Consilium: Social media is destroying society? Good!

Last month I took part in a fascinating discussion about the impact of social media and related breakthroughs at Consilium [PDF], an invitation-only annual conference put together by the Centre for Independent Studies. Here’s part of what I said.

The panel was called “Social Creatures: How social media is changing the landscape”. I joined Iarla Flynn, Google Australia’s head of public policy and government affairs; Nick Holder, a partner at LEK Consulting; and Cassandra Wilkinson, co-founder and president of FBi Radio, and author of Don’t Panic! Nearly Everything is Better than You Think.

The full blurb and a scheduled duration of 1 hour 45 minutes gave us plenty of scope for discussion and, as became clear once we were under way, for this particular audience much of what we were saying was new.

Consilium was held under a modified Chatham House Rule, which means I can’t bring you the whole discussion. But I did record my opening remarks and my summary, and I have permission from those I namechecked to mention their names — except for one that’s redacted.

Somehow I managed to use the phrase “arse end of the bell curve” and mention Prince Harry’s pubic hair. It’s a gift.

The full transcript is over the jump. Audio and text ©2012 Stilgherrian.

Stilgherrian’s Opening Remarks

Yes, social media is destroying society — in the same way that books destroyed society and the telephone destroyed society. That is, it’s destroying society as it was because it’s part of the society that is to be.

I mean that’s what a revolution is about, right?

Things change in a revolution. And during a revolution things change dramatically. Some things get broken. Some things get completely destroyed. So that’s where we are now.

Now, I’m actually quite flattered to be here because I haven’t even run a company, run a country, an international institution, I haven’t studied anything in depth. I’ve just lived in your future for the last thirty years — that is, the future of instantaneous global digital communication.

And in the last few years I’ve had the luxury — as has now a couple of billion people around the planet — of doing that using a mobile device in their pocket.

And it’s a future where every communication that humans make is not only live by satellite — or, I should say, live by optical fibre to be technically correct — but it’s archived forever, indexed and searchable by… by pretty much anyone who wants to put their mind to it.


So knowledge is power, right? So what we’re doing here is completely rewiring the way the human species handles information and knowledge for everyone on the planet. So that’s going to change power relationships at every level of society.

Or I should say that it is changing power relationships at every level of society. Need I say “Syria”?

But it’s also power relationships between businesses and their customers, between criminals and their victims — which is not quite the same thing — between police and criminals, citizens and their governments, parents and their children, everyone everywhere.

Now there’s a quote that my colleagues on this panel are going to be sick to death of hearing, but I’m going to use it anyway. It’s by science fiction and cyberpunk author William Gibson — the man who actually coined the word “cyberspace”, an act which I will never forgive him for. And he said:

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

So here’s a few random anecdotes from the future that have actually happened.

Around this time last year, I was at an event with former commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Keelty. He was actually wondering whether the age of the undercover cop and the covert special forces soldier is over.

Now Mick Keelty’s now working in academia. One of the things he did was survey all of the recruits for the federal police and NSW Police and, as he discreetly put it, “some other agencies”, everyone who was a recruit under the age of 26.

Every single one of them had uploaded their picture to the internet.

Now that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Look, Facebook’s the biggest gorilla in the room, it just has now a billion active users. In western countries like Australia, as we’ve heard, more people have Facebook profiles than not, even including the people who are not online. 80% of online Australians have a Facebook profile.

Now Facebook isn’t the only show in town. Maybe it won’t even be a significant player forever, what with its share price having dropped from $38 at IPO to $20 today, and there are gurgling noises that the eyeball time on Facebook has plateaued, but look there’ll be something like Facebook to replace it. Either way, it’s a pretty safe bet that in the very near future, if not today, everyone will have their photograph online.

So Mick Keelty also observed that outlaw motorcycle gangs are already attending the graduation ceremony at NSW’s Goulburn police academy and taking photographs of all the newly-graduated police officers.

He also observed that Facebook, Google, iPhoto that comes on every new Apple Mac, includes face recognition technology.

So it’s pretty easy to see that any biker gang, if they get a new and keen member, can just chuck the photo in and see who this bloke is.

Bear in mind that someone doing an undercover drug operation is taking on a mission that will last five to seven years. They only need one photograph thrown into the magic pond of the internet and their cover is blown.

Think about public servants who make the decisions about the family custody battles, the kind of thing we heard about yesterday. Well parents who lose custody of their kids sometimes get angry, and sometimes want to take revenge on someone.

Think about witness protection programs.

How can you turn up to the Australian embassy in Jakarta, say you’re the new trade commissioner for education, when there’s a photograph of you from your graduation from Royal Military College Duntroon in 2006 followed by this kind of six-year gap?

I should say, those new recruits, even if all of their Facebook profiles were somehow replaced with a suitable fictional one, a “legend” to use the spookland jargon, it wouldn’t be enough. Because of those new recruits, 85 percent said their photograph had actually been uploaded as well by someone else in their circle of friends.

42 percent said that, sure, using information online you could establish their relationships with other people, their “social map” [or “social graph“] as the social media expert gurus or SMEGs would call it.

Now that’s kind of one tour into criminality. Other kinds of criminality are of course the vast amount of online crime we hear about. Just to mention a couple of facts about that…

Most online criminals don’t do hacking themselves. They buy a hacking toolkit from organised criminals who have software development companies to make it. The tools can be bought in all manner of places online for a couple hundred, three hundred dollars US, and they come with technical support with a written service level agreement.

So if you’re having trouble adapting your hacking tool to Westpac’s new online banking site, well that’s OK. Just get onto the encrypted channel and Boris will give you a hand making sure your hack will continue to work.

Those toolkits, by the way, some people at one of the big infosec companies showed me how to use them. They’re very trivial to set up. At the end of a 90-minute lesson I was capable of infecting computers, building botnets, and installing the Zeus anti-banking trojan tool.

OK, I have a bit of a technical head start. I have a computing science and network administration background. But if you’ve got some basic technical skills and know how to set up a computer network, then 48 to 72 hours with Google and a bit of think-through and you’ll be there.

Now I’m glad Andrew Botros mentioned the Luddites in the previous session because they weren’t stupid people. They saw very clearly that the introduction of new technology would destroy their careers.

But in the age of the Luddites, it was actually the forces of the new, the progressive industrialists who were rolling out the new disruptive technologies of the automated weaving loom in their case, they were the ones that had the political influence to make sure the Luddites were the ones who were hanged or transported.

Today, it’s often the forces of the old, the established industries, that have the influence to position those using the new technologies as the criminals.

Classic example, the film and TV distribution industries. They’ve managed to position those who use peer to peer technologies like BitTorrent and so on to distribute digital video files — those people have become the pirates and thieves.

Now copyright infringement is illegal, obviously, but it’s not theft, technically. Either way, the intellectual property violations are being increasingly criminalised, and we’re seeing secretly-negotiated treaties coming into force. TPP comes to mind.

And yet NHK [I meant NRK], the Norwegian equivalent to the ABC, uses BitTorrent to distribute its programs. So rather than ABC iView, which has to pay for all of the internet bandwidth to distribute all that video, NHK NRK dumps the video files into the torrents and, well the taxpayers have paid for this, they have a right to see it, and if people overseas see it even better. And instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars for the bandwidth, they distributed an entire high-resolution TV documentary, [and the] total bandwidth costs about $18 I was told. [It was actually US$350 for storage and bandwidth, compared with US$8,000. Still a substantial saving.] Everyone just shared it out.

Now that’s all a topic by itself, but before I move on from that one I will say that let’s say you’re in a band, performing music. You record an album, it’s sold in shops traditionally on a CD for $20. Now the band members would be lucky to see $2 of that, 10%. The other $18, 90% of it, goes to middlemen. Marketing, wholesale and retail margin, taxes and so on.

If you like, the house takes 90%. Well even a hooker gets a better deal than that. Fifty-fifty is typical.

Now the Apple iTunes Store takes 30%, so Apple’s better that a hooker. OK, there’s no marketing budget in that, but it still means anyone can get their stuff on iTunes, take control of their own marketing, they’ve got a retail shop through Apple to do it, and that’s propelled Apple’s iTunes store to being the largest music retailer on the planet.

It’s led to some new artists, Amanda Palmer comes to mind, being able to do this herself without a record company.

Madonna dumped her record company some years ago. She now makes most of her money from touring and the recorded music is, if you like, an advertisement to get the fans to come to the concert, spend $120 on a ticket, $30 on a t-shirt, $20 on a souvenir programme, and that’s where the money is.

Harvey Norman, to jump over into the world of retail, he certainly doesn’t like the fact that the internet allows people to see for themselves that they can buy a TV cheaper overseas.

On the positive side, well, we’ve got things like people being able to crowdsource a lot of money to create their projects without having to deal with banks, and so on.

Now I skipping ahead to the end, but in all of that I haven’t actually mentioned “social media”, and that’s because I think social media is bullshit.

Over the last couple of years it’s become clear to me that the term “social media” was invented so all of this stuff, all of this normal human communication that’s moved online, could be branded as “media” so marketers could stick adverts into it and the existing media factories, bless you Nick, could denigrate it as kind of “the other”, the threat.

But all it’s just normal communication, warts and all, including the kind of bar-room banter that’s now on Twitter that we find oh-so-offensive. There are people now in jail in Britain for what they said on Twitter, for sentences of four years, so this is a lovely bit of freedom of speech stuff.

Now all these activities I’ve described [are] different, and there’s plenty more I can talk about but, when it comes down to it, it’s just normal human communication moving online. But the power relationships are changing, significantly, and will continue to do so. And that’s the fascinating bit.

Thank you.

Stilgherrian’s Closing Remarks

My observation is that today’s discussion has echoed many, many others that have come before it in other events, and I think that’s inevitable because we want to reassure ourselves that things aren’t as bad as our gut feeling tells us it actually is.

There’s a couple of people who’ve wanted to reinforce that this is not a revolution, it’s just a transition. Well I suppose the industrial revolution was not a revolution, it was just a transition as well. But in the long term, at the end of a hundred years or so, things were radically different.

I think if we try and downplay the amount of change that is right in front of us, that will be a mistake, because it’s a sign that we’re looking at things and trying to understand it through the prism of the past, and using the models of the past.

Now the internet is a just a mechanism for making visible and accessible the entirety of human information and activity. All of it. The good and bad.

Crime and charity, if you like.

People discussing grand philosophic theories, and people asking on Twitter whether we now know whether Prince Harry is a natural ranga.

Now [REDACTED] spoke about people earning their pocket money from G-rated photos online. Well, as you might imagine there are X-rated versions of this kind of website. That your videos of recreational activities — either solo, with a partner or in groups — can be put on online, you can put up a 30-second teaser and pay money for the rest. And people make their money out of this.

There’s a reason this is called the oldest profession. Are we surprised? No. It’s human behaviour.

Nick Holder was spot on when he spoke about what sorts of things, I think, are likely to remain on live broadcast TV and radio. That’s live sport and companionship.

But I have questions about the nature and scale of these, particularly as the cost of production plummets, and absolutely plummets.

In this environment, the power of incumbency that Judith Sloane mentioned I think could be a boat anchor in many cases. Shareholders will find it very difficult to avoid the sunk cost fallacy and actually jump to radically new models.

That’s also why, while I agree with Paul Kelly about the danger of all of this surge of attention on trivia and the viciousness that you see online is a threat to a more stable kind of democracy, at another level it sounds to me like a couple of old blokes arguing about the best way to shoe a horse.

Because I don’t see a lot of politicians immersed in this online world. Sure, they dabble at the edges and tweet a bit and have a Facebook page, but it’s still very tentative. They’re still at the arse end of the bell curve. And I think that is a danger in and of itself.

On the question of scale, since this is meant to be about social media and media, looking at sport, will people really want to continue paying attention to the multi-million-dollar prima-donna spectacle that is league football? Or would they rather watch their own kids in the under-19s down at the local park?

Because everyone’s got a high-resolution video camera in their pocket that can stream online — today. There are services like Livestream online — today — where half a dozen people can send that up. Someone else elsewhere on the ground with a laptop can switch between the best pictures available. Someone else can turn on the microphone on their laptop and provide a commentary. And a very dedicated audience of 200 people will watch that, including grandma in Perth or Aunty Sarah in London who wants to see how young Ralph’s going.

I mean that has more relevance than some over-paid boofhead from Cronulla, surely?

And companionship. Sure, companionship radio and television. But how many people really, in their heart, want to get up in the morning and listen to the lowest common denominator of FM radio’s breakfast team of Blockhead and The Minge?

So that’s really the message I leave to you. It’s going to change dramatically. I think we’re at the very beginning. But I think to downplay the revolutionary nature of all this is a very big mistake.

Thank you.


Consilium 2012 was held on 23 to 25 August at the Palmer Golf Resort on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

5 Replies to “Consilium: Social media is destroying society? Good!”

  1. You’re a joy to read. I love agreeing and disagreeing with you.
    Mankind is such a curious beast; we cope (just) with natural physical evolution, yet struggle with the more subtle, intangible evolutions that come, with the inherent change, borne out of our extraordinary, creative, imaginative, curious and innovative endeavours.
    How odd that we would choose to ignore it…

  2. As someone who sat on the running board of her father’s old Buick and sucked on the chips left over from the iceblock saving our food from disintegration, I loved reading this. Born slightly later than the advent of the abacus I still had to do my sums on fat little fingers…much as certain politicians do today. Change in society is inevitable and – ‘twould seem – is either embraced with awe and wonderment ( suggested amendments notwithstanding) or rejected out of fear and loathing. I subscribe to the former tribe. As someone who has never heard a human word, I love and welcome our technology and Social Media and what it has done for those like me. As for Companionship and Sport; while I enjoy both via television and Social media…I LOVE nothing more than coffee with a friend at a local cafe and throwing a stick into the ocean for my dog to fetch. Thank you for an entertaining and thoughtful read.

  3. @Stephen Collins and @Nancy Cato: Thanks very much for taking the time to comment. This presentation at Consilium, like some other of my presentations recently, seems to be focused in setting The Wonder That Is Social Media [gag!] into a wider historical context. I’m glad you found it useful.

Comments are closed.