How Overenthusiasm for Tech Led to an Era of Oversharing and Data Scandals

This started a decade before Cambridge Analytica

We're in what feels like a dystopia due to the role tech has taken in our lives. Getty Images
Headshot of Toby Daniels

As an industry, we are at an important inflection point. We’ve lost trust in the technologies that promised to improve the way we communicate with each other. We took mottos like Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” at face value and blindly followed the hype—and frankly, the dollars—to the point we’re at today. And now we must face the music.

Of course, the song has been the same for some time. I saw Jonathan Taplin, author of Move Fast and Break Things, speak at Social Media Week last year. He warned of the increasing powers of the Big Three (Amazon, Facebook and Google) and why the volume of data held by platforms was problematic. Taplin and a handful of others have brought forth similar warnings that pique interest and even conjure a few gasps but never lead us to change.

Now we’re grappling with the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, still asking, “How could we let this happen?” It’s our over-trust in large platforms—the same ones that gave us marketing innovations and positivity—that have shown what is truly possible.

Left unfettered for over 10 years, social media platforms have collectively contributed to the demise of our psychological well-being, reinvigorated culture wars and partisanship and influenced the course of democracy. It’s a tough pill to swallow, considering that these companies ushered in a golden era of marketing that has benefitted many of us.

As the flow of social ad budgets increased and a single tweet could win a Cannes Lion award, we forked over our data without regard to the long-term impact. As an industry, and as consumers, we trusted too much and questioned too little during a decade of key events that led us here.

2007–2012: Smartphones usher in the age of oversharing

The iPhone release in June 2007 forever changed the way humans and marketers behave. Smartphones democratized the media landscape: Anyone with a camera could tell a story, and those stories were data shared with platforms and advertisers. Foursquare launched in 2009 at SXSW to become an instant darling in the tech world. “Checking in” became mainstream.

Oversharing became the new normal. In fact, if you look at Google Trends data, the term “overshare” peaked in 2012. That same year, Facebook bought Instagram for a billion dollars and then went public.

2012–2015: Boom times give tech celebrity treatment

Social media went from a niche internet trend to the most influential medium in the world. Gary Vaynerchuk evolved from that guy who screams about wine on YouTube to celebrity-level entrepreneur and influencer. Obama won the presidency, in part, due to his team’s ability to use digital channels and data to their advantage. In 2014, the Ice Bucket Challenge dominated culture and became one of the most successful marketing campaigns.

Social media platforms have collectively contributed to the demise of our psychological well-being, reinvigorated culture wars and partisanship and influenced the course of democracy.

As we shared and #hashtagged, we remained naively optimistic while, in the backdrop, it was becoming evident that the titans of tech were amassing an alarming amount of power. In 2015, Facebook’s valuation soared to $250 billion. Within a couple of years, the combined valuation of the top five companies in tech would hit $3 trillion.

2015–present: The end of the honeymoon

At the height of our infatuation with social media and tech, we began to question the type of world that was created. In 2015, Pew conducted a study that found that the percentage of Americans who got their news from Facebook and Twitter was on the rise. This trend helped lay the groundwork for the political manipulations and so-called fake news that would follow during the next election cycle.

About a year later, Forbes featured Jared Kushner on the cover. The headline read, “How Jared Kushner Won Trump the White House,” supported by an article that credited Kushner’s digital efforts as pivotal to his father-in-law’s successful presidential campaign.

Flash-forward to the present when similar tactics are under scrutiny as part of investigations into how platforms can be weaponized. Platforms are beginning to take preventive steps, but their efforts haven’t been enough to satisfy critics.

We reached the tipping point with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. There are many reasons that the March 2018 revelation that the company gained access to private information on more than 50 million Facebook users was a watershed moment. Perhaps much of our shock comes down to trust. After all, betrayal leads to anger like few emotions can.

2018–beyond: How to move forward

The challenge with earning back trust begins with taking the first step: Admit culpability. Facebook is currently out in front with a series of costly, high-profile print ads that ironically enough do just that. Whether you agree with that response, the accountability shouldn’t end with Facebook. We all need to look in the mirror.

The past decade has shown that we gladly put ourselves at the mercy of the platforms. We were too optimistic, too myopic about what the future might look like and how our industry should evolve. We had no better ideas.

The time has come to take responsibility for the problems and shape a future that also holds each social media platform accountable.

The Center for Humane Technology, led by former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, are blazing a trail toward exposing the way technology negatively skews reality and truth.

There has never been a greater need for an honest and open dialogue among everyone, particularly the platforms, brands, agencies and publishers. We need to identify what must change and change it so we can realize the utopian future we all imagine is possible.

@tobyd Toby Daniels is CEO of Crowdcentric and the founder of Social Media Week.