We Need More Networking, Less Media

blocks with social media icons

Writing in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost says The Age of Social Media Is Ending.

And “It never should have begun”.

A global broadcast network where anyone can say anything to anyone else as often as possible, and where such people have come to think they deserve such a capacity, or even that withholding it amounts to censorship or suppression—that’s just a terrible idea from the outset. And it’s a terrible idea that is entirely and completely bound up with the concept of social media itself: systems erected and used exclusively to deliver an endless stream of content.

But now, perhaps, it can also end. The possible downfall of Facebook and Twitter (and others) is an opportunity—not to shift to some equivalent platform, but to embrace their ruination, something previously unthinkable.

Bogost does a great job of summarizing the history of social networking1 and making the distinction about how “the terms social network and social media are used interchangeably now, but they shouldn’t be”.

However, while I agree that the concept of networking has been warped into something far more harmful than simply helping people connect, I question his conclusion that the concept of social media is going away any time soon.

At this point, there are far too many people (and it’s not just “the kids”) who commit large chunks of their time and identity every day to these platforms. They will not easily abandon their “influencer economy”. I think the current chaos surrounding social media only reinforces their “impression that they deserve… an audience”.

I’ve been playing with this stuff for a while, going back to Friendster, MySpace, and LinkedIn. I’ve had a Facebook account almost since they allowed non-college students to sign up (although I’ve never posted anything) and I’ve been on Twitter since 2007, an eternity in the history of these services.

Signing up for these accounts was mostly curiosity but also because I worked in a job in which I was supposed to help others in my district navigate all those hot new internet sites. Which means I’m a “member” in places I can’t even recall.

Twitter was the only social network/media platform that I actively used. But for me, and most of my friends and colleagues who use the service, it was never about broadcasting or selling. Tweets were about connecting and communicating.

Even today, I follow a relatively small number of people (480 at the time this was posted), most of whom I have interacted with in some way. I never understood how someone could follow thousands – even tens of thousands – of accounts. Their stream must be a blur.

Anyway, Bogost has much more to say on his thesis that social media on the way out, and I highly recommend taking the time to read it. I’ll just leave one more excellent though.

As I’ve written before on this subject, people just aren’t meant to talk to one another this much. They shouldn’t have that much to say, they shouldn’t expect to receive such a large audience for that expression, and they shouldn’t suppose a right to comment or rejoinder for every thought or notion either. From being asked to review every product you buy to believing that every tweet or Instagram image warrants likes or comments or follows, social media produced a positively unhinged, sociopathic rendition of human sociality. That’s no surprise, I guess, given that the model was forged in the fires of Big Tech companies such as Facebook, where sociopathy is a design philosophy.

Between the continuing, blatant priority of profits over personal data at Facebook, the dumpster fire now happening on and around Twitter,the unknown potential for privacy breeches that is TikTok, and more, it is tempting to adopt the idea that social media is dying.

Or maybe that’s only wishful thinking. It is very possible that these massively-large and increasingly-chaotic social media platforms will continue growing, and morph into something worse.

In any case, it will be interesting to watch what happens to this concept that everyone should have a platform and deserves an audience for what they have to say.3

I’ve had the graphic at the top in my collection for many years, with no record of where it came from. Leave a comment if you know who I should credit.

1. I’m not fond of him lumping blogs and Flickr in with the rest. Both involve more work than just dashing off a snarky remark or posting a link. But he’s correct to include them as examples of early social networking.

2. And if you don’t know what that’s about, good for you. It’s better to have a life than follow that soap opera.

3. This rant was written with complete awareness of the irony that it is posted online for an audience (tiny) to read, on a platform that has existed since before most of the social media apps were invented. But I’m not trying to sell anything. :-)

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