What went wrong with social media?

Taken from Une Discussion littéraire a la deuxième Galerie, by Honoré Daumier (1864)
Taken from Une Discussion littéraire a la deuxième Galerie by Honoré Daumier (1864)

This present generation of social media platforms—the big ones; the ones whose logos adorn the side of tradespeople’s’ vans—all started out with a noble endeavour or two. They were built so that people could stay in touch: straightforward, lightweight and low-commitment.

That’s how it was for a while. Friends discussed and shared. Celebrities of all ranks became accessible, and readily engaged with fans. Strangers came together to share laughter or collective displeasure. Broadcast media and brave brands used it as a means of gathering rapid participation from their newfound communities, for better or worse.

While this all still goes on, this image of social media is no longer first to spring to mind. Somehow, the well was poisoned. Within their first decade, the experience of social media u-turned and predominantly made people unhappy.

Before mainstream social media, the functionality had already kind-of existed, at least in primitive and more disjointed form. But it was restricted to those minded and comfortable enough to hunt it out assemble it for themselves. By contrast, the new platforms succeeded on two fronts: simplifying online participation, and creating a groundswell of interest amongst regular people. It was great, at first. Then it wasn’t. Now, it’s net-negative.

For a while I thought this was caused solely by commercial pressure. Fuelled by venture-capital, the social media firms needed to drench communities in advertising to be viable, and little of it was of high-enough quality or placement to be altogether welcome. This in turn disrupted the community spirit, which in an online setting can already be fragile.

Then I thought it was a more general shift in Western politics, away from liberalism and towards populist extremes. In the main, the internet had held a liberal, almost egalitarian ideology, in the sense that folks could do as they pleased, within a consensus for some high-level constraints. But social media seemed to be lurching away from this. Political stances became more visible. Those of opposing views would seek each other out. Discussions around observations became arguments around beliefs.

Later I pondered whether it was the explosion in the online and social media population. But a logical prediction might have been that more users wouldn’t worsen the platform; it might have even improved it. Were the late majority significantly illiberal, compared with early adopters? Hard to prove. Perhaps the increase in anonymous users? Again, tricky: there had been anonymous or pseudonymous net citizens before, and all was just fine. Besides, these population increases don’t tally, in terms of timing, with the descent of the platforms as a whole.

But now something has happened that has me connecting dots. Twitter has announced yet another policy: a toughening-up on spam tweets and copypasta: those identical posts across multiple accounts that seem particularly popular amongst those with disruptive or political intent. Twitter has all sorts of poorly-enforced rules and policies, so you have to wonder what difference one more would do. But yet another attempt to tidy up the platform set me thinking.

None of the major social media platforms have ever been lawless. They all set out with terms of use, similar to those a hosting company might impose upon customers to keep illegal, immoral or fattening content off their servers. There were even clauses to promote the good health of the community as a whole. And these terms received regular review, so the platforms can’t be described as ever having been egalitarian to a fault: they’re always been more self-regulated than what went before.

However, abuse of social media weaves between platform’s rules, and always has. It’s the platforms’ successes—their straightforward, centralised functionality—that has left them wide open. They’re not networks; they’re destinations. So their vulnerability is twofold: they’re abused because they’re so abusable, and because they smothered any alternative.

Before social media, if you had wanted to drive a particular message towards loads of online eyeballs—the number necessary, say, to distort an election—it’d taken a mammoth effort. Personal publishing was too distributed. Everyone owned and maintained their own patch. It’d take too much persuading.

The pre-social web was imperfect, but what social media did was demolish it: it took the eyeballs off what had gone before and concentrated most online attention to a small number of places that were vulnerable to subversion.

The concentration of attention is a characteristic of old-media but, in their case, any slant or bias was generally well-displayed and understood. Publications and broadcasters happily nailed their colours to whatever mast, and the public were broadly free to choose where to align. The difference is these publishers maintained standards, some self-imposed and some regulated. They were not in the habit of handing their front-pages over to whatever fruitcake fancied reaching the readership for whatever end.

And as social media drained visitors from other personal publishing, it made decreasing sense to persist. Many didn’t. So, the far-less abusable but still egalitarian world of old blogs languished. The execution of Google Reader, in the era when Google still fancied having a social network of its own, caused further damage.

Twitter trying to toughen up on subtle abuse of the platform has me wondering whether the colossal task of moderating social media is at odds with the business of operating a social media platform, and this is why they barely bother. Not directly because of the risk of a dent in advertising revenue, but for these centralised destinations, small in number but massive in scale, viability and abuse are intrinsic.

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