Let’s face it, social media can be a hot mess. You don’t have to look hard to find a hotbed of insults and inflammatory comments, perpetually escalating. Actor and tech investor Ashton Kutcher has a deceptively simple way to curb at least some of that toxicity, and it has to do with the “like” button.
Or, more accurately, a “dislike” button.
While social networks make it easy to “like” or “heart” a post, there isn’t a parallel function on platforms like Twitter or Instagram. Kutcher argues a dislike button would represent a far less volatile expression of disagreement. That, he believes, would head off a lot of hate on social media.
“If we just gave people a very simple, frictionless way to say, ‘I disagree with this,’ you would probably reduce a massive amount of the sort of negative swaller that exists inside of social media,” he said in an interview on Wednesday.
His thoughts on a “dislike” button are just one of many he shared in an interview following his appearance at a 5G event hosted by AT&T last week in New York. Kutcher may be best known for his roles in That ’70s Show, Punk’d or, most recently, Netflix’s The Ranch, but he’s been a tech investor for the last 15 years with smart bets on companies such as Uber, Airbnb and trading app Robinhood, which is poised to go public later this year. He’s also a would-be astronaut, who sold his ticket a flight after his wife, actor Mila Kunis, urged him to skip the trip.
Given the event, he, of course, discussed his, as well as gaming and his approach to ethical investing. But it was a question about social media that gave Kutcher pause for a moment, eliciting his most thoughtful response.
If we could just talk for a moment
The lack of a “dislike” or “heart” means people will leave comments or respond. And while some of it is trollish and extraordinarily offensive, much of the commentary likely comes from an innocent place, even if the tone or phrasing feels more aggressive than it is, Kutcher said.
“Different people speak in different ways,” he said. “My wife’s criticism of me is very different than my criticism of my wife, not only in content, but in the way that we give criticism to one another. And we’ve had arguments in life that have just been about me not understanding the way that she was giving me criticism and her not understanding the way I was giving her criticism, but with love.
“Now apply that to strangers at large.”
That fundamental misunderstanding and the ability to appreciate the background and context of comments and responses — something you could do better if you spoke with them face to face — is the root cause of many disputes that spiral out of control.
“So what’s happened is you have this massive escalation, and the mob mentality around that escalation,” Kutcher said. “And then people are getting whacked.”
In the early days
Kutcher was among the first to recognize the power of social media, jumping on platforms like Twitter early. Back then, the vibe was experimental, and you weren’t penalized for saying or asking the wrong thing.
“It was this community where you could try ideas,” he said. “You didn’t have to be right.”
But now, even asking the wrong question can invite a pile-on. Back in 2011, a Kutcher tweet about the firing of longtime Penn State football coach Joe Paterno elicited massive backlash, prompting him to scale back his use of the platform.
“Now it’s cut your head off, cancel you, you’re done,” he said in the interview. “That’s more of a comment on society than it is on social media. Society’s become intolerant.”
Kutcher also believes that people are motivated to comment negatively because that’s the best way to get attention.
“I think the incentive systems have to change if we want social media to change,” he said.
Why 5G is exciting
The pandemic shined a spotlight on the need for better videoconferencing, and 5G is poised to deliver on that improved experience. Its low latency, or near-real-time responsiveness, and ultra-high-resolution video capability will be critical because more meetings are taking place through teleconferencing.
Kutcher recalled a time around six years ago when he checked out a military-grade videoconferencing system. When he asked why it was necessary, the response was: “When you’re making a decision about whether or not to go to war, you want to see if the general is sweating,” he said.
With more important decisions happening over video calls now, he gets why 5G is critical. That applies to business and the medical field, where doctors can truly see their patients remotely.
The low-latency and bandwidth improvements of 5G will also be key to self-driving cars. Kutcher said he invested in a startup called Helm.ai that specializes in artificial intelligence for autonomous technologies. He also noted that 5G would be enable enough sensors in a city that would allow for vehicle-to-vehicle communication and interaction between cars and the city blocks themselves.
On 5G gaming
The initial benefit of 5G is the ability to untether you from a stationary console, Kutcher said. He’s invested in Backbone, a startup making a zero-latency wireless game controller that pairs with your smartphone.
Right outside our interview room, AT&T had set up a demonstration of Google’s Stadia running on a Pixel phone connected solely to its 5G network. The intent was to show how similar the experience is to being at home on a wired computer.
Kutcher notes he isn’t a gamer, but sees bigger potential in how the experience can evolve.
“What excites me more about it is the notion that the game doesn’t just have to be on screen,” he said, alluding to experiences akin to augmented reality-based Pokemon Go. “The game can be out here.”
5G’s ultra-responsiveness should also do wonders for virtual reality, eliminating any video lag that might make the experience uncomfortable, he said.
Kutcher said that looking at the societal impact of a potential investment is core to his decision making.
“If we have an indication that there’s a secondary or tertiary effect that we can proactively, preemptively anticipate that is a negative nature, we just won’t invest,” he said. “I don’t care about making money that much.”
But he noted that many of his companies are in the extremely early stages of their growth. Those companies eventually tend to pivot, making the person in charge one of the most important elements of his investments..
“Oftentimes, the company that you initially invested in isn’t the company that gets very large and massive, right?” he said. “Because early-stage companies, especially if they’re smart founders, they’re constantly evolving what the company is.”