There are few things good about aging, but one of those benefits is you start seeing how history often repeats itself. There is nothing new under the sun, but when you are young most everything is new to you. When you get old, you have experienced enough to begin noticing the repeats of things you saw in your youth. For example, those old enough to remember the early the days of the internet, probably recognize what’s happening with the tech giants trying to regulate the public space.
By early days, I’m not talking about the iPhone 4 days. I’m talking about the Windows 3.1 days, when the internet was for weirdos, who knew how modems worked and liked tricking the phone company for free long distance. It was when hobbyists assembled their own computers It was when NewEgg was called Egghead and operated in shopping centers. That was before the phrase “social media” existed, but there was still plenty of social media and plenty of people on it, just smarter people.
Usenet and bulletin board systems served the same role as Twitter and Facebook, without the cute names and billionaires trying to control the platforms. Like the big social media platforms, they started with the same general idea. They would be open forums for people to debate and argue. The internet was going to be free from the censorship of the old media and free from government control. The same things people say about bitcoin today were said about the internet in the olden thymes.
What happened to those first public forums and those that succeeded them is a good lesson for understanding what is happening to the big social media platforms. Usenet, for example, started as an open platform for anyone with internet access. It did not take long for jerks and troublemakers to arrive. Soon, the squabbling and fighting fractured the community into separate channels. In short order, Usenet became a million little havens for like-minded people to talk about their thing in semi-private.
Bulletin boards followed a similar path. Their successor, the message board also followed a similar arc. The first boards for college sports, for example, soon turned into free-for-alls and shattered into hundreds of small, private boards. Unlike Usenet, the creators of these boards initially tried to regulate the content by having moderators ban trouble makers and people trolling for attention. That just encouraged the trouble makers to find clever ways around the rules, in order to disrupt the communities.
What was discovered in those early efforts of public forums is that the public is pretty awful and needs to be regulated. You just can’t let everyone into a public forum and have them say what they wish. On the other hand, the cost of regulating who enters and what is said is prohibitive. The more you regulate the forum, the cleverer the troublemakers get at disruption. This sets off an increasingly costly game of cat and mouse between the moderators and the people seeking to disrupt the forum.
The solution to the problem was the oldest of solutions. Peaceful separation allowed everyone to have a forum, but it reduced the incentives for the disruptive. Going into the forum of a rival group, for example, and posting a bunch of troll-bait, did not provide the same dopamine rush to the troll as it did on a public forum. There was no one around to see it and cheer it. It was like being a graffiti artist in a blind community. These trolling efforts were quietly removed and the community could easily ignore them.
That is what will happen with the big social media hubs. Twitter is the first that will splinter into a million separate channels, as it is the most public. Gab has weathered the assaults and now provides a home for dissidents. Telegram is now becoming the favorite tool for young people creating small communities. Others are working on alternatives for other tribes, looking for a place on-line both free of censorship and the sorts of people who just seek to disrupt. This is a repeat of the message board phenomenon.
YouTube and Facebook are a bit different. Facebook already has the ability to let users self-segregate within the forum. That solves the trolling a bit, but the company is run by the sorts of people who liked being moderators on chat boards in the old days. They can’t help but meddle in the discourse of others, even those in private groups on the platform. Given the demographics of the platform, it will probably collapse at some point as people realize its user base is old people, robots and gullible advertisers.
YouTube is the one to watch. As server capacity outstrips demand, the cost of hosting video will keep dropping. There are services popping up as alternatives to YouTube, with some starting as commercial enterprises. This service lets you create a branded channel that can be distributed on a variety of platforms. If you have talent and can hold an audience, the days of relying on YouTube are numbered. Since YouTube has never made money, it’s hard to see a future for the service as currently constructed.
None of this is to say that the tech oligopolies will come to their senses and stop trying to suppress speech on-line. In all probability, they will exhaust themselves trying to stamp out dissent, which means things will get much worse. Apple, for example, is now censoring speech within chat programs like Telegram. Microsoft is promising to moderate speech over Skype. The people behind these efforts are driven by hatred and self-loathing, so they lie awake at night thinking about this stuff.
The trouble is, it is expensive. The latest YouTube banning probably cost the company $10 million dollars to organize. It’s pretty clear they invested a lot of manpower in reviewing specific videos. The return on that investment was mostly bad press and greater awareness by regulators that there is a problem. That’s a lesson from the old days too. No matter how right they were to regulate users, the forum moderators were always looked upon unfavorably. They were the prison guards of the system.
That last bit is probably key. A decade ago, Apple was a cool brand run by an equally cool genius who liked wearing black turtlenecks. Now it is seen as a Chinese electronics company run by an angry homosexual. Similarly, YouTube used to be a place where young people could express themselves. Now it’s where old Jewish women yell at young people for using naughty language.With every censorship effort, the reputation of the oligopolies declines. Silicon Valley is now the universal villain.
The point of all this is not that libertarians are right that the market will magically sort out the problem for us. All of this could have been avoided if the government had done its job and cracked down on these oligopolies a long time ago. The natural disaggregation of the public space will not happen without help from the state either. It’s that wide open public forums cannot last. It was tried decades ago by smarter people and a much smarter user base. Eventually, peaceful separation became the only alternative.
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