop here for now and dedicate an entire blog for this part next time.
Please stay tuned!
Kietzmann, J., & Hermkens, K. (2011). "Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media". Business Horizons (Submitted manuscript). 54 (3): 241–251. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2011.01.005
Lord, N. (2017). A timeline of the Ashley Madison Hack. Retrieved from https://digitalguardian.com/blog/timeline-ashley-madison-hack
Morris, D. (2020). Zoom meetings keep getting hacked. Here’s how to prevent ‘Zoom bombing’ on your video chats. Retrieved from https://fortune.com/2020/04/02/zoom-bombing-what-is-meeting-hacked-how-to-prevent-vulnerability-is-zoom-safe-video-chats/
Neal, D. (2012). Social media for academics : A practical guide (Chandos information professional series). Oxford: Chandos Publishing.
Obar, J., & Wildman, S. (2015). Social media definition and the governance challenge: An introduction to the special issue. Telecommunications Policy, 39(9), 745-750.
Perez, S., & Whittaker, Z. (2018). Everything you need to know about Facebook’s data breach affecting 50M users. Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2018/09/28/everything-you-need-to-know-about-facebooks-data-breach-affecting-50m-users/
Wood, C. (2020). Zoom admits calls got 'mistakenly' routed through China. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/china-zoom-data-2020-4