Niall Ferguson: The Destructive Power of Social Networks

The conventional wisdom promoted by the developers of social networks was that they would provide immense benefits to society through faster and broader connectivity. That view was shattered by Niall Ferguson, who called services like Facebook and Twitter “crazy ideas gone viral, with deeply negative implications.”

Ferguson is a historian and teaches at Stanford. His views are generally regarded as politically conservative and he has often taken positions that specifically oppose those of the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. He was the evening keynote speaker at the Schwab IMPACT conference yesterday in Washington, D.C.

Speaking from a historical perspectives, Ferguson said that human history has been dominated by the tension between social networks and hierarchies of all kinds. Indeed, that is the central theme of his most recent book, The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook, which is available from the link on this page.

“The idea was that everything would be awesome if we are all connected,” Ferguson said, in regard not just to modern social networks, but to inventions such as the printing press.

“But that is a deeply suspect idea,” he said.

Giant social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, do not form an online social community. Instead, a large social network will “self-segregate” into opposing clusters, according to Ferguson. In the realm of politics, social networks have gravitated to become platforms for those with strongly held liberal and conservative views, with far fewer members offering centrist opinions.

A historical perspective

Ferguson said that the phenomenon of polarization was predictable, when one considers similar historical events.