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Is Social Media a Failed Experiment?

Social MediaWhen I heard that Elon Musk is toying with the idea of buying Twitter, I wondered why he’d want it.  I suppose he thinks on grander societal scales than I do, and perhaps he sees some strategic use for the platform.

Personally, I wonder if social media is a failed experiment.

This sounds flippant but knowing how humans think leads me to believe that the present state of social media is ultimately where social media will always be.  I’m not talking about the web itself, because it’s too large and fragmented and it doesn’t coalesce people the way SM does.  I’m thinking of Twitter, Facebook, and their ilk.

As I see it, SM only plays out one of two ways.

First, you have the Open Platform scenario.   Here I’m thinking of Twitter.  The problem with this scenario is that the platform is inevitably flooded with

(a) People who are politically, religiously, or socially passionate about causes, and the more passionate they are they more they participate because their fervor leads them to post more.  These communities are also far larger than they are on the Internet in general (where one can easily avoid visiting a web site) or in offline life because these platforms bring together people from many disparate geographies and continually welcome new people who’d otherwise never discover them.

(b) Corporations who have the resources to manage social media as an advertising/publicity platform and an outspend others to make sure that their brand is promoted and robustly defended

(c) Government subversives who have practically unlimited resources to manipulate the platform subtlety, explicitly, periodically, continually, or however else they choose.

(d) The platform itself – or others, who develop scrapers, API interfaces, whatever with or without the platform’s consent or abetting – which plunders user’s privacy.  Even platforms where the main modus operandi is public (e.g., Twitter) can still harvest all kinds of information through cookies, trackers, etc.

In short, very quickly the platform is not really very social but more an arena of competing megaphones, angry mobs, hucksters and shills, and crusades.  This to me seems inevitable because those with the time (passionate people), financial power (corporations, governments), or devious self-interest (the platform itself) are going to dominate.

So what’s scenario two?  Maybe we should just put in some rules to exclude the really bad stuff, and let people make their own channels or filters so that they can interact with only groups and people they want to interact with.  Ah, you mean Facebook.

Facebook shares some of the Scenario One model, chiefly that people with resources can use that off-line muscle to make their online identity obnoxiously powerful.  And as for the platform spying on you, well, that’s the Facebook business model so that’s a given.

But this kind of advanced filtering leads to another problem: echo chambers.

In a famous 2010 study, Harvard mapped the Russian blogosphere and compared it to the Western blogosphere.  Their conclusion was that in the West, there is a lot of overlap and interlinks between blogs and you can think of it as “one blogosphere”.  However, in Russia, instead of one sphere you have many small spheres that are isolated.  These communities interlink with each other but don’t link to blogs outside that sphere.

Now, the Russian blogosphere in 2010 is not really social media, but it’s interesting because it shows the powerful desire of humans to form exclusionary communities of shared thought.  This essentially what Facebook has become.  Your experience is entirely different from mine because I join different groups.

These groups develop powerful norms and formal rules that are unique to those groups.  Look how many groups of FB have group-written rules such as “no politics allowed”.  Outsiders who wish to join are identified by the software with an icon all can see, identifying that person as new to the group.  To welcome them?  Perhaps.  Or maybe to be alert in case that person needs to be shunned or evicted – either because he’s violated a group rule or has been explicitly defined as an outsider (I’m guessing your typical Republican politics group doesn’t want to see a Biden fan and vice-versa).

These groups share news, exclude contrary opinion, and are essentially groupthink machines.  Even if it’s not intentional, things function that way because of human nature.  If I’m, say, a Southern Baptist, I’m going to join a Baptist group and be fed a steady stream of imagines, articles, comments, and banter supporting that viewpoint.  I’m far less likely to join a Catholic or a Hindu group.  I’m not saying that’s bad – I mean, I don’t belong to any crocheting groups and I don’t think I’m deprived a vital viewpoint.

But for many people, the Internet is shopping, sports scores, and SM.  Why look at the news – the best clips will be shared on SM anyway, and you can skip to only what you are interested in.  There it will be interpreted for you, meme’d, reacted to, and discussed in real time from a viewpoint you agree with – surely a more attractive option than turning on CNN or Fox.  I would argue even if you consume multiple different SM platforms you are still applying the same self-reinforcing filters which leads you to the same communities.

I’m sure I don’t have to explicitly draw the conclusion here.  Either you have an open platform (Twitter) dominated by whoever has the time, money, and evil to control it, or you get complete self-control which inevitably leads to isolated virtual groups.

And the fix for that is…who knows.  Elon Musk?  Probably not.







  1. Dog:

    Really good post. Are you writing more in this direction? If so where?

    April 20, 2022 @ 3:32 pm | Reply
  2. Robert:

    I’ve lived in the city and a rural area. Social media has been particularly bad for small communities. There have always been people who gathered to gossip in dark corners in bars and who perhaps even popped the occasional anonymous “poison pen” letter in the snail mail.

    Social media has allowed these individuals to group and target others as never before. Sometimes the least intelligent have the most spare time on their hands and now an internet enabled phone in those hands. It leads to witch hunts, often based on faulty information. The end result is that, increasingly, individuals are reluctant to step forward and volunteer for projects and the community loses out.

    It began to take off around 20 years ago with comment sections and the public invited to “have your say.” Social media and smartphones were steps in the same direction.

    April 21, 2022 @ 12:24 am | Reply

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