From The Atlantic:
It’s over. Facebook is in decline, Twitter in chaos. Mark Zuckerberg’s empire has lost hundreds of billions of dollars in value and laid off 11,000 people, with its ad business in peril and its metaverse fantasy in irons. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has caused advertisers to pull spending and power users to shun the platform (or at least to tweet a lot about doing so). It’s never felt more plausible that the age of social media might end—and soon.
Now that we’ve washed up on this unexpected shore, we can look back at the shipwreck that left us here with fresh eyes. Perhaps we can find some relief: Social media was never a natural way to work, play, and socialize, though it did become second nature. The practice evolved via a weird mutation, one so subtle that it was difficult to spot happening in the moment.
The shift began 20 years ago or so, when networked computers became sufficiently ubiquitous that people began using them to build and manage relationships. Social networking had its problems—collecting friends instead of, well, being friendly with them, for example—but they were modest compared with what followed. Slowly and without fanfare, around the end of the aughts, social media took its place. The change was almost invisible, but it had enormous consequences. Instead of facilitating the modest use of existing connections—largely for offline life (to organize a birthday party, say)—social software turned those connections into a latent broadcast channel. All at once, billions of people saw themselves as celebrities, pundits, and tastemakers.
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.
A long time ago, many social networks walked the Earth. Six Degrees launched in 1997, named after a Pulitzer-nominated play based on a psychological experiment. It shut down soon after the dot-com crash of 2000—the world wasn’t ready yet. Friendster arose from its ashes in 2002, followed by MySpace and LinkedIn the next year, then Hi5 and Facebook in 2004, the latter for students at select colleges and universities. That year also saw the arrival of Orkut, made and operated by Google. Bebo launched in 2005; eventually both AOL and Amazon would own it. Google Buzz and Google+ were born and then killed. You’ve probably never heard of some of these, but before Facebook was everywhere, many of these services were immensely popular.
Content-sharing sites also acted as de facto social networks, allowing people to see material posted mostly by people they knew or knew of, rather than from across the entire world. Flickr, the photo-sharing site, was one; YouTube—once seen as Flickr for video—was another. Blogs (and bloglike services, such as Tumblr) raced alongside them, hosting “musings” seen by few and engaged by fewer. In 2008, the Dutch media theorist Geert Lovink published a book about blogs and social networks whose title summarized their average reach: Zero Comments.
Today, people refer to all of these services and more as “social media,” a name so familiar that it has ceased to bear meaning. But two decades ago, that term didn’t exist. Many of these sites framed themselves as a part of a “web 2.0” revolution in “user-generated content,” offering easy-to-use, easily adopted tools on websites and then mobile apps. They were built for creating and sharing “content,” a term that had previously meant “satisfied” when pronounced differently. But at the time, and for years, these offerings were framed as social networks or, more often, social-network services. So many SNSes proliferated, a joke acronym arose: YASN, or “yet another social network.” These things were everywhere, like dandelions in springtime.
As the original name suggested, social networking involved connecting, not publishing. By connecting your personal network of trusted contacts (or “strong ties,” as sociologists call them) to others’ such networks (via “weak ties”), you could surface a larger network of trusted contacts. LinkedIn promised to make job searching and business networking possible by traversing the connections of your connections. Friendster did so for personal relationships, Facebook for college mates, and so on. The whole idea of social networks was networking: building or deepening relationships, mostly with people you knew. How and why that deepening happened was largely left to the users to decide.
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Social networks’ evolution into social media brought both opportunity and calamity. Facebook and all the rest enjoyed a massive rise in engagement and the associated data-driven advertising profits that the attention-driven content economy created. The same phenomenon also created the influencer economy, in which individual social-media users became valuable as channels for distributing marketing messages or product sponsorships by means of their posts’ real or imagined reach. Ordinary folk could now make some money or even a lucrative living “creating content” online. The platforms sold them on that promise, creating official programs and mechanisms to facilitate it. In turn, “influencer” became an aspirational role, especially for young people for whom Instagram fame seemed more achievable than traditional celebrity—or perhaps employment of any kind.
The ensuing disaster was multipart. For one, social-media operators discovered that the more emotionally charged the content, the better it spread across its users’ networks. Polarizing, offensive, or just plain fraudulent information was optimized for distribution. By the time the platforms realized and the public revolted, it was too late to turn off these feedback loops.
Obsession fueled the flames. Compulsion had always plagued computer-facilitated social networking—it was the original sin. Rounding up friends or business contacts into a pen in your online profile for possible future use was never a healthy way to understand social relationships. It was just as common to obsess over having 500-plus connections on LinkedIn in 2003 as it is to covet Instagram followers today. But when social networking evolved into social media, user expectations escalated. Driven by venture capitalists’ expectations and then Wall Street’s demands, the tech companies—Google and Facebook and all the rest—became addicted to massive scale. And the values associated with scale—reaching a lot of people easily and cheaply, and reaping the benefits—became appealing to everyone: a journalist earning reputational capital on Twitter; a 20-something seeking sponsorship on Instagram; a dissident spreading word of their cause on YouTube; an insurrectionist sowing rebellion on Facebook; an autopornographer selling sex, or its image, on OnlyFans; a self-styled guru hawking advice on LinkedIn. Social media showed that everyone has the potential to reach a massive audience at low cost and high gain—and that potential gave many people the impression that they deserve such an audience.
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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.
Link to the rest at The Atlantic