How social media became authoritarian

Eric Garland Social trends 4 Comments

Justin Kownacki is one of those guys whose writing appears infrequently, but is always worth the wait. Today, he published a piece that is maybe in the top five most important things I have read this year. Doing some soul searching about the state of technology, he concludes that we have squandered the potential for social media to change society because we were so hungry for validation from authority figures. This is from his piece, “How Social Media Destroyed Itself.”

Those of us who were busy pioneering the digital formats we now all take for granted believed then that our newly “democratized” means of media production would change media as we know it. We presumed that audience tastes would change with the new formats, and that traditional media channels (TV, film, radio, publishing) would need to adapt to our way of life.

Why? Because we were ahead of the curve. We saw the potential of new forms, and we thought we’d be able to harness them faster than the “dinosaur” media conglomerates we derided.

We were right about our own speed, but that’s because most of us were young and childless then, so we had nothing but time to tinker with these new toys. We could afford to spend days and weeks and years perfecting our videoblogs and podcasts and other labors of love because we still felt like the underdogs who had something to prove to the dinosaurs we were outfoxing.

We claimed we wanted to plant our flag in their territory… but we were only being half honest.

Problem is, we also courted those same dinosaurs, because we wanted them to play in our sandbox. We wanted the validation of their attention and their money. We wanted them to acknowledge that we were right, and to reward us with seats at their table. We just thought we’d be the ones who’d be able to set the new rules, just because we were there first.

Boy, were we wrong.

staring-at-phonesI see this phenomenon everywhere these days. People have more capacity for freedom, self-government and justice than ever before. These technologies do, in fact, have the potential to rewire how society governs itself. This is also why dictators have been so motivated to co-opt these forms of media, and at the first sign of trouble, shut them down.

But in truth, their fears are overblown. Most people today desire authority figures to live above them, even when they are comically unable to play the part with any competence. Dull-witted, venal legislators, corrupt banking syndicates, absurd Supreme Court justices, plus lazy, shallow journalists to bleat press release quotations from their positions of unearned credibility: We live under a regime of some of the least-talented authoritarians in history.

Yet rather than challenge them in a meaningful way, by ignoring their supposed authority and organizing society based around our own communities, we outsource our civic life to powerful interests. The status quo is preserved, and we can go back to our sportsball.

It wouldn’t matter how many Internets you put in front of people who neither understand nor desire the rights and obligations of free citizens in a Republic.

On a final, happier note, that freedom remains right in front of us all. It is just a question of whether we pick it up and do something with it.

  • jonhusband


  • Well, in the 80s and 90s computer mediated communication was “new” technology that average people could use to communicate free of the Bell monopolies and exchange information with others. EIES (Electronic Information Exchange System) developed by Murray Turoff and The WELL (Whole Earth Lectronic Link) founded by Stewart Brand were ground-breaking examples of systems that provided the infrastructure to hold larger-scale human discussions in an asynchronous manner. None of these systems were monetized to any great degree. The impetus to globally expand access to information by “setting it free” was successfully attempted when Tim Berners-Lee combined his interest in hypertext with the emergence of the public Internet to create what became the World Wide Web. At the turn of the century Sergey Brin and Larry Page made searching the Web for information work much better than previous attempts. All the means for conducting informed global discussions were in place but corporate-controlled “social media” managed to seduce the younger generation to wallow in self-obsession, which is easy to do when you are young(er). If the younger generation fails to wake up and smell the reality around them, they will be shocked at the dangerous and depressing state of affairs that awaits them when they reach middle age.

    • Tim, I agree with you on the order of events, and even of the trap into which the younger generation is falling. But let us not turn a blind eye to the actions of their parents, who sell their future out at every turn. It is not the job of the young to provide wisdom in a society, but vigor. And when you have a generation that attempts to be eternally young and relevant, you have a society that is missing venerable elders.

      • Eric, I agree that the younger generation is incapable of providing wisdom. Yes, they do have “vigor” and some of them are capable of taking radical action when they have informed themselves about the reality of their environment. Parents frequently “sell their future” to raise their families. I was a child in the 50s when conformity and striving to “get ahead” were widely accepted status seeking behaviors. As a teenager in the 60s I got educated and radicalized by war, assassinations, racism, poverty and pollution. In the 70s I worked for Buckminster Fuller and educated myself on the world problematique as defined by the ground-breaking Limits to Growth research. We’ve had 40 years to make the necessary changes in our social and economic policies. Today there is only vague awareness that we are likely to experience the collapse of industrial civilization by 2030.