The most intense week of my life occurred in the spring of 2009. A small group of tech folks were in Baghdad – and not just the Green Zone. We traveled across the city to meet with government, military, NGOs, professors and students. It was the kids who made the most impact upon me, specifically a 17 year old girl. I still remember what she told me about YouTube, where I was running product at the time.
She was very thankful for YouTube. First, because it made her feel connected to other teenagers across the world. She saw that even though her circumstances were quite crazy, that at a human level she was no different than a boy in Tokyo, or a girl in San Paolo. Friends, parents, school, crushes. YouTube turned her into a global citizen.
Second, she told me that YouTube was valuable because it allowed her to develop her own sense of the truth. She’d grown up in a repressive regime that historically limited her access to information. But YouTube provided her with first-person perspectives, citizen journalism that captured what was really taking place in her country. And news clips from around the world to add context to the explosions she heard nightly.
Nine years later we look at platforms like YouTube and wonder whether the “truths” they’re telling are really lies. Conspiracy theories, divisive content, deceptively edited video which is a minority of the content on the site, but exacerbated by algorithms, engagement and our own temperaments. All significant problems to be sure and these companies will be judged ultimately by their ability to adapt to these new understandings. But I hope we can still create global citizens and I hope we can still empower people to develop their own sense of truth. My Iraqi friend would be 25 now. I wonder if she’s still in Baghdad or did she move far away. I wish I could talk to her again. I hope she’s ok.