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New Year starts with spate of social media remorse


via flickr © Dani Latorre (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • After 11 years US Library of Congress stops archiving every Tweet
  • Will now keep "thematic" and "event-based" tweets
  • Meanwhile, former Facebook senior exec admits to "tremendous guilt" over impact of all-pervasive site
  • Says social media has "eroded the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”

Every year lots of people groggily wake up at some time on New Year's Day aghast and remorseful at the antics they got up to on the night before, but the opening days of 2018 are particularly interesting because some social media and archiving organisations and individuals who work for them are beginning to question the long-term consequences of keeping every message ever sent across ever more powerful platforms.

Back in 2006, the venerable US Library of Congress adopted a self-imposed policy of archiving Twitter messages. As the years passed that mission grew to encompass every tweet ever sent or received in the United States. In the early days days it wasn't a gargantuan task to collect the messages but, as the popularity of social media spread like the bubonic plague across the face of the planet, the time, human and technological resources and money devoted to and spent on collecting, maintaining and manipulating the tsunami of data increased in an increasingly frantic attempt to keep pace with the exponential growth of traffic on the new social networks.

As it turns put, the Library of Congress essentially made a rod for its own back by determining to keep every tweet, not only because there are so many countless billions of them but also because the content of 99.9 per cent (recurring) of them are worthless, pointless tripe. And now realisation has dawned and henceforth the Library of Congress will no longer capture all tweets.

Basically, the recent changes that Twitter has applied to its messaging platform, such as increasing the maximum length of the famous/infamous 147 character Twitter message and permitting images and video to be embedded in tweets, means that the Library of Congress cannot afford to archive zetabyte after zetabyte of banal twaddle. So, with effect from yesterday, January 1, 2018, only a "limited range of tweets" will be collected. In a press release, the hugely respected curator of US history announced that with immediate effect "tweets collected and archived will be thematic and event-based, including events such as elections, or themes of ongoing national interest such as public policy."

What is not revealed is what resources will be devoted to sifting through incredible amounts of irrelevant stultiloquence in an effort to sieve a few nuggets of genuine value out of avalanches of balderdash. Meanwhile, the existing Twitter archive, which runs from 2006 to the day before yesterday will be kept and made accessible to anyone who wants to peruse it. The Library says the records are valuable because they record how social media evolved in the worldwide phenomenon it is today.

Social media platforms: A plague on all your houses

Meanwhile and elsewhere… seven years on Chamath Palihapitiya, who was "vice president of user growth" at Facebook between 2007 and 2011, says he still feels "tremendous guilt" over the uncontrolled way the social network grew as it did. That growth was characterised by a corporate determination to recruit and increase the number of Facebook users to the exclusion of more or less everything else. Palihapitiya says that in those days little consideration was given to any possible negative impact of the rapid development of the platform and the net result has been the erosion of “the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”

Chamath Palihapitiya added, “I think in the back, deep, deep recesses of our minds, we kind of knew something bad could happen." And it has, of course. Facebook (and other social media platforms) can be a boon but they can also be a curse, not least because they permit instant (and irretrievable) gratification because what used to be normal and accepted social mores and conventions can be flouted and ignored with impunity.

Speaking at an event held Stanford University, California, in the very heart of Silicon Valley, Mr. Palihpitiya  told his audience of graduate students, "We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. That is truly where we are. The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no co-operation, misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not just an American problem. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem."

And, of course, Facebook is not the only culprit. Chamath Palihapitiya said that other social media platforms also have to take their share of the blame as well and name-checked Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and WhatsApp.

He said, “Bad actors can now manipulate large swaths of people to do anything you want - and we compound the problem. We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection, because we get rewarded in these short-term signals - hearts, likes, thumbs up - and we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth. And instead, what it is is fake, brittle popularity that’s short-term and leaves you even more, admit it, vacant and empty before you did it. Now, think about that, compounded by two billion people.”

Although Mr. Palihapitia has analysed the problems associated with social media, he does not, as yet anyway, seem to have any long-term solutions other than that people should take a "hard break from some of these tools and the things that you rely on.”

Chamath Palihapitiya isn't the only social media pioneer to expresses serious reservations about the Frankenstein's monsters they helped to create. Sean Parker, an early and influential investor in Facebook, says that he is now a "conscientious objector" where social media platforms are concerned because they have "exploited a vulnerability in human psychology".

For its part Facebook says it is a long time since Mr. Palihapitiya worked at the company and things have changed. A statement reads, “When Chamath was at Facebook we were focused on building new social media experiences and growing Facebook around the world [but] as we have grown, we have realised how our responsibilities have grown too. We take our role very seriously and we are working hard to improve. We’ve done a lot of work and research with outside experts and academics to understand the effects of our service on well-being, and we’re using it to inform our product development.”

That's OK then.

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