Why I call it (anti)-social media
In 1999, a partner and I started one of the first "social networking" companies. We failed during the dotcom bust, but not before we learned some valuable lessons about the world, and silicon valley
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Today I want to share with you some insights into why I use the term (anti)-social media. I have been observing and studying “social media” for a long time; some of my more esoteric writings about this subject were posted in various Twitter threads. A sampling of these are archived somewhat haphazardly in this Wordpress post which I threw together as I left Twitter to try to preserve some of the rich content I had stored there over the years.
I was on Twitter from 2007 until 2021, when I decided I no longer wanted to participate in what was initially a brilliant idea of crowdsourced “news”, but has of late become a cesspool of censorship, cyber-bullying, thought-policing, and an all-around digital disaster of mind-control.
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As you’ll come to see, my knowledge of this subject area is fairly deep and broad, given more than 20 years of watching this space evolve and mutate. I am horrified and fascinated at the same time by what (anti)-social media has mutated into. But I have also come to be extremely wary of its socially destructive power.
In 1999, I was an early participant in the building of what was then called “social networking”; today it has become what we call “social media” companies. The story of what happened to our little company is a topic for another day; but suffice it to say that we got caught in the downdraft vortex of the 2000-era DotCom bubble burst, and as our company was crashing on the rocks, we wisely made the correct moral (but poor financial) choice: we chose not to take funding to rescue our firm from an obscure investment source known as InQTel.
So our company went dark in early 2001, but not before helping to launch the career of some of the biggest names in the industry. This “venture capital” firm InQTel is connected with the CIA; when you finish reading this article, you will understand why this fact is critical to understanding the rise of social media companies today. You can easily guess which big name firms did take early funding from InQTel.
One of the first things to point about about social media companies is this: they are all free. Why is that, exactly? The answer, in a nutshell, is that YOU are the product. YOU are the money-making source for these companies. And not because of advertising. It goes far, far deeper than that.
To understand social networks, we need to review some of the fundamental ideas behind all of them. When Facebook and the like first started, the founders of these companies quickly realized they had stumbled across a heretofore difficult to discover goldmine: they had a tool that could easily show them, in real time, who is connected to who by what kind of relationship (friend, colleague, family, etc.)
Armed with only that basic bit of knowledge, they could study how information like advertising and marketing material flowed from person to person in these networks of “friends” and “acquaintances”. This was even then immensely powerful information: you could fine-tune your advertising campaigns very precisely and measure their effectiveness because you could see how they flowed between groups of people. But the power of social networks was only just beginning. Marketing was only the tip of the iceberg.
If you have information about who knows who, you can draw special ‘graphs’ showing how people are connected to one another on social networks; these are called “social graphs”. Every person is a “node” on these graphs, and the lines show who you are connected to, and how. Initially this graph was built simply from your direct ‘friends’ lists, but it grew to include people you ‘follow’, people who ‘follow’ you, and later, people whose media and posts you were exposed to, even if you had no immediate ‘connection’ to them other than reading (and liking) their material often.
When you do this ‘social network’ graph building, you quickly discover that everyone has an ‘immediate’ circle of friends and family, but as the ‘six degrees of separation’ idea shows, you also have lots and lots of people that are one and two ‘hops’ away — friends of friends, etc. In theory, everyone on the planet is only ‘six hops’ away from everyone else on the planet, when you pursue friends-of-friends-of-friends relationships etc.
So this knowledge of ‘who knows who’ became really, really valuable. But as time went on, it became exponentially more valuable. As a social network firm, you could start to study these networks to find out who the real ‘influencers’ are in networks of people: these are the sorts of people who are “magnets” for friends, and whose posts and opinions are read by many and whose views are imitated or echoed by lots of people. They are ‘trend setters’.
In this way, you could start to discover, in something of a ‘scientific’ way, who the people in various subgroups are who shape trends and influence the buying of this or that consumer product or champion this or that idea. The idea of social-media ‘influencers’ was born.
In the beginning, advertisers and marketers started looking for ‘deals’ to be made with the biggest ‘influencers’ on various social networks by paying them to help them push certain products or services to their ‘follower networks’. A new kind of advertising model was born.
But as time went on, the people working behind the scenes at these social networking companies added more and more information to the ‘graph’ : not only could they map who knows who…not only could they could start to look at who is talking to who…how often they engaged, and how ‘intensely’, and about what topics…they could also learn what times of day they are engaging with each other. As geolocation services began to be added, they could also find out WHERE people were talking to others. That becomes unbelievably valuable information to two kinds of entities in particular.
The first are government surveillance entities that want to keep track of networks of people to see what locations they end up being in proximity to each other and at what times. With very little effort, you can start to see people who work together, take classes together, live together, travel on the bus together, play sports together… or go to secret meetings together. And you can figure out where these meetings take place. All from information voluntarily given up by the unwitting masses, whose narcissistic impulses drive them to give away this valuable data without a second thought as they revel in selfies and food posts. We have another term for this sort of surveillance: spying.
The second group of entities that found valuable ways to exploit social networks were those who wanted to use the ‘influencer’ effect to push propaganda and influence peoples perceptions, political ideologies, opinions, and behavior—not about what style of shoes to buy, but for political and ideological reasons. If you can’t guess the sorts of agencies that are interested in doing this, go back and find the InQTel link above, and see which agency is connected to it.
And herein lies the rot at the core of modern social media companies: they have come to be infested by all sorts of agenda-driven and nefarious groups who take advantage of people’s ignorance and willful blindness and they use the power of social networks to plant ideas and alter perceptions in ways that further their political or strategic objectives.
In part two of this post, I will begin to unpack this chart below: I will explain to you where it came from, how it came to be, and what it can teach you about the tools and techniques that are being deployed against you all day, every day, on and off social media.
Stay tuned. I’m about to rip away the curtain, show you the machinery behind it, and wake you up.