Photo Credit: shutterstock
The first social media revolution brought with it sweeping changes to the media landscape, new ways of communicating, and a vast transformation in how ideas, memes and images travel across the world. It brought with it the near destruction of the traditional media elite and the establishment of a new generation of power brokers – people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, who, arguably, are among the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world.
But that is exactly the problem – the Facebooks and Twitters of the world are too powerful and complacent right now to make any major changes to their underlying business models. Why tinker too much with business models cranking out billions of dollars in revenue every year? Why make any large-scale changes to sprawling business empires that have extended into every corner of the globe? Why change algorithms any more than they have to be in order to keep regulators pacified?
You see, social media has no incentive to fix what ails it. By nearly any reckoning, as many as two-thirds of all Americans use social media at least one time per day. Social media has become not only the place they connect with friends, but also the place where they get their news, and where (*unfortunately*) they can be programmed with media narratives that are acceptable to the ruling elite in Silicon Valley. As much as people say they are willing to quit social media, they really can’t. Yes, they might be able to quit Facebook, but can they quit WhatsApp as well? Yes, they might be able to quit YouTube, but can they also quit Instagram?
The next revolution is on its way
Against this backdrop, it might seem as though the big social media players are simply too big to fail. They are too powerful, too wealthy, and too influential. They control us, and we do not control them. And, yet, there exists the prospect that another social media revolution might be on its way, and in this new revolution, all power will truly flow to the people. Remember the famous quote from the French Revolution, first uttered by Danton as he was being led away to execution: “The revolution like Saturn devours its own children”? The idea here is that every revolution ends up killing the members who started it. The very revolutionaries who sought to overthrow the French monarch ended up being put on trial and facing the guillotine later.
Well, you can apply that idea to the second social media revolution as well. In simple terms, it means the next generation of revolutionaries will do away with the Facebooks and Twitters of the world, just as Facebook and Twitter did away with the traditional media and communication conglomerates. The first revolution looked revolutionary at the time, but it did not go far enough and now here come the new revolutionaries.
One key to unleashing the next revolution could be Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Right now, as a result of Section 230, the big social media platforms have broad protection and near-perfect immunity against any lawsuits deriving from content or ideas that appear online. As long as Facebook and Twitter can prove that they are taking certain basic measures to cut down on disinformation, cyberbullying and hate speech, they face no legal risk. Which explains why Silicon Valley has been willing to bend – but not break – when it comes to giving in to demands from legislators and privacy experts. They realize that these relatively tiny and painless measures will help to keep Section 230 protections in place. And, as Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly pointed out, there is simply too much content being produced each day for Facebook censors to keep track of it all, so who can really blame them if some nasty content occasionally gets through?
But what if there comes a day when Washington legislators are finally tired of all the slow-walking, half-truths and outright dissembling from top Silicon Valley CEOs? They might decide to lift Section 230 protections, exposing companies like Facebook to truly existential risk. People might finally wake up to the fact that these companies have been profiting off their private information and data for more than a decade. Or, what if some radical politicians start calling for the breakup of the big tech giants, the same way that they once called for the breakup of Big Oil or the big telephone monopolies?
All power to the people
In the next social media revolution, it will be the people who finally take control. They will finally be ready to quit the big, entrenched social media giants. You can see that already in the emergence of popular social media startups that promise free speech and freedom from censorship. Or in the new startups that promise to enrich the users – and not the owners – through innovative ideas that involve cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. Or the new startups that make privacy a primary consideration from the get-go, rather than a secondary consideration that only gets taken care of when legislators turn up the heat.
In this new social media revolution, power will not be centralized in a location like Silicon Valley. Instead, it will be decentralized across nodes located around the world. Users will have unlimited privacy, and the best content creators will be able to build powerful business models that put them in control rather than being beholden to advertisers and sponsors. When that happens, then we will know that we are witnessing the next great social media revolution.