I remember when I first came across Twitter. It was exciting. With just a few clicks I could connect with anyone in the world. I could hear new ideas from diverse voices. I could see the world through anyone’s eyes. All I had to do was add them to my stream. It was fast, easy, engrossing, and best of all, free. But Twitter grew, and grew, and everyone got a Twitter account and so the noise too grew and grew, and “free” turned out to be a problem.
See, server farms don’t run on the exchange of ideas. They require cash, and the success of Google in analyzing massive databases of user behavior, and converting it to cash via advertising, convinced everyone that advertising was the future of internet services. After all, it was easy to automate and easy to sell to companies that were used to the language of advertising. Social media was sold as another place to stick a billboard. Now I’m not going to talk about the economics of this, apparently they are solid enough to keep the social media juggernauts afloat, but I am interested in the cultural implications of monetizing eyeballs. We have all bought into the idea that success equals exposure, and that the more exposure you have, the more you are on people’s minds, the better off you are. Just think: we talk now about our online “brand” like we have stockholders to appease.
The fact of the matter is that we do not have stockholders. The fact of the matter is that exposure sells only ads for other people. Our own expression is secondary to paid expression. And we feel the need to compete. We too want to be heard, we want to be seen. We too want to advertise. So we get louder. We get more sensational. We get more controversial. Advertising has never been about dialogue: it is a one way relationship, and social media, despite all of its promise in connecting people, has accepted this model and turned into a massive advertising platform for everyone.
So what do we end up with? A vast network of people shouting to be heard over one another. Competition sprouts up over who can be the most outraged, the most self-righteous. We fight vicious battles of text and sarcastic images in the vain hopes that we will rise above the noise and be noticed. That our brands will become well known. And we do all of this in impersonal, terse updates, because nobody has the time to read everything in their stream. The quick, punchy ad gets the most attention, after all. Social media is not actually about being social, it is about spreading media. That’s how we end up fighting and ruining each other’s day over topics as vital to the progress of human history as music, film, and sideshow political issues. Even worse, our quest to build our brands leads us to trivialize important issues like rights and equality by shouting the same tired talking points ever louder, ever more emphatically, without attempting to reach a conclusion.
Ideas have taken a back seat these days, and its not good. Look, I’m no luddite, and as much as I feel like it some days, I could never give up the modern conveniences and platforms that technology offers. But this whole ME thing, this whole I DESERVE TO BE HEARD thing is destructive. The fact is that you don’t deserve to be heard unless you have something to contribute. Nothing is gained by endless repetition, other than noise. Social media’s strength is in its connectivity, not in its audience. Sure, plenty of people have gotten rich marketing themselves to the masses, but they have ,in the end, accomplished little other than wealth. With social media sidetracked in a popularity contest, real progress, alas, remains in the restricted domain of interpersonal relationships. After all, face to face its harder to shout without looking like an ass. In person we are forced to contend with the solid, material existence of others. We are forced to admit that people are more than eyeballs, more than clicks, more than AdSense dollars trickling into our accounts.
I don’t see this getting better because there’s centuries of momentum in this depersonalization. That’s the ultimate failed promise of social media: its inability to connect people beyond historical prejudice. We have created a system that buttresses rather than disrupts our longstanding order. It will be interesting to see how networks like Ello, with non eyeball based business models, develop, but I’m not optimistic. After all, Ello has the same economic constraints as any other social network. They too will need users to pay the server bills. Ultimately the best social network doesn’t have these expenses because it is located in your community, among your friends and family and the people you meet when you put the phone down, when you log off and you connect with a person instead of a server hosted avatar.
So I’m largely logging off, and I’m going to try and create my own social network based around common experience and interests, around shared stories and picked up tabs. I’m going to try and live in real life, where people are forced to recognize the very real existence of each other, where competition isn’t for eyeballs, it isn’t for fame or money, but for connection.