Social media platforms are built with the insidious effectiveness of gambling machines, with implications for us as individuals and society at large.
The first post was in turn spurred by a post last October by Jon Worth on the social media tactics of the EU Commissioners, the EU bureaucracy’s political level led by ex-Luxembourg PM Jean-Claude Juncker:
“the Twitter use of Juncker’s team is a clear step back in comparison to Barroso’s team … the degree of engagement is pitifully low… the chances of ever getting a response on Twitter from a Commissioner are spectularly low … is it even worthwhile doing all of this?
From the Vault
My first reaction was to reach into my archive and suggest that the Commission has arrived at the problem of scale (four years later than I thought):
“is 2011 the year when EU social media grows to the point that it reaches the limits of scale?… When your audience is small, you can have a synchronous relationship with it… But what happens when you get hundreds, not dozens, of comments? The relationship becomes asynchronous, and maintaining a conversation with everyone simply becomes impossible… Enter the ghost blogger, and ghost tweet, and exit authenticity.“
– Can EU social media scale to the EU? (March, 2011)
See also: ‘Fame Factor’ (Clay Shirky, “Here Comes Everybody“, 2008) or points 1, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 of 10 things the EU should probably know about social media (2012).
But it goes beyond that now. The Commission is far from alone in this — it’s not just institutions and companies no longer using social media socially. And the implications, both for us as individuals and at the level of entire societies, are only now beginning to emerge.
To understand why, cast your mind back to the early days, when you had to SMS the UK to Tweet from your phone and ‘RT’ meant nothing. Back then, my Twitterstream was random-but-sincere thoughts from friends and useful links shared by people I liked or at least respected. Marketers hadn’t caught on at all.
That was social media, as in the definition of social as adjective:
“relating to or designed for activities in which people meet each other for pleasure”
— Oxford dictionaries
Today, it’s social media — the emphasis is on the noun, because social media platforms are now mature enough to sell the audiences they have built to advertisers. You’re part of that audience; you’re the product being sold.
Now I didn’t join social media to engage with Institutions or companies who want to sell me something — I’ve got commercial TV and radio for that, and I ignore both of them consistently.
But I’m not really bothered by the way social media has become infested with whatever marketing gimmick (listicles, infographics, memes…) hasn’t yet bored us, because tools like Lists can keep the marketing junk to manageable levels, and I can just scroll past the rest.
The real problem is that my Tweets and LinkedIn updates are looking more and more like marketing junk, too. And I’m not alone.
The most insidious effect of social media is on us
Today we all craft our image via social media, carefully curating what we share and controlling what we say to project an ever more perfect image of ourselves.
Many probably feel that they have no choice: employment is fragile, and the next client/employer/boss might be just around the corner. So you’d best share a constant stream of interesting content and look like someone so dedicated to understanding the latest insights that you now do without sleep.
I know I do — over the last couple of years I’ve resurrected my primary blog and tested LinkedIn and Medium; created an online library of everything I do, think and share; developed sophisticated tools for feeding it and adopted new habits to ensure I use them; and added an enewsletter. (I do find time to sleep, however).
Somewhere along the way, I sense, I started putting less of myself into it.
Somewhere along the way, I sense, I started putting less of myself into it.
Mind you, I consider myself luckier than people who perhaps put too much of themselves online. You’ll never see photos of my kids or house or car in my feed (apart from a few smug photos of my daughter’s patisserie on Google+).
Why do I think that makes me lucky? After all, that’s what social media is, right?
Well, let’s rewind again, back to the pre-social era. Notice how almost noone shared their personal lives online back then? Bloggers posted their thoughts, but they didn’t post their lives. No humblebrags, selfies or photos of your dinner.
Now we do, does that mean we have all somehow become more social?
we’ve been conditioned to do this, because it makes social media platforms money
Maybe. But an unpalatable truth is that we’ve been conditioned to do this, because it makes social media platforms money:
“Tell everyone about yourself: you’re important! Where are you? What are you eating? Who are you with? What films do you like? The world wants to know!
Actually, the world doesn’t want to know: it’s a marketing ploy. The more you share about yourself, the more digital breadcrumbs can be scooped up and sold on to companies who want to sell you something. But because we’ve already succumbed, our online identities have become such an important part of who we are. And this is making many of us obsessive personal brand managers, who carefully sculpt our online identities…”
And how do the platforms do that? Two more quotes from two more excellent posts:
“with no divine measuring stick to tell us how we’re faring, we look to our peers… but what now constitutes our ‘peers’ is wider than ever… with social media never out of reach, the measuring sticks are more pervasive and easy-to-read than ever.”
“Every stupid video is a waste of 3 minutes you’ll never get back, and every picture is there to show the 1% of your life where you can smile for the camera the way you were taught as a kid… these websites, apps, programs were meant to disconnect us…. to create competitions of bragging rights, of empty instances of our lives that we wish were more glamorous, and of the lives we wished we lived.”
Noone’s immune: the above probably qualifies as a humblebrag, and did you notice how I slipped in how long I’ve been on Twitter? We can’t avoid being influenced by the media we live in.
But we can be aware of its effects. And they extend well beyond our individual personalities.
Driving identity politics
Carefully curating your external image does more than make everyone narcissistic and unhappy — it risks driving us all so deep into identity politics that public discourse may become impossible.
“You have to be willing to sacrifice your carefully curated social performance and be willing to work with people who are not like you.“
That’s from Fredrik deBoer’s “Getting Past the Coalition of the Cool”, but I discovered it via Sean Blanda’s The Other Side” Is Not Dumb, one of the best recent posts I’ve read about how a toxic combination of algorithm-driven filter bubbles, human flaws like false-consensus bias and online business models create:
“a subconscious belief that we and our friends are the sane ones and that there’s a crazy “Other Side” … clearly not as intelligent as “us”… the worst kind of echo chamber, one where those inside are increasingly convinced that everyone shares their world view, that their ranks are growing when they aren’t….
[some] sites exist almost solely to produce content to be shared so friends can pat each other on the back and mock the Other Side… this holier-than-thou social media behaviour is counterproductive self-aggrandizement at the cost of actual nuanced discourse”
And just in case you don’t see identity politics as a problem, try The Daily Hate: Corbyn, Trump and the New Politics of Spite, or even the rant in my last edition about Trump.
So let’s make a deal in 2016: I’ll try to rediscover my earlier, more authentic voice on social media (while endeavouring to not destroy my livelihood), while you spend less time on your phone posting about Your Brilliant Life, and more time actually getting one IRL and spending it with the people you actually care about.
Alternatively, let’s meet up on Snapchat:
“There is no public measure of your ego on Snapchat. No “54 likes” 13469 followers or “423 comments”. When your reader sees your post it doesn’t tell him or her the size of your ego … the Snapchat user doesn’t care that much since it doesn’t build his reputation … the result is more personal posts at a higher frequency…
there is no mixed feed with all your friends or people you’re following…. you really have to care about who you are following and decide to go check their content. It’s more personal and much less about numbers”
Hopefully a sign of things to come. More realistically, SnapChat is simply in its early, social-as-adjective phase. Enjoy it while it lasts.
- An earlier version of this post appeared on BlogActiv
- Although the last bit came from Social media, identity politics & AI — this fortnight’s Top3ics (TumblrHub)
- European Commissioners seem to have missed the social aspect of Twitter and use it for one way, bland PR instead (Jon Worth)
- Can EU social media scale to the EU? (BlogActiv)
- Some resources on my TumblrHub are tagged filter bubbles, narcissism and identity (see also: addiction, psychology)
- Browse and subscribe to my Top3ics newsletter