Fixing social media might seem impossible – the Big Tech execs have already shown their true colors. But less poisonous online discourse certainly is conceivable, and it’s worth fighting for. But how?
There’s something in the air, isn’t there? The internet has changed – and not for the better. Obviously, this isn’t news to those of us who’ve grown up in the social media age.
We’ve gotten used to communicating, discussing, arguing, and messing around on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. We feel “connected” – which is exactly how the gurus behind these platforms want us to feel.
For a while, it felt good, didn’t it? It was simple, fun, and super convenient. Free, too – except, of course, for our data, which is what the tech executives were, are, and always will be after.
Obviously, every experience is probably different, and, of course, we can still carefully curate our timelines – follow this account, mute that one, block or complain about the annoying troll (basically impossible on the hellsite known as X these days).
Unfortunately, this takes a lot of our precious time, which few of us have these days. And the default modes are just horrible.
Both familiar and a little off
This is an opinion piece, sure, so it’s only me speaking, but my feeling is that the social part of the internet has become so toxic and harmful to our mental health that I find it hard as an individual to just say, “Oh, I guess I’ve just outgrown social networks so yup, the onus was always on me.”
Not so. Even if I’m not 23 years old anymore, hovering around the far end of my thirties shouldn’t mean a hard shutdown on my social media activities – but that’s what I feel I will have to almost inevitably do, and soon.
Yes, it’s about these irritating Sponsored and Recommended posts on Facebook’s timeline, myriads of ads pushed by grifters who call themselves influencers on Instagram, or porn and sexual abuse on TikTok.
People maintaining their personal brands online drive me nuts. Remember when people promoting stuff online for money were called sellouts? Good times.
To me personally, it’s also about the blatant spread of misinformation and the lack of effort to verify whatever is being posted as fact. I’m tired of “A lot of people are saying…” being the new normal.
As a journalist, I’m finally baffled to see X turned into a battlefield of propagandists who have paid for the blue check and a license to lie. Elon Musk doesn’t care and he probably won’t ever, but as a source of legitimate information, X is not an option anymore.
We’re so used to seeing “hot takes” on social media that reading something balanced and reflecting all sides of the argument on mainstream media, where quality journalism still matters, baffles us. This shouldn’t be so.
To be clear, all these examples of bad social media were there eight or 10 years ago. But they weren’t as visible because back then, the platforms still cared about the quality of the conversation. Most of them were still growing and needed to build a trusting base of users.
Now, the business objectives – cash, cash, and more cash – have taken over, and content is delivered in remarkably similar ways across all major platforms. The abuse and the amount of toxic stuff is ignored because they don’t matter – and if the trolls ignite more conversations, that’s even encouraged.
“Everything is so familiar, and yet more than a little off – uncanny people, upside-down politics, even, as artificial intelligence accelerates, a growing difficulty discerning who and what is real,”Naomi Klein.
There’s a feed with some pics from your friends, some memes, or videos. Reels or other forms of short videos or “stories” are there, too, and, of course, you can like and share stuff.
The platforms say that they’re different, but they’re not. They do this because this is what brings them money – and, to be fair, clinging to the cash cow that is the average dullness has also hit streaming platforms like Netflix, so it’s not exactly surprising.
In short, the sense of community is melting. Social media is not really social anymore. Some – like Naomi Klein, a renowned Canadian author and social activist – suspect danger for whole societies ahead.
“Everything is so familiar, and yet more than a little off – uncanny people, upside-down politics, even, as artificial intelligence accelerates, a growing difficulty discerning who and what is real,” writes Klein in her new book Doppelganger.
Small town internet
It’s a mess, in short. But it doesn’t have to be, and – if you find the time to dig a little under the mainstream surface – it’s actually not.
Thankfully, the internet is large enough to fit all colors and shapes. Yes, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, X, and TikTok are massive attention-suckers – and they have the cash to stay on top.
But you do not have to be – because there are good things elsewhere. Yes, the adorable puppy videos or GIFs but also a sense of community and havens for marginalized groups. If you’re an atheist in a churchgoer town somewhere in remote Oklahoma – where else but social media will you find someone to talk to?
Yes, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter are now more interested in connecting us with brands and influencers, and many of the campaigns on social media seem entirely manufactured and non-organic.
Paradoxically, the birth of the commercial internet might be to blame. Many of the leading internet thinkers kept repeating the mantra that “information wants to be free,” and the culture of free demanded a business model that could support it. This was, of course, advertising.
As ads evolved to target even the tiniest bits of our data, we are now paying the price for using social media for free. Algorithms have been designed to keep us scrolling and clicking.
Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and other tech visionaries are also still focused on the notion of an all-in-one, public-facing site, be it the Metaverse or Musk’s “everything app.” Even WhatsApp, primarily a secure messaging app, has rolled out a business payments tool.
Serious debate is bubbling about the need for an even more interconnected social ecosystem. The Verge’s editor-at-large, David Pierce, is now talking about something called POSSE (Publish Own Site, Syndicate Everywhere).
The idea is for the individual to post on a website that they own – not an app, but a separate website. The trick would be hidden in the ability for other people to look at your posts almost anywhere because the content would be syndicated to all those other platforms.
Interesting, sure. But I’ll be honest – it’s just too complicated and probably only exciting for those very active posters who make up a tiny minority of any society. People have places to be and things to do, after all.
So the other alternative – bar stricter regulation of the tech giants or breaking them up – sounds a little better, at least to me. The good things on the internet are found on personal blogs, LiveJournals, message boards devoted to specific issues, and smaller social networks.
As individuals, we can at least try to make our internet smaller and denser again. Finding the smaller networks is not easy, but isn’t it worth spending your online time on a site with no algorithms or ads distorting your feed?
It’s a bit like when you go shopping – you can drive to the mall and lose yourself for half a day, but you can pleasantly but purposefully browse these little boutiques scattered around the city. You can call it Small Town social media.
Forever blowing bubbles
That’s the thing, though. I often hear political scientists lamenting the current state of affairs within our societies and blaming it all on the existence of the so-called filter bubbles.
You people are isolating yourselves from the information and perspective of others, these thinkers say. Nothing is challenging your worldview, and that’s why extreme polarization exists – shame on you if you dare go looking only at news from sources you agree with.
Yes, algorithmic bias on social media is real, but news audience polarization is not inevitable. Even so – has it actually ever been normal for us to mingle with all sorts of people and ideas each and every day?
Musk keeps talking about X becoming the “common digital town square,” but do we really have to go to the said town square and take part in the shenanigans again and again? Of course we don’t – it was never the norm, even in our physical pasts.
The way we get on with our lives and just cope with it all has always been trying to surround ourselves with people who we love and who love us back, who agree with us, who like the same things.
Why on Earth would I want to spend time with someone whom I don’t know and don’t want to know, actually? The defenders of the digital Babylon say that mixing it all up is the way societies function – but do they, really?
The billionaires want to mush all of us together (again, more data) but I think that this is actually harmful to us on an individual level and to societies in general. We need more bubbles, not fewer.
Even the infamous culture wars happen because the arena is simply too big. People should be able to have one kind of debate in private with their own side – and a different kind of discussion in public.
We don’t, and this produces all sorts of tensions and shock reactions to the simple fact that people are different. Everyone shouldn’t see everything, and that’s completely normal.
A smaller, less public internet made up of these little corners and niches – essentially, the internet of the nineties and early noughties – could help us, again, become different things to different people.
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