The early days of the Internet were particularly memorable. No matter what service provider you used (Earthlink and AOL were the early favorites), there was a certain magical quality to the lovesick song of a dial-up modem calling out to its distant mate. Then there was the strange thrill of hearing those three words, “you’ve got mail!” The Internet was filled with endless possibilities.
It was hard not to think that humanity was witnessing the dawn of a new age of enlightenment. No longer did you have to thumb through musty drawers of library index cards and wander up and down aisles of books, bewildered, trying to make sense of the Dewey Decimal System. New services with strange names like Yahoo and Google would do all that work for you and place the world of knowledge literally at your fingertips. It was awe-inspiring!
Finally, the masses would have unlimited access to information. There was a multitude of opinions on every topic and the ability to converse with others you could never have connected with, let alone learn from. And people almost everywhere started sharing what they know on bulletin board systems.
I have to admit that there were some signs of concern even back then. A good friend advised me never to use your real name on bulletin boards or chat rooms. You don’t know who might be lurking there. That made sense to a certain degree and I was careful, but the bigger concern for me was that anonymity seemed to allow people to be less civil. Somehow knowing that there was no real-world consequence, you didn’t have to silence your darker thoughts or be polite. It also turns out that there are a lot more cynics out there than I ever imagined.
Then social media took root, allowing everyone to share everything and anything from the morning’s breakfast to obscure mathematical formulas. It almost seemed as if the earth was spinning faster. It was the Internet on steroids. You had control over who was your “friend” on social media, however exclusively or inclusively you wanted to define the word, but there was also a new game in town called “Likes.”
Noteworthy is that most everybody wanted to be popular, but never was there a way to quantify popularity like with social media. I’m sure there will be many studies on the social and psychological implications of all this. What is most concerning, however, is in the ether world of the Internet, popularity is so much more important than everything else, particularly facts and truth. Being popular on social media is so addictive that it induces people to purposely promote ideas or assertions they know to be false. In fact, the more outrageous the assertion, the more clicks, likes, comments
It seems that my early hopes for the Internet were misplaced, or at the very least premature. In retrospect, it makes sense. Society and technology are evolving in tandem and always have. The Internet didn’t magically enlighten people because people are still people with all their perspectives, beliefs and emotions. Their need for affirmation is all-too-often stronger than their thirst for knowledge.
For someone like me who lives a very public life, social media presented exciting new ways to connect with the community. Or I should really say communities since it turns out people have infinite interests. Social media has allowed us to seek out and confer with like-minded people. And it turns out, that is strongly appealing to our tribal instincts. It is much more comfortable to have your existing beliefs affirmed than suffer the cognitive dissonance of other views.
I am still hopeful that technology will once again tip the scales to reason over passion, but it looks like that road will be a very bumpy one.
About the Author
David Pollock is a city councilmember, an advocate for the environment and a frequent guest lecturer at the California State University at
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in guest blog posts do not reflect those of the host.