The #Culturalinertia of Social Media

Title graphic created with DALL-E-2 AI text to image creator

On October 29, 1969, ARPAnet delivered its first message; a “node-to-node” communication from one computer to another, and the internet as we know it was born.

In 1976, Ward Christensen invented the XModem file transfer protocol. It was released to the public in 1977 and the world as we knew it would never be the same again.

Social Media didn’t begin with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or TikTok.

It is not going to end there either, regardless of what happens with those services over the next few months or years.

Long before Facebook and Twitter were created, those of us who pioneered online social media were doing so on CompuServe, GEnie, and then Prodigy, AOL, and Myspace.  Before Spotify and YouTube there was Napster.  Before Napster we had FidoNet and others like it.

Before all of those we had dial-up BBS systems with messages boards, text chat rooms, and slow as hell file sharing.

I have been a part of all of it since I obtained an Apple IIe and 300 baud modem in the late 1970s.

In the mid-to-late-80s, I worked as a customer service and tech support representative, content moderator, content creator, design advisor, and alpha/beta tester for the General Electric Network for Information Exchange (GEnie), which General Electric created in 1985 in partnership with Ameritech.   During my time there, I also served as the Technical Editor and content contributor for John C. Dvorak’s (now out of print) public user’s guide to the service.

I present this information here to show that on the subject of electronic social media, I have been not just a user, but helped build and shape it through its early stages, and have been involved with using it, through all of its iterations and evolutions since the very beginning.

On this subject, I can legitimately claim a bit of expertise.

BBS Systems

CBBS, the first computer- based bulletin board system on record, was established in 1978.

Originally, the service served as a space for scientists and engineers to share and brainstorm ideas and knowledge. 

However, it didn’t take more than about two years for the spin-offs to start; presumably, by many of those same people looking to use them for more leisure based and, in some cases, illegal communications.   ISCABBS, the largest BBS in the world was created by the University of Iowa and was still up and running in 2019.

As computers started allowing other computers to connect to them, online hacking immediately began.  Hackers migrated to services like Demon Roach Underground, OSUNY, and Plover-NET.  What you know now as the “Dark-Web” had its origins here.

The porn industry also found its space on these services in the early days.  First as text stories, then ASCII art, and finally image sharing.  Rusty n Edie’s BBS was raided in 1993 by the FBI and sued by Playboy in 1997.

Terrorist groups and criminal organizations also created and maintained BBS systems to communicate with each other before law enforcement found ways to tap in and decipher the communications.

And yet, while all that was going on, great leaps in both science and engineering began to happen specifically because the people pushing those fields forward now had a way to communicate almost instantaneously across borders, continents, and oceans with a method that was far more substantial and productive than a one-on-one telephone call, or even a conference call.

Hobby and gaming groups formed as well, connecting people with similar personal interests but different national, ethnic, and professional backgrounds, from all over the world in a way we had never seen before.

This interactivity and blind connection fostered two things.

It removed the barriers of race, religion, gender, and political differences from personal interactions.  We had no way of knowing those things about someone unless they told us, and most didn’t bother telling anyone until a strong enough bond had been built that the relationship itself would challenge those innate beliefs about those differences in ways people would never otherwise experience.

I am a firm believer that this ever-burgeoning electronic global community was a massive, but generally unrecognized and/or unacknowledged, part of the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the destruction of the Berlin Wall.  It also provided many with the information they needed to continue anti-war protests because the information being exchanged between individuals was exposing the misinformation and disinformation rhetoric governments were putting forth in the media to justify those war efforts.

However, just like there have always been criminals, there have always been Internet trolls. The Internet also gave some people a shield of anonymity to begin freely putting forth hateful beliefs, rhetoric, and false information without personal recourse or recompense.

Social media, in all its forms, has reshaped every aspect of our lives both online and off.  It has changed how we communicate with family and friends, as well as complete strangers.  It has changed how we do business.  It has changed our global socioeconomics and our geopolitical views and policies.

Anyone telling you not to talk about the things that are important or interesting to you on social media because “No one can change anything by whining online” is full of shit and just trying to get you to stop pushing the boundaries of their own personal comfort zone.

~Tim Shehane

All of this still continues across every social media platform that ever was, or will be, invented.

Generational Differences in Usage

The Baby Boomers created the Internet as a long-distance information sharing tool.  Gen-X created social media as we know it currently as a connectivity method in a quickly expanding world of rapid international business growth and development.  Millennials, or Gen-Y, were the first generation raised with that connectivity being a major part of their personal social, educational, and professional development.  Members of Gen-Z live their lives out loud on social media as it – and its associated technology — serves as an integral part of every aspect of their lives. 

In the early stages, the old principles of public decorum ruled the public spaces on the Internet.  Most people conducted themselves online the same way they did offline, by avoiding the taboo subjects of politics, religion, and personal bigotries and biases except in small groups that had already proved themselves to be like-minded on any particular issue.  The Baby Boomer era mentality of “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” was the primary content moderation guideline.

As Gen-X became more casual with the usage of the Internet for non-job related communication and tasks, the moderation guidelines changed, and the echo chambers we have now began to develop through self-segregation of users with others who shared their beliefs.  But they were still leery of putting too much personal information online for potential employers and business contacts to see if that information could be used against them in any way.

Gen-Y (I am not using the term Millennial here because it is too often used as a derogatory slur) threw caution to the wind and started posting all kinds of personal information and private thoughts online for the world to see.   This gave birth to a new profession:  the Social Media Influencer.  These social media influencers achieved celebrity status as they monetized their audience reach by stealth endorsements of products and services for others to buy.

Gen-Z has been raised almost as much by these influencers as they have been by their friends and families.  Their lives are akin to the Truman Show, lived as much online for the entertainment of others as they are offline for personal growth and satisfaction. Just this week it was reported that a young woman in France is allowing her subscribers on OnlyFans to dictate all of her personal life decisions. As a result, she has quit her internship and ended a toxic relationship, among other things. 

Understanding these generational differences in social media usage helps both businesses and cultural influencers to better serve their audience and also to weaponize the knowledge with their marketing algorithms to better manipulate their targets.

Social Media and Celebrity

Maintaining a celebrity status in our modern culture almost requires a person to become a social media influencer to hype projects and endorsement products. Going viral on social media can make or break a celebrity overnight.

Even those few celebrities who maintain no social media presence cannot avoid the affects on their personal and professional lives due to other members of their industry, allies, rivals, fans, and haters posting about them on social media.

After making a music industry connection at a Holiday Inn party, singer Halsey was able to get access to a studio to record her first song — “Ghost.” She posted it to her SoundCloud account once it was finished. Within an hour, she said she logged onto her Twitter account only to discover her account was blowing up. The next morning she had multiple record labels begging to sign her.

Late-night talk show host James Cordon recently found out just how much damage social media can do to a well curated public persona.

Actors Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, who each have a massive online following, recently had to post pictures of their newborn child to social media so the paparazzi would stop swarming their house and spying on them in an attempt to get the first photos for the public.

Business Use and Misuse

Businesses have entire departments, actually entire industries, dedicated to social media data harvesting and evaluation.  This information is collected at every single level of interaction and collated in every possible way that can be imagined.  Once collated, it is analyzed and sold to anyone that wants to leverage it.  Nearly every business wants to take advantage of collected data, whether to reach and engage their target audience or influence and manipulate each target audience for their own purposes.

Businesses have been monitoring employees’ social media postings for years and will quickly use personal postings made away from work as a reason to fire someone for cause if they post anything negative about the company itself or harmful to the company’s reputation for a known employee to be saying or doing.

Coca-Cola famously fired an employee whose photo was taken while he was drinking a Pepsi while wearing his delivery uniform back in 2003.  This was just the excuse the company needed to fire a pro-union worker.

Today, nearly everyone knows that they can get a person fired from their job by filing complaints with their employers about that person’s misconduct, both online and off, even when away from work if it can be posted to social media.

While this is a valid and powerful way to disempower those racists, bigots, and fascists that shouldn’t have any power or influence over the lives of those they hate and/or fear, it also means that people cannot have a single bad/off day anywhere without fear of long-term repercussions.

Government Use and Misuse

Obviously, governments – and those that want to control them – could not overlook the power and influence of the growing Internet, but it was growing faster than they could regulate or restrict its usage and availability.  By the time they could pass any laws to do so, the World Wide Web interface was developed making it and all its information more available to nearly everyone with access to electricity, a computer, and a phone line.  Just as they started to get a handle on that, the social media platforms and their BBS message boards, chatrooms, and encrypted file exchanges changed it all again.   Then smartphones came along and disconnected many of the users from the traceable landlines law enforcement could easily monitor.   With few exceptions, the changes and advancements in how we use technology are nearly always at least a decade ahead of the governments’ ability to regulate and monitor that technology.

Not surprisingly, those in government, or those that wanted to seize governmental power, quickly become adept at using that technology as well for propaganda distribution, misinformation and disinformation campaigns, and illicit surveillance to their advantage.

We have seen firsthand in recent years how social media can be used to plan and coordinate a massive non-violent political protest to affect change as well as coordinate and plan an armed and murderous insurrection siege attempt upon the United States capital during a joint session of the full Congress.

We have seen firsthand how one state or national government can use social media to socially engineer influence over the international and domestic governmental policies and procedures of other states or nations.   We have also seen how they can create public animosity or distress for each other.

Donald Trump would have never been able to successfully become President without social media. The vast majority of the damage he created while President may not have ever been fully known or understood without social media cutting through the official press narratives.

We have seen firsthand how social media can be used to spread the truth about important events to those that might not otherwise ever hear it and how it can be used to convince others that those events either never happened or were something else entirely.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The Internet, especially social media, is the most powerful and influential tool of cultural change ever put into the hands of the general populace, and with the invention of smartphones, it is literally in our hands all the time.

How we use that power, and allow it to be misused, is entirely up to us.

I am doing my best to weaponize it in my ongoing lifelong battle against willful ignorance, racism, religious bigotry, toxic misogyny, fascism, and the gradual slide toward Corporate Feudalism that seems to be driving our economic policies.

What Will You Do with It?

It is up to you what kind of influence you will let the Internet, social media, and those adept at wielding them as weapons, have over your life.

It is also up to you how you will use them as vital tools in making your life, and the lives of others, better.

What kind of citizen will you choose to be?

What kind of person will you choose to be?

Whatever choice you make; social media is creating a real time record of your involvement in our society and culture through this period of time for future historians.

How will you choose to be remembered?

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