This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: The Rise And Sprawl Of Social Media

Once they have you locked in, the people behind social media seem determined to make the experience as increasingly awful as they possibly can.

The emergence of social media surely marks the biggest shift in how people communicate with one another in a hundred years; chances are, if you can’t imagine a world without it, then it really is that important. Of course, the arrival of the telephone was in some ways equivalent, and the emergence of the internet – the old internet, from before, with chat rooms and message boards – paved the way for what was to come, as well as facilitating the speed, range, and spontaneity which would be taken forward by social media. But nothing, absolutely nothing, has wrought the kinds of changes that social media has. Even back in the days of chat rooms, it could sometimes be hard to find a stranger on the other side of the world to disagree with. It could be challenging to deal with the constant barrage of ‘A/S/L?’ from faceless squits. And yet, it all feels somehow like a lost age now, a more innocent time, a time before Silicon Valley realised they could develop and manipulate new technology in any ways they fancied, by both counting on a dependent millions-strong throng of users and by utterly ignoring what they thought about the platforms once they were safely, profitably using them.

Facebook started it. What started as an online ‘yearbook’ of sorts (an Americanism which has, to date, yet to make it over to the UK en masse, presumably because Facebook got us all to make our own anyway), it quickly spread as the social network of choice, looking ineffably more grown up than MySpace or Faceparty, and appealing to a somewhat broader age spectrum. A man who looks perennially aghast at the best of times, Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg was no doubt genuinely shocked by his website’s sudden leaps and bounds in reach and popularity, but bless him, he’s made the best of it, and at the time of writing is now worth in the region of 6 billion dollars. Along the way, he’s faced down numerous controversies, such as his site’s proven tendency to manipulate its algorithms, presenting users with an increasingly snug rabbit hole of ideas and commentary that fits their possibly already rather bijoux grasp of the world. Facebook has been implicated in political situations, too, with credible accusations that its algorithms have had a concrete impact on people’s voting behaviours; in effect, a website which started out as a place where you could hurl imaginary sheep at one another had a hand in bringing Donald Trump to power. What a thought. Nowadays, Facebook’s grand concession to its (depending on your choice of rabbit-hole) incendiary/fake news-busting political wheedling is to attach a warning notice onto the more salacious crud being shared on its platform, which is rather nice of them.

The ever-robotic Mark Zuckerberg

However, it’s not necessarily its more egregious tendencies which I want to discuss here, as much as there’s an article or several in that alone. Instead, where FB really blazed a trail is in how it has rendered itself almost completely unusable, or else so teeth-grindingly awash with white noise that no right-thinking person could possibly stick it out. Yes, it affixed itself in position as the only means many people had to keep in touch with their family and friends – or more usually, acquaintances – but as I have long said: you can do without them, you really can, particularly if their only view out onto the world is through their Facebook. Nothing, ever, has made people realise they hate their friends more than Facebook has. Save yourself the acute bodily ache of scrolling through a cluttered, malignant feed, hectic with posts from other people, then other people commenting on the posts by other people; spare yourselves the ignominy of seeing what people are discussing under content you didn’t ask for. Avoid the headache of wondering how Facebook has, again, reset itself during some sort of spurious ‘update’ and started showing you things you thought you’d filtered out, or started inviting you to ‘add’ people you definitely don’t know or have successfully avoided until now. It’s probably down to its sheer scale, but it really does make people behave in objectionable ways. I’ve been off there for years, so I am genuinely unsure whether the tendency for people to beg for attention enigmatically and passively has passed off, but I bet it’s still going, even if in some sort of updated format: you can’t gift people the means to seek attention and then expect them to forget how to do it. Some people have even made a career out of it – or replaced a career with it. And, as a means of promoting businesses – which some people depend on, thanks to a toxic blend of their own limited cash flow and Facebook’s ubiquity – it really is the pits.

So, Facebook set the standard for self-ruin; not to be outdone, Twitter and now Instagram have enthusiastically taken the baton. Twitter, if you use it very, very carefully, can still be fun; its yearning for you to add strangers is a little less aggressive, and you can filter it down fairly successfully, though it does insist on rejigging itself from time to time to show you the ‘top posts’ (‘top’ according to whom, you have to wonder, before you remember and stop wondering). It also spasmodically and even a bit needily tries to interest you in topics which it thinks will suit you. This, to me, proves that the algorithm might be a sinister thing in many respects, but it is also a hapless idiot in others, as in recent weeks it has tried to promote ‘football’, ‘crafts’ and ‘superhero movies’ to me – all things I’d skip barefoot over broken glass to avoid. On a more serious note, Twitter has a dreadful history of allowing abuse on its platform, and very particular ideas about what it thinks is defensible and what ain’t, but given its creators and their quasi-religious political leanings, it’s no great surprise: we live in a world where you can accurately type a person’s social and cultural predilections through their glasses frames. You look at the head honchos at Twitter, and you needn’t question anything more about them. Still, as much as it could be argued that Twitter is the least worst – and many would disagree – it has a strong pedigree of: changing elements that work for elements that do not, presiding over a sea change in how people interact that has many times been for the worse, and of pretending to be listening when it emphatically isn’t. Top work, by anyone’s standards.

Jack Dorsey, the man behind Twitter

And so to Instagram, which is now owned by Facebook, but run by a man called Adam Mosseri. Again, whilst it’s remiss of me to pick on someone’s appearance (though then again, he can cry into his money for all I care) Adam looks exactly like you’d expect him to look; it’s almost comforting actually. Instagram, in its earliest inception, was what Facebook was at the start, before it gradually turned into a faintly sinister mess. It was a simple, clean platform: in the case of Instagram, it was for sharing images and images only. People liked it. It got popular. So of course, its owners got to work spoiling it, hurling in a few features it had stolen from the likes of Snapchat, tinkering with its display and – eventually – forcing it to resemble TikTok, the charming, Chinese-owned video platform that is a genuine world leader in transmitting various aspects of negative social contagion to its predominantly very young users. This is what social media now does, see: it’s like a modern Aesop’s Fable, a warning about covetousness. Each platform casts about, sees a popular feature and copies it, regardless of whether that feature is a good fit. Eventually, colours that were perfectly clear and decipherable in their original settings are mixed into a muddy, samey mess.

Instagram has now begun to morph into a video-sharing platform, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Sure, Mosseri has put out a video (of course) insisting that he listens to the concerns of his users, but ultimately telling them to buckle up, because the changes are here to stay. The shift towards videos, the appearance of ‘recommendations’ in feeds (where you get presented with people and accounts you do not follow) – this is all part of the way, he tells us, the site needs to ‘evolve’. Not only that, but it’s based on how its users want it to evolve; he notes a big shift towards the popularity of video (as if he doesn’t know it’s his own algorithm which has started to prioritise them) and so, to improve the ‘experience’ of the ‘community’, the site will move more and more towards this feature. Notice how he uses a lexical field of support and choice, even though he is avowedly removing both? He says he is going to ‘lean in’ to the complexities of the situation, too, which is a phrase lifted from soon-to-be former chief operating officer (no, I don’t know either) of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg: she even wrote a book with that title. They trade in each other’s weasel words too; in social media, nothing is real, everything is permitted.

Adam Mosseri – good grief.

The not-at-all-often-repeated response to these complaints is always – these services are free. You don’t have to use them; why don’t you just stop? There’s truth to that of course, but each of these platforms has elected to offer a free service and, as such, relies on its user base to keep going, just as its successes have all been down to the users. To ignore tens of thousands of complaints is surely poor business sense, even when you’re vast enough to withstand tens of thousands of deletions as mere collateral damage. There’s a real question here about the relationship between site owners and audience, though, and the ways the former now always, always edge towards copying one another at the expense of the rest of us and what we prefer. It’s sordid one-upmanship between effete millennials, whilst users are reduced down to numbers, clicks and views. No amount of jibber-jabber about ‘community’ will efface that. Maybe ‘lean in’ to an appreciation that your market share is big enough to purchase a small country as it is, and leave things alone?

It gets worse, particularly if you use Instagram for other purposes. For those who use Instagram to try and promote their music, art or business – possibly after being hounded off Facebook by the issues now looming over Instagram – it’s already becoming an impossibility, and all during a time when many creators live or die by their social media presence, in a world where the divide between the wealthy and the poor continues to grow. Want to make a living from your art? Forget it, even if you take the knee and start making the Reels. There will never be a way of satisfying the demands of the algorithm which materially benefits you even a fraction as much as it benefits the people at the top, and the worst thing is, now we’re all acutely aware of it whilst it’s happening.

Maybe that’s where social media really distinguishes itself: you can see these changes taking place, live, and be told it’s in your best interests too. In some ways, it’s like the class system in microcosm: that may sound like hyperbole, but think about it; the power shift happens in the same direction. Above all else, though, it’s worth repeating that we started using these services because they provided something interesting; perhaps they were even (dare I say it?) fun. The truly incredible thing is just how expendable that turns out to be, and how quickly fun can be booted out for more pressing, monetary concerns. ‘Fun’ is the most ephemeral social media feature of them all: enjoy it while you can, if you can.

KERI O’SHEA

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