The Sunday Edition

In the 2010s the internet went from being 'elsewhere' to ruling our lives

Dizzying changes in the world of social media and the internet have had profound consequences — for how we consume the news, how we talk, how we vote, how we rest, how we learn, how we work, and how we view the world around us. Elamin Abdelmahmoud, curation editor at BuzzFeed News and co-host of the CBC podcast Party Lines, talks to Michael Enright about how the internet has changed us — for better and worse — this decade.
Dizzying changes in the world of social media and the internet have had profound consequences — for how we consume the news, how we talk, how we vote, how we rest, how we learn, how we work, and how we view the world around us. (iStock/Getty Images)
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Elamin Abdelmahmoud is the editor of curation for BuzzFeed News and the social media editor for BuzzFeed Canada. (Submitted by Elamin Abdelmahmoud)

It is hard to think of any industry or aspect of our lives that has not been touched by the tentacles of the internet and social media in the past decade.

Over the last 10 years, changes to those platforms have had profound consequences for how we consume the news, how we talk, how we vote, how we rest and how we view the world around us.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud's life and work revolve around the internet and he has thought deeply about all the ways it is changing us, both good and bad.

He is a curation editor at Buzzfeed News, a regular CBC culture and media contributor and the co-host of the CBC podcast Party Lines.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud's comments have been edited and condensed.


The internet is now in our pockets

I had a lot of fun with the internet between the years of 2001 and 2008, before I got my first iPhone. Part of that was because I had to go to the internet. It was an active decision. I would be sitting in my house and say 'now it's time to go on the internet' and spend hours on there and then after that, I would leave it alone and go do something else with my time. With the introduction of the mobile phone and the ways that the iPhone has reinvented how we treat the internet, it's just become a constant. The notion that you could carry the internet with you doesn't mean that you should, but we all got into that habit and it accelerated the pace of our lives in a way that I don't think we anticipated.

How our attention has been monetized

The one big thing that really changed was that all of a sudden you had people's attention much more frequently than you used to. That meant you could do more with that attention. So you could serve more ads against more articles; you could publish more. News organizations started publishing more articles that were much shorter so that they could sell more ads against those articles. The news itself started accelerating. All of a sudden, we went from a 24-hour news cycle, which was considered really fast already, to something like a news cycle of every 15 minutes.

And it's good for business. It's good for the people who sell ads on the internet because they have our attention. They could give us something new every few minutes in order to sell ads against that. It's a disquieting evolution. I don't think we were meant to live this way.

How the gig economy evolved

It's certainly a different way of doing things. They say "we're disrupting this economy," meaning that it has grown inefficient and everyone knows the problems that they have with it — it's just not working. So how do we make it better?

A sign marks a pick-up point for the Uber car service at LaGuardia Airport in New York on March 15, 2017. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)

In the case of Uber, it's a pretty elegant solution to a problem that people have had before, which is: How do I get a taxi that comes quicker to exactly where I am, and I could set the level of interaction that I'd like to have with this driver? Solving that problem became a disruption to the way that we've been doing things. A lot of people would say it is for the better, but we didn't really know its effects on society when Uber first came into being. Now we know that what Uber launched became the model for this whole gig economy that we have, which is much more unstable. People are having a harder time organizing for their rights in that economy. So that's been a disruption that people certainly didn't anticipate.

How the internet has changed the way we interact with one another

One of the things that strengthened our social fabric was that you occasionally had to interact with the people who provided services for you. That brought you into closer proximity with a different reality than your own.

For some people, it clearly makes them uncomfortable in some way. It's an inconvenient part of your day to spell your name for the person at Starbucks. It's an inconvenient part of your day to talk to a taxi driver that you don't want to have a conversation with. These are parts of what made people people and you kind of had to put up with that.

A rider for the food delivery service Deliveroo makes a food delivery in London, England. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

And then this decade came along and said, "Wait a minute, maybe you don't." Maybe you don't have to pick up the phone and talk to someone at a pizza place who might not understand you. You can just punch it into an app and you never have to talk to that person again. Does that solve a problem? Sure. Does that create a bigger one? I think so — a problem of social cohesion. People become invisible to you if you don't have a need for them and I think that is one of the worst effects of this decade.

The rise of social media

Social media certainly doesn't have the best reputation at the moment. But it didn't start off that way. If you think about the earlier social media forums, places like MySpace for example, it was not an especially toxic space. You existed on it as you would any other web forum in that you would curate a little bit about yourself, you would share about the music that you're listening to, the books that you're reading, etc. It was very nice. It was a very human place. There wasn't really space for animosity. It wasn't built for that.

We've spent this decade having conversations about how social media platforms can police hate. And they are by and large not responding to the criticisms that are being directed at them,  mostly with no consequences. Facebook comes along and says, "We will aim to regulate all of these things as much as possible." But it's still impossibly easy for people to join groups that are built around hate. It's not necessarily hate, but the idea of a common interest — hate being allowed as a part of that.

A cellphone user thumbs through the privacy settings on a Facebook account. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

How quickly it all happened

There are sentences that you can say now that you couldn't say at the beginning of the decade. They would not make sense if you were to say them in 2010. The notion of, "Hey, so I saw this person on Tinder and so I looked up their Instagram and then I took an Uber to meet them," is an illogical sentence to someone who lived in 2010 because none of those things existed. These things have reshaped their fields. Instagram is only eight years old and it has billions of people using the platform. Tinder has reshaped all of the dating habits for people my age and it is six years old. Uber is 10 years old. These are very young technologies. And we have, without question, embraced their premise and said, "Yeah, I'll buy in." Perhaps we were too quick to do so.

What's coming next is that when we see new things pop up, we ought to consider what they really mean for the way that we interact with that area.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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