Pick any one of the centralised social media platforms, and it feels evermore dogged by a persistent question: what is it for?
The pitch for social networks has always been kept bland and ambiguous. Now everyone, so it goes, can have a voice: to connect, to share and to join in. But to what, and to what end, has been left to the users.
Except, it never was left to whimsy. The platforms have nearly always nudged and jibed and prodded users in the direction of certain topics: either things that make them more targetable by advertisers, or things seemingly happening at this very moment to make them engage. Scroll and post, post and scroll. If it were ever in doubt, social media has proven this to form a highly unhealthy basis for any platform.
It is unrealistic to expect the demand for advertising on social media to apply a steadying influence. Some brands might make a stand if they deem the risks to outstrip the rewards. But the vast majority will do anything for eyeballs. By unfortunate coincidence, we’re also in an era where advertisers value reach over impact simply because it’s easier to quantify. This will certainly revert, but not soon.
Social media has not been all negative. Some users managed to build something out of their followership: tangible things like money and/or intangible things like influence. But the proportion of these users is vanishingly small, considering the system as a whole. Further, for the most part, the networks afford power to the privileged: those who already have money and influence tend to be those who receive even more via social media.
Even then, there have been exceptions. Some underrepresented voices have been brought to, or found on, social platforms. This is the principle way in which social media has found positive purpose. However, the means by which this happened became indistinguishable from something much uglier. Socially-beneficial movements and ideological whip-ups are hard to separate in the theatre of social media. Joining in, or the appearance thereof, is gameable.
Demagoguery, it seems, generates both revenue for social platforms and political influence for the undeserving. Whipping it up, either through targeted advertising or creating more subtle groundswells of particular topics, issues or political stances, isn’t new. But the speed, ferocity and disingenuousness on social media sets it apart from that which went before.
Groupthink predates social media but has found new dimensions. The semi-anonymity seems to trigger mass disinhibition. Combining these two phenomena leads towards deindividuation: users tend to avoid speaking out to maintain a social standing, while also being far more hate-fuelled than their real selves could manage, or let on. Of course, offline life isn’t peaceful either. But social media inherited all life’s unpleasantries, then amplified and multiplied them across geographic boundaries.
The deep divisions in attitudes and behaviours on the big platforms is prompting action. Those of more liberal leanings, particularly early-adopters and those seeking a lower-hassle approach, are defecting. They are moving towards networks over which they have more ownership. Federated social platforms feel more like the era before the internet was dominated by a handful of massive platforms, and was all the more cheerful for it.
The migration will not be absolute, nor should it be. But a move back to federation will at least give a clearer context for what social media is for, and what it means to join in. There will continue to be a togetherati: blindly participating in whatever crackpot cause their chosen dimwit celebrity is using their notoriety to promote, just to feel part of something. But for the rest, it might mean not having to put up with all that unbridled aggression that has worn down the enjoyment of social platforms these last few years.
In parallel, various indications point to the large, centralised networks becoming less liberal, including organised efforts to deplatform prominent moderate voices. It’s hard to tell at this point whether social platforms’ shuffling along the political spectrum is driven specifically by money, or more generally by power. If the most ‘engaged’ users, i.e. the ones who either would more likely pay or pay attention, are towards the extremes, it may make commercial sense to cater more to them. Or it might be a contemporary, tech-enabled effort by the super-rich to influence democracy in their own interests. Or it could be both, or one leading to the other.
Even without some grand and maleficent plan, the reasons for ‘users’ to continue to ‘engage’ with the ‘content’ on these centralised ‘platforms’, other than for uninformed political mudslinging, is diminishing. One of the key reasons to stay is perceived (and misleading) value of a large followership. But any migration may not be about number of people using any given system, but rather to redress the diversity of thinking.
What the togetherati on social platforms has shown is that centralised courts cause centralised thoughts: it’s the worst incarnation of our collective self.