Hyper-us

How many of you have a smartphone? How many of you sleep with it next to your bed at night? Don’t be shy! Pew Research says 44% of smartphone owners have done exactly that. Marketing research has also shown that 75% of smartphone owners use their smartphones in the bathroom. Clearly, we love being connected, all the time. Some of the largest websites in the world now are social media sites – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Our own Toastmasters club uses Facebook and Yelp to spread the word. Clearly, it’s a good thing, right, being connected, checking what your friends are saying and doing and adding your own thoughts and RE-checking what your friends are doing and….

Hold on a second. Let’s take a step back. Social media has gotten SO big, SO fast, that many of us haven’t stopped to consider just what is really going on.

Let me give you some food for thought. Hyper-us, the spread of knowledge on the world wide web.

Have you ever thought about the website addresses that we type in our browsers everyday? HTTP. Hypertext Transfer Protocol. The hypertext there is a computer document that contains links – or hyperlinks – to other documents.

WWW. The world wide web. Now, the internet is not actually the same as the world wide web. The internet is what connects our computers, while the web is the system of connected hypertexts, or in normal vocabulary, websites, that are accessible by the internet.

The inventor of the world wide web is Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Never say that nuclear research wasn’t good for anything!

Frustrated at the inability of CERN scientists to share their knowledge with each other in such a large organization, he wrote a proposal in 1989. He suggested a new kind of information system. And not only at CERN. His vision was, in his words, a “universal linked information system” that allowed for the “creation of new links and new material by readers, [so that] authorship becomes universal.”

A year later, in 1990, he had built the first web server, the first web browser, and the first web page.

Now, because only nerds can figure out a text-only DOS interface, the earliest websites were made and used by scientists. That all changed in 1993, when what became Netscape Navigator, was introduced . It was the first browser with a graphical user interface, so anyone could use it.

The Internet Data Corporation reports, in 1994 there were 2,700 websites in the world. 6 years later in 2000, 17 million.

But there was still something missing. In order to be heard on the world wide web, you still had to code or make your own website. The voices there were limited to those who had the knowledge or resources. Others could only read.

Enter, the blog. In 1999, both LiveJournal and Blogger came online. They allowed everyone to put their thoughts online. You didn’t have to know code, you didn’t have to know design, you just wrote, and it was published to the whole world.

In 2003, MySpace changed everything. It’s obvious by its original tagline: A place for friends. You could choose to see only what your friends wrote. It was a way to handle all the online information we were already bombarded with. Facebook did one better in 2004, by inviting only certain college campuses to join. Your social circle there was limited, by design. They eventually opened it up to everyone, in 2006, but the table was already set for social media. What you see on any social media site, essentially only you choose to see.

So what does this all mean? What does it mean, when the largest websites in the world only let you to see what YOU want to see. Sure, there’s universal authorship. But is there truly the universal linked information system, if we aren’t allowed, or don’t allow ourselves, to access all of it?

If you fall down the wrong rabbit hole, it’s as if the world wide web never existed. Instead of expanding our minds, we would be closing it off.

NBC News recently had a piece on an American named Don Morgan, who decided to join the radical Islamic group ISIS in Iraq. He grew up in a regular town just like you or I, but something about radical Islam attracted him, and he found support on Facebook and Twitter. He’d wanted to find information and support from a certain group of people, and found it he did. And it only turned him more hateful.

But that’s a negative extreme. There are plenty of examples of generosity and kindness and knowledge on social media too.

The ALS Ice Bucket challenge morphed from drinking game and cold water dive dares into a viral sensation this summer. It raised twice as much money for ALS in one month than the entirely of last year , and it has undoubtedly brought more awareness to the rare disease. There has been 100x more page views on the ALS Wikipedia page since the Challenge started. People are allowing themselves to learn more about the world around them. All thanks to social media.

But our experience on social media, all depends on who we let in as our friends. We all have a choice.

The world wide web is all about us now. Hyper-us. And it is also up to us to choose how we use it and how we let it change us.


This was originally a speech I gave at Crown City Toastmasters.