Ten years ago this month I published a book on social media called Monkeys with Typewriters. It was all about how brilliant the world was going to be once people had the chance to connect. Better communication would lead to an improved, more empathetic society. We would share more ideas, be more innovative, more collaborative.

At the book launch, we talked about whether or not social tools should be allowed at work. We discussed how super-injunctions could no longer stop stories (Carter Ruck had tried and failed to cover up a damaging report on Trafigura) and if social media was simply a “time waster”.

Those were still the hacylon days of tweetups and Barack Obama, the days that gave birth to terms like digital nomads and social business. Everything still felt fresh and experimental, even blogging (just because you can directly post a photo to your blog, doesn’t mean you should).

But, by the end of this decade, it’s clear we took a bad turn somewhere. We’ve ended up with the wrong social media. A sort of Brexit-y, Boaty McBoatface social media that’s come, I guess, from asking the wrong questions. And making the wrong presumptions.

It’s the wrong social media, Gromit!

Technology is only as good as its users, said Joanne Jacobs in a blog post following the Monkeys with Typewriters book launch. In 2009 we didn’t talk much about ethics or think too hard about the wider societal implications or consequences of what we were doing. The “risks” we considered around social media were mostly to do with its impact on productivity and whether employees could be trusted not to tweet anything stupid.

Last year, doteveryone developed a process called consequence scanning. The first step of consequence scanning is to look at the intended and unintended consequences of any new technology. This gives you a framework to build on. Once you’re aware of the consequences, you can create a plan to act, mitigate and monitor: a strategy to change, influence or learn from the real impact of the thing that you’re creating.

The behaviours I wrote about in Monkeys with Typewriters were all positive – if not directly intended – consequences of social media. Ten years on, it’s abundantly clear that for each positive behaviour, there have been unintended – or negative – consequences.

Can we learn from experience?

I took doteveryone’s consequence scanning kit and retro-fitted it to the key behaviours I wrote about ten years ago. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. The original, positive consequence is in bold; the new, negative ones are in italics. This is an incomplete list and I’d love to know your thoughts and/ or additions.

  1. Co-creation and experimentation: the explosion in mass creativity enabled by standardisaton, remixability and high speed broadband / political discussion is dominated by “wacky” memes and soundbites; democracy threatened by fake news and deep fakes. 
  2. People following their passion: strengthening ideas and sense of self, expressing themselves; building connections with like-minded others through social networks / people existing in their own social media bubbles, fragmentation and polarisation of political and social views; increasingly anti-social behaviour; trolling and cyber-bullying.
  3. Learning and knowledge sharing through wikis, tagging and data that “thinks” / algorithms serving up malicious content, insufficient data leading to bias in machine learning, non-diverse teams building systems that don’t work for everyone; armies of ghost workers employed to clean up data and flag up fake news.
  4. Openness: confessional profiling, blogging and micro-blogging, corporate transparency / unfettered hate-speech; the rise of demagogues (something Andrew Keen warned about); international diplomacy carried out via Twitter; Donald Trump becoming President of the United States; politically-motivated “leaks”.
  5. Listening: reaching important insights and developing ideas through peer-to-peer and many-to-many communications / information overload; impact on mental health and the dangers of too much “listening” for young people; content farms and spam accounts, influencer-led pyramid schemes; influencer-driven cosmetic surgery.
  6. Generosity and collaborative innovation: through open source, crowdsourcing and creative commons licensing / sharing of personal data and blind signing of terms and conditions (TL/DR) leading to data misuse and abuse; the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Next up: the age of design

The 2010s have seen massive growth in social media and social networking. We had the launches of Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Tinder and Tiktok. Google+, Periscope and Vine have all come and gone. Facebook now has more than 2 billion monthly active users and owns the decade’s top four most downloaded apps. Nearly 60 per cent of the global population is online.

Social media isn’t going away so we must learn to manage it effectively. It needs to be better designed and regulated, its users better educated and its creators more aware of the downsides.

Do we need a concept of “societal experience” (SX) to focus on alongside user experience (UX)? We are living in the age of design, said Luciano Floridi at last year’s Digital Ethics Summit: we’ve built everything we need, we just have to think about how it all fits better together. That’s what the 2020s have to be about.

Photo: Johann Ebend (via Flickr)