We’re in the storming stage of social media. This is okay.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

As the telling goes, when the Vikings landed in northern Newfoundland around A.D. 1,000 they saw men sleeping by a canoe. They promptly dispatched these Beothuk men, walked up to the village and asked them if they wanted to trade. It did not go well. Surprise. Throughout human history, arguably since the rise of the agricultural era, we have fought over lands and even somewhat before as humans have always been explorers. Many empires have come and gone over the millennia. Societies and cultures met, traded, fought, integrated, split apart and did it all over again. But this all took a very long time. An ebb and flow over many thousands of years.

In just the past 25 years and with even greater acceleration over the past decade with the rise of the internet and then social media, human cultures and societies have come into contact with each other unlike ever before. At first we thought this would be good, democracies would arise and great learning and sharing would happen as a result. Until it didn’t. We are deluged with disinformation, democracy is fighting for its life, monetary systems are changing, trolls and other nasties are wandering the landscape of our digital world wielding psychological clubs and brutalizing everywhere they can. Nation states probe other nation-states through thinly veiled attacks and sponsor non-state actors to push ransomware attacks and disrupt economies. It is a mess, but there is also hope and this mess will, eventually, be replaced with a new hope. Why is it so messy? There are a number of reasons, but perhaps most significantly, I argue, is the sudden clash of cultures.

Cultural clashes and major changes , prior to the digital age, took a very long time. For example, the printing press was launched in 1450 and this enabled mass printing of the bible, arguably leading to the Christian Reformation around 1517 and the rise of the exchange of knowledge which took over 60 years upwards of 100 years. During this period, sailing ships were another technology that enabled cultures to connect, often in rather violent ways. But this spread also took place over centuries.

When the radio and telegraph came into play, at the end of the 19th century, by the early 1900’s we had the first and then second World Wars. After television, we had more conflicts such as the Vietnam and Korean wars and massive social unrest in America and some other countries. Each of these technologies enabled us to connect and learn about each other. But they were also one-way, broadcast communications technologies.

The internet and as a result, social media, enabled greater two-way engagement. Down to a one-on-one level and with small groups at a global scale. Ideologies and conspiracies could spread rapidly, uncontrolled. Borders are non-existent, access to these networks cheap and accessible anywhere, anytime.

My argument is that the result is that human cultures and societies have been able to connect far faster and easier than ever before in our history. And as has happened throughout history, this leads to conflicts before resolutions. I believe that right now, we are in the “storming” phase of how groups form and learn to work together. In the mid60’s, psychologist Bruce Tuckman wrote a paper about how groups form and develop. He described four stages; norming, storming, forming, performing.

When we form new groups, such as for a company project or volunteer organisation, we start of by trying to get along. We’re curious and figuring each other out. This was the early stage of social media. Then we slide into storming, where we figure out power plays, push against boundaries and tensions rise. This is where, I argue, we are now with social media. Later, as the group figures things out, new boundaries and behaviours are figured out and we start to work together. This will be the next phase, hopefully. Then we start performing, when new rules are found and we get along. This has to a large degree, been the International Rules-based society we knew, that neither China nor Russia and other autocracies, like.

Through my netnographic research projects for business and governments, I’ve seen this play out a number of times. Take online forums where discussion groups come together on a topic. What was learned early on was most forums needed moderators to ensure compliance with rules and the rules of the platform being used. At a larger scale, this is where we are with major social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok etc. To varying degrees, they are both helping and hindering online sociocultural norms and acceptable behaviours.

While I expand on this in my forthcoming book, “The 2nd Adaptation”, this essentially summarizes one of the reasons social media is such a messy and often cruel, place today. On a global scale, as cultures connect, ideologies and social behaviours are discovered and we learn about each other, things have gotten messy. I believe they will get better. How long this will take and what else we will go through in the digital and real world is anybody’s guess.

Digital Anthropologist | Featured in Wired | Chief Digital Officer | UX Strategist