Discover more from Digital Native
Honey, We Shrunk the World
How Technology Is Making the World Smaller
This is a weekly newsletter about how people and technology intersect. To receive this newsletter in your inbox each week, subscribe here:
Honey, We Shrunk the World
People like to debate whether the internet has been a net negative or net positive for society. The human brain’s “negativity bias”—our proven tendency to give more weight to negative events than to positive events—complicates this argument. It’s easy to point to ways the internet has caused harm, and there’s no shortage of examples.
But my view is that the internet—and social media—have been unequivocally positive forces. I often think back to one example. In college, I started an organization called Worthy that connects LGBTQ+ mentees with mentors for personal guidance and support. Many queer people grow up without knowing another queer person, and Worthy aims to fill that gap; I know that my coming out experience would’ve been easier if I’d had someone to talk to who’d been through it all before.
One of our Worthy mentees, Rob, sent this letter to his mentor, Jacob (shared with his permission):
“The odds of finding a program on Instagram that gave me a mentor like you.”
If it weren’t for Instagram, Rob would never have met Jacob. He may not have had someone to give him guidance and support and friendship through his coming out process—to remind him that he’s worthy of love and compassion and acceptance.
Rob’s letter embodies what the internet does best: connect people and allow them to find belonging. This past summer, a Chinese gay social network called Blued went public. Its founder, Baoli Ma, was unusually personal in the company’s SEC filing:
I was laden with agonizing loneliness, helplessness, and fear of the future during my adolescence. I used to think that I was the only person in the world attracted to people of the same gender and that I was sick and needed treatment. That was why, when I found out on the internet that there were other people like me, and that homosexuality was not an illness or disorder, I felt a tremendous sense of relief and excitement. After all, I’m not alone in this world. After all, we are not sick. After all, love is gender blind.
To me, herein lies the power of the internet—it empowers us to elevate ourselves, and to bring warmth to others across all corners of the world living in loneliness, helplessness and fear because of their sexual orientation.
Ma grew up deeply closeted, internalizing his shame. Even well into adulthood, he lived a double life: by day, he was a police officer married to a woman; by night, he ran an internet forum for gay men. Ma found refuge online and years later, millions of queer Chinese find refuge on his app. (LGBTQ+ acceptance remains fraught in China: last year, Weibo—China’s Twitter—banned gay content as part of a “clean-up” targeting pornography and violence.)
Like most technologies, the internet and social media aren’t inherently moral or immoral; they’re amoral and it’s up to us to shape them. Focusing on the positives doesn’t mean we should ignore QAnon conspiracy theories or vaccine misinformation. But the internet and social media are powerful enablers for a more connected world. In Ma’s words, they let us “bring warmth to others across all corners of the world.”
In 2007, the British journalist James May hosted a BBC series called 20th Century, exploring how 1900s technology made our world smaller. One episode was titled “Honey, I Shrunk the World”, a play on the 1989 Disney comedy Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, in which a dad played by Rick Moranis—you guessed it—shrinks his kids.
In the BBC episode, James May learns about supersonic air travel, studies fiber optic cable, and takes a ride in Ford’s Model T. He concludes that the innovations of the 1900s—airplanes, television, automobiles—made the world a little smaller.
The same conclusion extends to more recent innovations—the internet, the cloud, open-source software, AI and ML. While the 20th Century was about making the world more connected physically, the 21st Century is about making the world more connected digitally.
In 2010, there were 2 billion people online—about 30% of the world’s population. Over the last decade, that’s swelled to 4.5 billion people and 60% of the world.
And nearly all 4.5 billion internet users (3.8 billion, to be exact) are connected through social platforms. Seven platforms—Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Messenger, WeChat, Instagram, and TikTok—have over a billion monthly active users (four of those are owned by Facebook). Here’s a visualization of “the social media universe” from Visual Capitalist.
The internet has unlocked billions of new connections. Consider how today’s couples met: 40% of people (including me!) met their partner online. And this is pre-pandemic data.
Among same-sex couples, who have a harder time meeting in the real world, 70% met online.
AI and interest-based social platforms are broadening the scope of how people connect. In the first generation of social platforms, your offline friends were the proxy for your online friends; you connected on Facebook with college classmates or played Call of Duty with high school buddies. Increasingly, AI can predict who you should be interacting with—instead of your social graph being constrained to your geographic location, you can tap into the pool of 4.5 billion internet users. The most successful examples are TikTok’s algorithmic feed and Bytedance’s broader suite of products, but new companies are emerging in the West.
Honk is a messaging app that connects strangers based on what they have in common. I can explore my interests and if I click “Netflix”, for example, I’m given options of compatible people I should meet.
Here’s a sample review of Honk from the App Store:
This app is very underrated in my personal opinion! It’s been very safe and I have met so many cool friends on it! You can also find people based on their interests which is a pretty cool feature.
ItsMe lets you meet new people in avatar form. In some ways, it’s similar to China’s 5th-most-popular social app, Soul. One of ItsMe’s newest features is “I’m Feeling Lucky”, which lets you meet someone at random by spinning the wheel of interests on the Discover tab. Here’s a review of ItsMe from the App Store:
The app is filled with amazing people and I love talking to them. Everyone I have met so far is really welcoming and nice. They are from all over the country and it is so cool talking to people from different areas of the country since some people have accents.
And Omegle connects you randomly and anonymously with someone over video chat to hang out. Omegle was actually launched back in 2009, but enjoyed a resurgence among Gen Zs during the pandemic (helped by TikTok, of course). The company even updated its homepage for Covid: “Omegle (oh·meg·ull) is a great way to meet new friends, even while practicing social distancing.”
Other apps like Wizz, LMK, Fam, and Blink are also built on the concept of making new friends. Meanwhile, platforms like Discord and Reddit thrive on millions of vibrant sub-communities (as evidence that there’s a community for nearly everyone, Discord has 6.7 million active servers). Social platforms shrink the world—or, put differently, we all inhabit millions of distinct, digital worlds unconstrained by geography.
One interesting example of how people around the world come together is the BTS ARMY. BTS is the world’s most-popular boy band and has helped make K-pop mainstream in the West. And BTS fans—who call themselves the ARMY—are arguably the most devoted fanbase in the world.
This summer, the BTS song “Butter” reigned at #1 for nine straight weeks—the longest reign of any song this year. But the song receives little play on radio. How does it stay on top? In short, millions of BTS fans around the world make sure of it. Every week, in drill-like formation, they buy 100,000 copies of the song on iTunes. Billboard counts the sale of a song as worth 150 streams, so this wave of purchases is just enough to ensure BTS stays at #1. In fact, BTS spent 10 weeks at #1 this summer. When the BTS song “Permission to Dance” came out, the ARMY rapidly coordinated to buy that song instead, shooting it to #1. The next week, they shifted gears again and decided to bring “Butter” back to #1.
The BTS ARMY’s manipulation of Billboard charts is controversial, but it’s an example of how millions of people spread around the world can connect over a shared interest and then take coordinated action. Even fan communities used to be relatively location-specific and sporadic (you might hang with other U2 fans at the local concert once a year), but they’re now global, highly-engaged, and always-on.
Our shrinking world also stretches to work. We used to work in cubicles with people who lived near us. In 1822, an employee in one of the world’s first office buildings bemoaned his new reality. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “You don’t know how wearisome it is to breathe the air of four pent walls, without relief, day after day, all the golden hours of the day between ten and four.” He wished for “a few years between the grave and the desk” and then concluded, “but alas, they are the same.” While letter-writing got decidedly less dramatic over the years (unfortunately), the office reality largely stayed the same. Then with Covid-19, knowledge work went remote. As Ben Thompson puts it, it’s not work-from-home; it’s work-from-internet. Now we work online with teams scattered around the world. Companies like Figma, Airtable, GitHub, and Notion make real-time collaboration possible, while companies like Remote and Deel make it easy to hire global, distributed teams. Instead of occupying an office building, you might occupy a digital office in Gather.
Our digital connectivity doesn’t mean that the physical world isn’t more connected than ever. Since James May’s 2007 documentary, the analog world has continued to shrink. March’s Suez Canal debacle showed how fragile our supply chain is, with a single ship throwing off the whole world’s trade. (As one friend put it, “Well-behaved ships rarely make history.”)
And the pandemic has thrown our interdependence into sharp relief. The Wall Street Journal recently broke down our global supply chain using the example of a hot tub. Parts of one single hot tub come from seven countries and 14 states, traveling a cumulative 887,776 miles to assemble one tub. Electric motors come from China’s Guangdong province, then are assembled into water pumps in Tijuana before being trucked to Utah. Customers used to get a hot tub delivered in weeks; now, because of pandemic-related trade slowdowns and shortages, they can expect to wait six months.
Both physically and digitally, the world is more interrelated than ever. Just as planes and trains and automobiles did a century before, the internet and software are digitally shrinking us. We’re all connected in a complex, interwoven web.
The first era of the web was about connecting through information; Google was the product of this era. The second era of the web was about connecting socially; Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and others emerged from Web2. Both shrunk our world. We’re now entering Web3, which is about connecting economically.
Here’s a data visualization from Zima Red of NFT transactions on OpenSea, the largest NFT marketplace. I find it strangely beautiful. It captures the future of the internet: massive, complicated virtual economies with millions of active participants.
Web3 brings the final component of shrinking the world; soon, we’ll be connected globally and instantaneously in our information flows, our relationship, and our digital economies. This shrinking—this growing interdependence—is the most powerful argument for technology as a positive force.
It’s why a gay kid can connect with someone halfway around the world for friendship and support. It’s why you can meet your life partner on a dating app—or maybe in a Discord server or Omegle chatroom or Twitch stream. It’s why a BTS fan in Kansas City can coordinate a chart-dominating strategy with a fan in Seoul.
A smaller, more connected world has its downsides; more people and ideas are rubbing against each other, colliding into one another. But the positives overpower the negatives. People are able to collaborate and transact and bond in new ways, enabled by increasingly immersive and accessible technology.
Sources & Additional Reading
James May’s 20th Century on BBC
Related Digital Native pieces:
Thanks for reading! Subscribe here to receive this newsletter in your inbox each week: