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Social Media Isn't All Bad
Originally aired on
June 9, 2020 @ 4:30 AM - 5:00 AM EDT
Best of: Internet Summit 2018 - UK
Michelle Kennedy, Co-Founder & CEO, Peanut
James Allworth, CMO, Zenrez
Moderator: Jen Taylor, Head of Product, Cloudflare
Hello, I'm Jen Taylor and I'm very excited to be joined by James and Michelle today. We have a small and non-controversial topic to discuss today.
Our topic is social media isn't all bad.
So I wanted to start this conversation because I know we talked a little bit in advance.
How do we define social media? What does that mean to us?
Do you want to go for it? I can go first. Go for it. I suppose social media from our perspective and certainly from my own personal perspective is anything now that we see that is shareable and whether that is within a community of people that you know or whether it's within a community of people that you don't know.
Right down to news articles now which have become social media because we're sharing them because we're opening our own profiles out for comments.
So I think it really is so broad now but it just means anything that we are sharing to us.
I would say that there are a lot of terms that get thrown around around this and I think there's a relationship between social media and social networks and it's hard to talk about one without the other.
It's the way in which so much of our relationships and the media that we've consumed have been digitized and it's now online and I think an important aspect of this is that gatekeepers towards publishing have also been eliminated.
So once upon a time there were only a certain number of photographers you would see, there were only a certain amount of news you would read or articles and now you go on Medium and you can write a blog, you can meet people on Twitter or Facebook and I think the media itself is like the photographs of course or the articles or the words but it's very hard to disaggregate that from the digitization of these networks some of which were existing before all these companies came along and some of which are newly formed.
So social media, good, bad, let's start first with the case against social media.
Yeah I know I saw the topic for this panel social media isn't all bad and I was like oh come on I want to start with the bad stuff first.
I think it's hard to have this conversation without talking about the the 10,000 pound gorilla which is Facebook and in that sense I mean I have a few things to say about that.
I don't necessarily know that it has been overall a force for good.
In fact if you think about it at the individual level, are people happier when they use it?
I'd say maybe not. There's a bunch of research to say that people when they use it on an ongoing basis end up less happy and then you think about it from a societal level like is society better off having this here and again I'm not necessarily sure it's the case like you see like the political fragmentation that's happening, the extremes, I mean people focus on things like fake news but I actually think filter bubbles that emerge in social media particularly Facebook are a really big problem where you know you self-select into your tribe and you just get all this reinforcing echo of all the things you believe.
I mean I don't think that's great. There are other aspects to it which are great but social media in general but that negative side of it is something that really bugs me and it's concerning from the perspective of the Silicon Valley narrative too which is I mean it's always been the case that Silicon Valley's this force for good in the world and certainly I think the folks at Facebook think that they are doing good in the world but I mean the last little while there's been a lot of soul-searching and I think for the first time in as long as I can remember there's a company at the top of the stack in terms of a company that's growing the fastest and there's an open question as to whether it's actually doing good in the world or whether it's being run amok by the incentives in the business model that it's put in place and that is someone who's a big believer in technology and the Internet and everything that can support that.
That makes me a bit sad.
Case against Michelle. Well to touch on the first point and talking about the kind of the bubbles and these kind of filters and you only see more people like you and therefore it's reinforcing.
I think that's just a reflection of the real world right and I really hold hold true to the belief that generally speaking everything we do in the palm of our hand or online is an extension of what we're doing in everyday life anyway and that's why it works otherwise we wouldn't be doing it at all.
So I don't think that we can put the blame on Facebook or Instagram or any of these other social products and I think that that's just an extension of what we already do and I don't think that they've made it any worse I think you're just more aware of it because you're seeing it in a different context and I think context is everything and it's very important in that.
I also think that talking about you know prolonged use and prolonged use of social and does it have an impact and I think there is a distinction between prolonged use of social and prolonged use of devices because if obviously if you spend your whole life here and forget to do this that is very different to using social products to either find connectivity, to find information, to reach different parts of the world that you may not have ever been able to do before and so for me I suppose the way I see social is a way to broaden horizons to make contacts to understand different perspectives to reach different areas that you may not reach before and of course that comes with a health warning of and don't use it so that you become completely kind of tunnel vision but it does mean that if you are using it in a way that is an exploratory it can really open your world up and I remember someone saying to me do you think that social media is making people lonelier and to me it kind of felt like a really strange question at the time because it was going it was a time that I was kind of speaking to a lot of women specifically who were extremely lonely in their in a part of their the kind of life journey and I all I could think was what could be lonelier than sitting at 2 a.m.
feeling like you're the only person in the world doing something and not being able to speak with anyone what could be more lonely than that well being able to make a connection on social or through a device that that doesn't make you more lonely that actually helps you to reach out so I think you know there are extremes of course in everything but generally speaking the way I view it is opening up opening our world and I think as long as we use it with the right kind of health warnings and we understand what what the issues are and we understand the bubble then I think it is a force for good right well and it is interesting if you think about the notion of sort of the bubble and sort of a selection bias right I mean if I go to a newsstand I pick up the paper that I agree with right if I'm on Twitter which I don't do that much but if I'm on Twitter I'm probably following people for the most part that that I agree with and and the question just becomes then kind of how do you put the onus back on the consumer to to keep that conversation and that that dialogue and that sort of community and force for change really alive yeah and I think that we do have to be aware of the impact of not understanding what's outside of your bubble and but that's that's always been the case you've spoken about newspapers but it's also reflective of your friends and unless you are particularly focused on making sure that you get every side of the story you will always believe your own side of the story a little bit more so I think there is an education piece and perhaps that's where there's something that's you know at school level with our children to understand how you go about finding the other side of the argument yeah I mean you go back to the the time of newspapers and I'm gonna stay on the negative and that's not to say that I don't think there is a positive I do believe in it and I've definitely been a beneficiary of that but you think about a time of newspapers and TV channels and there were a certain number of sources of truth there were a certain set of facts that people would rely on in the first instance and it gave people even if they disagreed a common set of facts over which to disagree disagree over people were coming from a common set of facts and I think the proliferation that social has enabled has meant that when people are disagreeing they're not even disagreeing over the same set of facts anymore like you have a set of facts that suits your case and you go out and find it and I do agree with Michelle that in many respects like this is a reflection of humanity like social is a reflection of humanity and it's not all social's fault but I do feel like built into it there are things that take advantage of and exacerbate the worst parts of humanity whether it's whether it's vanity whether it's it's like I'm right and you're wrong whether it's confirmation bias there are a whole series of things that people take advantage of and underlying that which is very concerning for me and the type of the way I think about the world is there is a business model that has been built to take advantage of that like Facebook makes more money when people are on there arguing like that's that's more time on site that's more opportunities for ads and and this idea that you have incentives aligned because they rely on advertising they want people there I mean it's it's they have an incentive to make it addictive and that that scares me a little bit because like I start to think about tobacco and big sugar and then the way to make it addictive is to like you like give things that bring out the worst in people like make people angry they'll stay longer on the site they'll engage with it longer that again that concerns me that concerns me for society and you start to see it run amok in places in like like Burma and Sri Lanka and where it's not being closely monitored and some of the effects this can have on on societies there like that's where it's run and like it's being it's being managed more tightly here in the US and in what in the West but again there are things about it that caused me to be deeply unsettled and yet there are issues that we now we learn of and we know about because of social media so there are there are incidents that are happening in places like Burma that ordinarily someone sitting at you know at their home in Doncaster Isaacs family there wouldn't have uncovered and they wouldn't understand and they wouldn't discover and so from a discovery point of view and from an understanding point of view it does open doors and another side to that also actually is really raising the public consciousness for supporting good being able to get behind a cause for good or a good campaign because you've seen something that is something that we haven't been able to do remember when people used to go around with their like can you sign my petition or can you sponsor me for my whatever you know that things have moved on and and that's because of the power of you know bringing people together on an online community.
We have a good cop bad cop routine going.
Unintentionally. I think I think so I agree I worry that in at least a couple of those instances whether these things might not have emerged had social not been present but then I mean to make your case like you think about something like me too and how there are these people and I mean maybe this is the place where we do start to pivot the conversation into the great parts of it like the the number of people that just got away doing absolutely horrendous things and they did it because they were able to do it because they were gatekeepers and like the nature of the Internet and the nature of social media in in breaking down gatekeepers yes you you have the ability to start spreading bad things about racial minorities or religious minorities in these countries but at the same time like like the environment is safer for people that where it wasn't previously safe they didn't have a safe workplace like I mean that's a fantastic thing there are many many things to be grateful for it for but the the tension in it and I guess that's like with so many things right like the good and the bad you've got to take them both you can't just have one or the other and I you know to use that you mentioned tobacco and big sugar and I was actually in my mind thinking about alcohol you know we all know the difference between having a drink and enjoying it and taking it too far and we've all been there but I think of it in that way we all if we all understand the health warnings that come with it and we use it positively for good then I think it's a tool that can really help broaden everyone's horizon actually yeah when it is interesting to to think about it is this a tool that creates and deepens conversations or is it more of and it's sort of a dialogue and it's and it's robust or is this mostly like a curated sort of broadcast mechanism and I think that it's hard sometimes in that to also think about separating the media from from the network and the different structures of the different networks I mean it's both right like there's the worst of it where you have people like distilling really complicated things down into slurs of 280 characters or less and at the other extreme like one of my good friends and collaborators Ben Thompson we do a podcast together and I met him off Twitter like and this is I mean Twitter is like at the other extreme for me and I mean different people have different if you if you're the subject of a whole bunch of abuse you probably have a different opinion on it but for me Twitter is one of these things where it's the creation of a network of people that are interested in the same things you are that just wasn't possible before Twitter came along like Facebook is digitizing friend relationships I didn't have these Twitter relationships before I couldn't find the people around the world that were interested in the same thing that I was interested in and as a result of like writing and getting things out there and if you have good ideas they'll get picked up and then meeting people who are interested in the same things you are and then collaborating with them and now we have a podcast that like goes around to people around the world and that kind of blows my mind and like this is the this is the flip side of like again the gatekeepers get pulled down and it means folks like me who might have had to you know work their way up through some academic or newspaper or whatever in order to get heard like if we have something valuable to say we're able to build an audience on the quality of what we say so I think it's both you know yeah and I think that from my perspective if you if you can accept some of you will some of you won't but the social generally social products have become so broad and so vast what I think is exciting and where I think there is good also to come is there exists these opportunities for verticals and social communities within all of these different verticals and that's really exciting that means that whatever you know you're into whatever is your thing there is a whole potential community that can open up to you and not just because of the breadth of something like Twitter or an insta or whatever it is but because it's a community by someone like you for someone like you and whether that's anime whether that's women who are moms whatever it is there is an opportunity for all of these kind of vertical communities and I think that's exciting because how do you find each other before that I know it kind of it occurred to me when I was first arrived in California this most recent time around I rented a car and I was listening to Sirius which I was excited this car had satellite radio because it gave you all these channels and I was listening to dance music I love electronic dance music mostly British audience so I feel like unlike America you guys might actually understand what I'm talking about and all these DJs were talking about download my podcast download my podcast and I finally went and did it and I was like this is just gonna be a bad version of what was on Sirius and it turns out it was exactly the same thing and it kind of dawned on me that previously when we'd been listening to the radio it had been geographically restricted and so everybody like piled into the middle to trying to appeal to as many people as possible and suddenly your addressable market is the whole planet so if you have some niche audience if you were restricted to the geography you wouldn't be able to get scale but when your addressable audience is the entire planet suddenly you can find scale in terms of these audiences and it was like this is so friggin cool and to the point around verticals I Jen and I were talking about this earlier it's Craigslist which lots of you I'm sure would know like a lot of the time these things start off as a very horizontal broad based thing but one of the observations that I that kind of happened was verticals would get pulled off like Airbnb was a vertical that peeled off Craigslist and it strikes me that what you're doing is almost like a vertical that's that's peeling off of Facebook and because the general platform can't do it anywhere near as well as the deep specific like focus on the user need and I think that's super cool.
Thank you I mean I do too so that's good but yeah I agree with you and I just I see it coming up all the time and you know in lots of these different verticals and touching on one of the other things you said about democratizing kind of access or access to whether it's work or access to people it also kind of democratizes your brand as well and something that was kind of under lock and key to like big brands and big agencies has been unlocked you can create whether it's your own personal brand or your own business brand on social media now and that isn't I mean a lot of it is to do with spend but it's not all to do with spend if you're creating like cool creative fun engaging content that's relevant to your audience it's completely democratized now you can do that and you know whether that's from people who have become insta famous because they have an audience who really what they say resonates with them or whether it's because you've got a YouTube channel where you're unpacking kids toys it's a thing and people are watching it it doesn't matter it there there is this kind of democratization of it and I think that again provided that we're aware of the pitfalls of that I think that's exciting.
It's just this notion of everything that was once physical is now being digitized like those phones we carry around are basically like digital avatars to this electronic world and we can tap in in so many different ways that weren't previously possible and what you can do whether it's summon a car like the idea that this little thing can make bits in the real world move and pick you up and what life was like before that or like you think about the problem of dating like you people would go to bars or you get introduced to friends and then the first time Internet dating came along and people thought you were weird if you've met someone off the Internet.
Now people think you're weird if you haven't met someone. It's kind of crazy.
How did you meet? In a bar? Really? I mean there's so much good that can come by digitally representing what is physical and the way you can manipulate it and learn about it and move bits or meet people that you otherwise wouldn't would never have been able to meet like on the whole I think it's fantastic it's just yeah we need to be careful about some of the extreme versions of it I guess.
Yeah and I think it's interesting now when we are it's being brought into our consciousness how much time we're spending on our device and you know it was interesting to watch last week with Apple talking about how they're gonna tell us exactly what we're spending on and how you know how that's impacting us you know there is a move forward to that so you know I think we have to be aware of lifting our head up as I've said before but I do think there is a lot.
I mean life happens out here right?
Right. It does and being mindful and like not just I mean sometimes sitting and being okay being bored is a good thing and you'll have great ideas and like some of that is definitely being lost because the moment you feel like that it's like out it comes or you feel a buzz in your pocket and you're like oh I wonder what that was like I'm gonna pull it out and it's it's like playing into this FOMO when like there are all these interesting people all around you or interesting experiences or things to be grateful for and it can be distracting from that.
Sure and I definitely you know when I hear messages like okay the first 30 seconds of our content are the most important otherwise we've lost the viewer and you're like that's sad because actually what we have to say is a little bit longer than 30 seconds you know there are things like that where I do it's definitely down to that ability to concentrate yeah and that we've lost that ability to really focus on things and we need like bite-sized yeah exactly I need it now and I want it now oh too slow I'm on to the next you know that that is a shame but I almost wonder whether we might come full circle from that.
You're still hoping. Yeah well it's also interesting to think about you know how does that change the way that we interact with each other right I mean what like what what's what's sort of happening here are the norms that we've had in the real world coming to social or social actually starting to inform the way that we hear and consume news right and again I go back to my metaphor of the newspaper because I think I'm probably one of the last people in the world that actually gets a physical print newspaper delivered to their doorstep everyone I'm old man old but you know even just watching the way that are the writing in the media has changed if you look at the way that newspapers right the way that we're communicating has changed as well completely I mean how many people think that like someone's a weirdo if they call you these days I'm always like call me message me what's wrong with you apart from if it's my mom so if there is that moment of has it has it changed the way we interact most definitely has it also meant that sometimes you're talking to someone they pick up their phone and maybe you know two years ago you would have been like hey put it down and now you're like oh you're doing this yeah exactly yeah it definitely has had an impact I think it's a dance to like I think what like we bring these customs and norms to the online world but then the customs and norms that develop in the online world start coming back and I I mean for all the madness that's been focused on social media and the big tech companies I do think it is making people more aware of this stuff and I think it's good I mean I do hold that hope like we've like Ben and I have built an audience for example of people listening to us talk for an hour like the folks in this room like you're all demonstrating some serious willpower and concentration listening to I won't put you guys but me rambling on this long and all the other speakers so I do have hope like and I think there is something to be gained by that that going deep into something and I think people maybe it doesn't lend itself necessarily to that well but people discover it even by accident and then they get hooked on this long-form thing and like okay I am gonna stay here I'm gonna stop being distracted speaking of engaging in conversation we only have a little over five minutes left I wanted to open it up to the audience to see if there are any questions in the thought process around having different groups able to discuss issues on which they disagree and having the sort of a central set of facts in order to have like a discourse I also I'm curious and you've lost gatekeepers so the traditional media that used to have editors and ensure that you had some sort of yeah constant facts I feel like we're we're having a higher expectation for the consumers of media to be able to evaluate what is factual what is not factual and I'm curious do you have a feeling of the best way to to empower media consumers or strategies for many consumers to make them more sophisticated so that people are on a more level playing field it's a long question but hey I think it's diversity I think if you have lots of diversity then you you get exposed to lots of different things and you're much less likely to see one thing and take it at face value like if you start to see opposing viewpoints and like I'll bring it back a level as like rather than just insist consumers look for diversity the thing for me that I struggle with around like dominance of certain companies in certain sectors is that there's not a business model creating diversity like right now like from a social media perspective when people are opening apps that typically opening apps that's owned by one company and because of that from an advertiser's perspective it all tends towards there because it's not worth it to deal with the rest and then everyone has to conform and then they change their algorithm and then like you know people live and die on that I definitely think there's something around diversity breeding like this okay it's the resistance if you don't have the gatekeepers for better or worse you want diversity so people can see oh it might be something different and you want diversity of business models and diversity of opinions sitting underneath that and that's that's the thing about another thing about Facebook I'm a little worried about just a question in terms of Facebook for example if Facebook were being set up today what would you like to see change because I mean I'm thinking in particular of people in the audience here today have grown up and seen how it's worked and how it's not worked but young people yes there are lots of adults that are vulnerable young people have been vulnerable on platforms like Facebook and they've suffered so what would you like to see whether it's you know in today's Facebook whether it's the future of Facebook to make sure that they are not affected in the same way there have been Facebook's taken a long time to admit that they're not doing things right hindsight's perfect right so I don't know whether I can say definitively oh this is what I think they should have done and you know speed of response maybe it's for another time and probably with someone from Facebook who can who can talk about it but I suppose that what I think we will see more of in the future is more safeguarding more immediate kind of access you know there was a time when it wasn't so easy to report and it wasn't so easy to remove and we kind of did that kind of has developed and now it's absolutely industry standard that of course you must have all of this functionality and we only learn when something terrible has happened so that you can kind of move on and it kind of takes some of those mistakes to happen before you understand what it is that you need to change so I don't know that we can say it should have been like this because no one ever probably at that very point of inception you know anticipated that it would turn into what it is now but I think to think about all the things that we wish they had done perhaps overlooks all the good things that they have done it's a really political I mean I might take a slightly different approach which is like what should we have done differently I think the the very obvious one is like I don't think they should have been allowed to acquire whatsapp and Instagram like the cons to speak to the diversity point before the concentration is a real problem I think the thing that the thing that is most concerning to me is like this mixture of an advertising business model merged in with with them then incenting to keep people's behavior like whether they like it or not success is associated from a money but also a product perspective success is associated with more people spending more time looking at the app and that's like a dangerous thing like and Google it's not advertising in general because Google has an advertising business model but you come into Google and Google's trying to send you off straight away for example with the search engine maybe YouTube's more in the in the Facebook category but it's like this where you have advertising attached to like keeping people there and keeping people like engaged that's where you start to see the problems I think well thank you guys both for the wonderful conversation I really enjoyed it today and thank you all for for the