Many people imagine 19th-century antebellum America as a frontier fantasia: men with handlebar mustaches sitting in dusty saloons, kicking back moonshine whiskey, as a piano player picks out tunes in the background. In reality, though, life was a little more sordid: Americans spent their time after work in fully legal heroin dens; in 1885, opium and cocaine were even given to children to help with teething. “Cocaine Toothache Drops,” which were marketed as presenting an “instantaneous cure” were sold for 15 cents a box. Today, in the midst of our opioid crisis, we hear about this past and wonder unequivocally, what the hell were they thinking?
I often wonder the same thing when I think about social media and its current domination of our society. Will a future generation look back in 10, 20, or maybe 100 years from now and wonder, mystifyingly, why a generation of humans believed in these platforms despite mounting evidence that they were tearing society apart—being used as terrorist recruitment tools, facilitating bullying, driving up anxiety, and undermining our elections—despite the obvious benefits and facilitations they provide? Indeed, some of the people who gave us these platforms are already beginning to wonder if this is the case. Last month, I wrote a piece detailing how some early Facebook employees now feel about the monster they have created. As one early Facebook employee told me, “I lay awake at night thinking about all the things we built in the early days and what we could have done to avoid the product being used this way.”
After the piece published, I expected to receive angry e-mails and text messages from current or former Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram employees. Instead, my inbox was flooded with former (and even current!) employees of these social networks, who confided that they felt the same way. Some even mentioned they had abandoned the platforms themselves. The people who reached out ranged in pay grade from engineers to C-suite executives. Some venture capitalists who once funded the companies, or their competitors, have told me that they no longer use them—or do so sparingly. After witnessing Trump’s use of social networks, Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures wrote last month that he had deleted Facebook and Twitter from his phone. “This has really had a massive improvement on every day of my life in ways I can’t describe unless you try it yourself,” he wrote. This squares with the countless journalists who have told me they have deleted their accounts, removed the apps from their phone, or simply walked away from the world of social media.