For those of you who grew up with social media…what a wild ride! From AIM, to MySpace, to Facebook, to YouTube, to Snapchat, to twitter, to instagram, to TikTok.
Social media held a lot of promise. It was a way to connect with old friends and make new ones. To communicate on a global scale in a variety of ways. Twitter styled itself the “town square” as users flocked to the platform to share their opinions, thoughts, and content with the world. Authoritarian and democratic governments alike could no longer hide behind a veil of mainstream media, and we were going to change the world. It provided us with the vaunted dream of rags to riches, as anyone could rise quickly through the ranks of influence so long as they could align their outputs with a meteoric boosting algorithm.
But did the silicon dreams come to fruition? Perhaps in some ways, but I think ultimately everyone has a love-hate relationship with it. It’s a codependent kind of relationship Like an elaborate Skinner’s box, it is constantly rewarding us for engagement. It connects us, but in a dopamine fueled way that empties rather than fills us. It allows for free speech at the cost of dignity and respect in a toxic environment littered with troll poo. It tribalizes us by putting up walls around our homogeneous groups, and we can only hear one another if we scream over it.
Why has this happened when we had such high hopes and starry eyes?
You might think I’ll say capitalism, but that’s only a piece of the complex puzzle. The reason is Moloch’s influence on how we designed the system for social media. Let’s play out the logic together.
Humanity seeks to connect on a global level, through the use of the internet, and social media. The only way to make social media work was to make it profitable, but we were no strangers to this. Ads have been around forever. Ads help us enjoy many things in life at little or no cost, so we agreed to this social contract - in exchange for connecting the world to one another, we agreed to give our data in order to feed algorithms that learn how to effectively connect people not just to other people…but to products.
We think, “That’s great, now I don’t have to do the hard work of finding the products I truly want.” Moloch nods along.
The attention economy is born, not by some grand design, but by a short-sighted one. We set these algorithms to a simple mission. Maximize engagement. More engagement means more data and more data means more profits. Om nom nom nom.
And so we unwittingly built an abstraction of a skinner's box around ourselves, existing entirely in a digital world. The more you engage, the more accurate the algorithm becomes. Not only that, but the more you post and find your audience, the more you are engaged by them. Each time we press the button, or see the button pressed, we get that shot of dopamine, and it feels great in the moment…for a moment. And then you feel a little emptier.
Traditional mainstream media was perhaps the greatest loser in this race, which could not compete with short form attention grabbing content. Prior to the web, news cycles were much longer. Your options were probably a morning newspaper, a favorite radio station, a weekly or monthly magazine, and two broadcasts a day. With the internet and social media, the paradigm quickly shifted. It went from people trained as journalists, to everyone being a journalist almost overnight. It was a heavy blow to the field, and served to uncover some rot that had been corroding the foundations of these institutions of trust. These new competitive forces were based on a process optimized for speed and accessibility to as many people as possible.
These new competitive forces pounding at the gates forced traditional media outlets to adapt to survive. In order to generate money, they needed eyeballs, and the new way to get eyeballs was to treat attention like you were out fishing. You throw some worms on a hook, toss it into the river, pull when you feel a tug, and reel ‘em in. We call this clickbait, and we know what it is when we see it…and yet we can’t help but press that button if it is on a topic sufficiently interesting to us. Traditional media marshaled its forces, and responded by creating a 24-hour news cycle. The sacrifice became quality in exchange for quantity in a niche. Find your audience, and hold on to them for dear life.
Just like animals in a jungle adapting to a crowded and competitive ecosystem, we have all been racing to find ever narrower niches to survive.
Intention vs. Impact
I want to remind you that this was not how the system was intentionally designed. We began with great aspirations, many of which have been realized. Again, we created an algorithm, both social and digital, that incentives us to seek our own niche. In many ways this is an incredible evolution!
The promise here was you got to find your people, however you wanted to define that. It could be political, but most of the times it’s the types of media you enjoy consuming, interests and hobbies that align. Socially, there is a type of pressure to find your group. The result of this we’ve all come to call “Echo Chambers”, or “Bubbles”. Faced with all the world, we wish to individuate to a level where we feel seen. When the size of a community shifted so abruptly from your neighborhood, to the entire world in the space of a few decades, how could we not react this way?
In the psychology biz we call this confirmation bias mixed with a little homophily - two very potent evolutionary processes that we have now combined with the engine of the internet and AI. We’ve essentially written a program that is really good at getting us to press its buttons. Or maybe, I worry, we’ve taught it how to press ours.
“No, no, no this is great,” Moloch whispers gently behind you. “Look at all the amazing things and people out there. You could be that. Simply do as they do. Say what they say. Be who they are. Agree with who you want to agree with, and ignore the cries of pain from the other side. That is merely the wind.”
And you nod while you take another shot of dopamine. All the while Moloch takes note of this wonderfully manipulative tool, which has taught him much.
Round 1 - Moloch
Our first true societal contact with AI was social media, and in our first bout with Moloch in this new arena, we gained much, but at a heavy cost. A collective anxiety, self-consciousness, and an ironic isolation where we’ve never been connected to so many people, yet never so alone.
The problem is that social media is now inextricably linked to our society. It has deep, corrupted roots on the individual and network level. The opportunity to truly change it has passed. It got away from us, a virus of our own devising, and knit into our collective social DNA.
The question is, can we learn from these mistakes to truly use this new class of AI to buoy humanity in a way beneficial to most, instead of some. I think we can, but to do so we need to consider the various trajectories that can go wrong based on our history, human nature, and the battles we’ve already lost to Moloch. Because that’s the great thing about humanity. We have it within our reach to help all life to flourish throughout the universe. But we are on track to design the worst - a technology that consumes us, and perhaps everything else in existence.