It’s not hard to find predictions about the long term impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on the ways we work and live. History has a way of making fools of even the most intelligent prognosticators, so I tend to be skeptical of those who speak too confidently about what this means for the future.
Having said that, it does seem to me that one of the potential long term benefits of this horrible experience is a change in how we view and use social media.
It feels like a lifetime ago now, but prior to the pandemic much of the talk within the industry and our culture at large about social media centered on data privacy, election manipulation and the pervasive coarseness and cruelty infecting these platforms.
What a difference a few weeks make. As the vast majority of us are now confined to our homes, we rely on social media and big technology more than ever to work, stay connected and comfort one another. That’s not to say bad actors have been eliminated from the scene, but I think this crisis has reminded us of the tremendous optimism and joy many of us experienced when these platforms were launched, before things went so wrong.
It’s clear that, for better or for worse, these platforms have become utilities, like running water and electricity, and therefore are “must have” services in a time of crisis. So if that’s the case, what can each of us do to ensure the positive use of social media continues when life returns to normal?
I think it boils down to one word: accountability. All of us need to take greater accountability for how these platforms are operated and used.
For the tech companies, this means it’s time to move beyond the “we break shit” mentality. That may have captivated the media and investors, but the reality is breaking things is for children. Creative destruction and aggressive competition are healthy and essential parts of our economic system. But not if accompanied with a ruthless, callous disregard for the potential negative consequences for one’s actions.
Data privacy, rooting out bad actors, protecting our political process and arming parents with safeguards and tools to properly introduce and monitor social media use for their kids are among the ways big tech can and must be more accountable.
If history is any guide, we know that a society’s ability to recover from a crisis is directly related to the ability of its institutions to rise above their own parochial concerns to address the greater good. Thankfully such a transformation already was underway prior to the crisis. In the past week Google and Facebook have made encouraging moves to use their resources to help local news outlets. We need more such acts, quickly. A return to the status quo post pandemic can’t be permitted among decision makers at these companies.
It’s easy and tempting to point fingers at billionaire entrepreneurs and massive, global companies but as individuals we must take more accountability as well. Before blaming smart phone manufacturers for the lack of parental controls, we need to ask ourselves as parents why our 3rd grader even has one.
Also, there’s no reason to accept or tolerate lower standards for online behavior than we ever would tolerate in person. If someone acts like a jerk at your party, kid’s soccer game or in a local restaurant, we take action. The same needs to happen consistently online.
Monitoring our usage of these platforms also is important. We don’t leave the lights on or shower running all day, similarly we need to be more disciplined with how often we use our social media utilities.
Similar to the positive developments within the operators of social media networks, this crisis has brought out the best in individuals. There are countless examples of how people already have begun to rethink their usage of these platforms to make them better for all of us.
This is by no means an exhaustive list as it is an incredibly complex issue that I’ve skimmed over briefly. There are profound implications to how governments globally have utilized social media platforms since the virus, but that is not the focus of this blog. The bottom line is creating a better future for social media will not come from predictions, but from each of us resolving to carry forward the lessons from this crisis once it passes.