October 29, 2019

Derek Thompson is a writer for The Atlantic, host of the podcast Crazy/Genius, author of the national best-selling book, Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction, and news analyst at NPR. Thompson is quick-witted and, unapologetically, calls it exactly as he sees it.

I recently heard Thompson speak at the University of Richmond for their series Digital Dystopias: Truth and Representation in the Internet Age. The series “examines the benefits, pitfalls, and challenges facing the next generation as it navigates an online world with global influence on politics, economics, and society.” Specifically, Thompson spoke to Economics and Influence in Digital Spaces.  Here are five of the most fascinating takeaways I learned from his perspectives on truth and intention in today’s digital world:

  • The companies consumers often perceive as “good” or “successful” actually aren’t. Thompson questions their value. For example, consider the companies that are “free” for consumers – Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Google. We pay nothing, and yet, they make money… how? They grab our attention and then they sell our attention to others. And by doing so, they’re worth trillions. On the other hand, consider companies like Lyft, Uber, WeWork, and Quip, in which consumers do pay for services, and yet are losing billions. Neither group is both good and successful by traditional economic standards.
  • Today’s social media is not unlike how media started in the 1800s. It was not really based on facts; the content was to amplify the weird and extreme. And they sold papers for cheap and then made money by selling space to advertisers. Thompson called today’s social media a “petri dish for the extreme” and a “global megaphone for lies.”
  • Thompson says one of the most powerful aspects of the internet and social media is to help minorities connect with each other. He notes the good connections, such as parents of children with a rare disease, fans of the Bulgarian football team, and 50-year alumni of a small college. He also reminds us that the internet and social media help the minority groups such as conspiracy theorists, terrorists, and other evil-motivated people find their like-minded connections.
  • Recently, Facebook made many changes to its advertising policies, yet decided to allow politicians to continue to publish mis-information and lies. Thompson wonders why Facebook believes politicians are exempt from being truthful and being held accountable for dishonesty. Further, he believes this loophole can mean anyone can claim to be running for office or affiliated with a political campaign and use that opening to publish whatever they choose.
  • The side effect of our relationship with the internet and social media is human un-interaction. Dating begins online, the world of DIY videos, and of course, the anxiety/resentment/guilt of seeing “the perfect life of everyone else.” Thompson reminds us that people scrub and idealize their lives for social media presentation and we willingly believe that to be the truthful reflection.

Navigating the internet and social media industry – whether for business or personal use – requires us to wear an extra vigilant lens for what is perceived and misleading versus what is truthful and real. You may think Thompson views progress with a jaundiced, old-person’s outlook; he is 33.