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Australians have a special place in the tech world: lab rats. Big tech has discovered that we’re the Goldilocks size to test market what we do on our daily runs through their social media maze, posting and sharing in the quest for the cheese — or likes.

For the past two years, Facebook has been testing whether dialling back the pressure of the tools that measure “success” would make us feel better or worse about ourselves. In late 2019, it turned off the like count on Instagram “to see if it might depressurise people’s experience” in Australia and a handful of other markets.

The platform found — and I know this will shock you — that some people liked it, and some people didn’t. The company shrugged that it didn’t change the user experience for good or ill. It was particularly unpopular among heavy users who need the measurement the likes count gives so that they can turn it into money or status.

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As a result (as Australia’s 10 million Insta users have found) like counts are back by default, but can be turned off by the user, either always or post by post. In the hyperbole of platform-speak this is called “giving people more control” . (Here’s an idea for more control: hand back our data!)

At one level it’s just another iteration in Stanford University’s design thinking process which has become a sort of underpinning operating system for Silicon Valley thinking.

Hold on: there’s a more important data point here to suggest that maybe the whole outrage about the outrage on social media has been overplayed by just a tad or so? Maybe, it turns out, users are perfectly able to take what they want from the platforms and leave the rest behind.

Last month more substantial evidence turned up that the social media panic may be overhyped. While Instagram was finalising its shift for Australians, a 30-year study of British teenagers from Oxford University punctured our era’s enduring moral panics when it found that there was little evidence that adolescent mental health has been adversely affected by the internet.

Same-same last year, when the US Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry published a review of the research from 2014 to 2019 finding only “small associations between the amount of daily digital technology usage and adolescents’ well-being that do not offer a way of distinguishing cause from effect”.

Feel wrong? Perhaps.

Blame old media: social media gets bad press. As we know from Australia’s earlier lab rat role in the fight over the new media bargaining code, old media resent the platforms for barging in and stealing their readers’ attention — and their advertisers’ dollars. (Now the new media bargaining code has brought a multimillion-dollar financial symbiosis to old media and big tech, perhaps that bad press, too, will change.)

Blame Donald Trump. The wonder of the super computer in your pocket that is the smartphone and the global connected-ness of Facebook crashed into the 2016 election data scandal and a bot-amplified Trump on Twitter. Yep. Trump caused the tech-lash, says University of Southern California researcher Nirit Weiss-Blatt.

Just as the tech platforms rode the Trump bump up, it’s now leading the Trump dump, banning him from Twitter for life and, as announced at the weekend, from Facebook until 2023.

Blame big tech. It’s become too rich, too loud, too ubiquitous — too irritating — too soon, as Malcolm Turnbull found when he stumbled over his “most exciting time to be alive” pitch to become PM in 2015.

Big tech is discovering the lesson that old media learnt: it’s possible to like (or at least tolerate) the product and hate the product owner.

Blame the kids today. Each emerging medium sets off a moral panic — think comic books in the ’30s or television in the ’60s. Now, that happens to be social media. Good news from the Oxford University study: as soon as something new comes along, we’ll shift our panic neurons to worry about that.

Maybe we don’t need tests and studies to inform judgments about the internet’s social impact. We’ve had the pandemic. From Netflix through working from home to QR tracing, it’s been the internet that’s made it endurable.

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Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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