Ah those wonderful binary choices born of radio phone-ins. I spent this morning defending social media following its shocking abuse in the Criado-Perez affair.
Is social media bad? Of course it isn’t. Normally I’d say something along the lines of “It’s technology. It has no agency. It can’t be inherently good or bad. It’s how it is used.” But I’m not sure that’s entirely true in this case.
For a start the platforms themselves may be all bits and bytes. But they are operated by companies that do most definitely have an agenda, encapsulated in everything from their user interface design to their usage policies. These policies for a long time led Facebook to justify removing images of breastfeeding while leaving untouched images of domestic abuse. Clearly while there is no agency in the technology, there is in the people behind it.
There are many examples of the powers of social media being abused, beyond the Criado-Perez threats. There is the daily trolling, the torrent of threats and abuse that regularly seem to arrive at the accounts of prominent women, and also the bullying that takes place on more closed social networks like Facebook. As a teenager being victimised there are few places to hide these days.
But you have to balance all of this against the good that social media does. And not all of this can be put down to people doing good using social media. Some of it is intrinsic in the technology’s very concept.
This comes down to democratised, disintermediated, decentralised, distributed publishing and communications. The ability to communicate with one person or many without limitations of cost, state or editorial control. These things are a fundamental part of the architecture of social media. There are weaknesses in this model — the lack of verification for example, or the power put into the hands of those wanting to abuse — but these for me are far outweighed by the good.
The power for communities, political and protest groups to self-organise faster, across greater geographies and without restrictions. The ability for people with shared niche interests to connect across the globe. The chance for families and friends distributed by the nature of our globalised world to stay in close contact. These things are almost immeasurably valuable and in 99% of cases are not abused.
Positive use of social media dramatically outweighs the negative. That’s why stories like the threats to Caroline Criado-Perez make the news. Change needs to happen to protect people in her position and prosecute the criminals abusing those threats. But we have to make sure that the great things about social media are protected when we make those changes.