In the late 1960s, a countercultural magazine was launched by the biologist-turned-writer Stewart Brand offering tips and tools on everything from goat husbandry to purifying water to giving birth at home. The Whole Earth Catalog was a manual for life aimed at empowering readers through access to information. The strapline? “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”
The Catalog was shortlived, producing its final issue in 1971, though Brand went on to co-found the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link, aka Well, with his friend Larry Brilliant in 1985. A progenitor of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, Well was the world’s first online community founded on the idea that people should have access to everything and everyone. “People would get to know each other and not know whether the person they were talking to was black or white, male or female, tall or short,” recalls Brilliant. “When Martin Luther King said people would be known not by the colour of their skin but the content of their character, I saw that happen.”
So what went wrong? In the new BBC podcast, The Gatekeepers, Jamie Bartlett traces a path from Brand and Brilliant’s early utopian vision to today’s social media platforms, which have become engines of conflict and disinformation. Along with Brilliant, he talks to former Twitter employees including Yoel Roth, whose job was to moderate the platform’s feeds after the 2020 US election when supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building. (It was Roth who suspended Donald Trump’s Twitter account.) He also meets venture capitalist Roger McNamee, who advised Mark Zuckerberg to turn down a $1bn offer to buy Facebook in 2006 and see through his vision to connect people online on a massive scale.
The series is certainly timely, arriving days after Zuckerberg and the heads of other social media platforms appeared before a Senate judiciary committee about online safety, during which Zuckerberg was pressed to apologise to the parents of children who they say were harmed by his platforms. This year also marks 20 years of Facebook, which doesn’t feel like cause for celebration. And yet the tale of a social network cooked up by Zuckerberg in a Harvard dorm, and which would go on to stoke societal divisions and has been shown to be damaging to some young people, is one already exhaustively covered by journalists, documentarians and, yes, podcasters. As origin stories go, this one has already been done to death.
The second episode finds Bartlett focusing on monetisation and the rise of the ad-based business model, revealing how the social media mission shifted from connecting the world to keeping us online for as long as possible and “scooping up your time, attention and personal data”. Terrible, yes, but again, this isn’t headline news. It’s early days for The Gatekeepers, so one hopes there are greater revelations in the pipeline. While contemplating how we got here has its merits, surely the more pressing question is how we make it stop.
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