The Rise and Fall of “Social” Media
Imagine a future in which your Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook are so polluted with content by corporate interests that it’s nearly impossible to excavate the content by your friends and family: the real people with whom we were promised social media would make it easier to “stay connected.”
This future may not sound too distant. This is probably because, by now, most of us accept that social media is chiefly an avenue for big business marketing as easily as if it were an inborn, unquestionable fact — as though social media in its current form had been bestowed upon us by a divine creator. Just as we all accept that politicians lie yet still we must elect them, we all accept that social media is first and foremost an economic tool that rewards branding and monetization, profits off its users’ time, attention, and personal information — and yet we must participate. The alternative is virtual invisibility, real-world obscurity.
But this reality is a far cry from the new dawn of democracy and community envisioned by the hippies and psychedelic cyberpunks who pioneered the World Wide Web; as author and theorist Douglas Rushkoff put it, “The folks who really saw in the internet a way to turn on everybody. We couldn’t get everybody to take acid…but get everybody on the internet, and they will have that all-is-one, connected experience.”
In the days before the zenith of tech billionaires, social networking was still abuzz with that possibility. But those of us who jumped on the first generation of Myspace in 2003 knew that the intrigue of social media lie in the freedom to forge our own identities. Myspace was successful not as a means of staying in touch with family and up to date on friends, but as a platform for autonomy and self-expression. Connection in the early days of social media meant cultivating and asserting (or escaping) our Selves in a virtual world.
Mark Zuckerberg, too, likes to claim something along the lines of “connection” as the motivation behind his company. But by the time Facebook was opened to the public around 2006, the Internet was already undergoing a functional repurposing by tech entrepreneurs and investors — from a dream of unity and self-expression to a vehicle for exponential financial gain. This repurposing had been blueprinted in an influential article published in Wired magazine in 1997. The article offered convincing foresight into the monetary potential of the Internet and ubiquitous personal computers:
We are watching the beginnings of a global economic boom on a scale never experienced before. We have entered a period of sustained growth that could eventually double the world’s economy every dozen years.…[Historians] will chronicle the 40-year period from 1980 to 2020 as the key years of a remarkable transformation.
Notably missing from this forecast are glimpses of the interconnected cooperative envisioned by the Internet’s renegade creators.
But Wired was right about the economic implications of digital connectedness. As predicted, social networking sites became, decisively, the new frontier for ad agencies and marketers. For three years, Myspace was the world’s most visited social network. Until 2008, when Facebook eclipsed Myspace in the same category. In 2009, MediaPost noted that “The shift reflects the emergence of Facebook this year as the premiere social networking property for marketers.” At the time, this was an unprecedented accomplishment. As noted by Fortune, before Facebook, “the notion of social networking ads as big business was a fantasy.”
And while Myspace’s popularity contracted, Facebook’s viewership and ad revenue ballooned. In 2010, Facebook accounted for a quarter of all U.S. ad dollars, “gaining market share at the expense of MySpace,” who, as we know, never recovered.
In retrospect, it’s no surprise that entrepreneurs and opportunists looked on at the hippie prospect of digital connectedness with dollar signs in their eyes. After all, in a capitalist society, individual people ever-connected on a tangible plain could be described one way as a breeding ground for exploitation. If it’s any indication: This quarter, Facebook’s stock will reach a record high, despite the unprecedentedly large $3 billion fine Facebook is awaiting from the FTC for dodging around in the shadows and egregiously failing its users for the umpteenth time. The fine made waves more because it is a drop in the bucket for the $550 billion behemoth than because it is a record-setting penalty.
Facebook’s grotesque net worth and reckless ethics just show that its purpose has always been profit at all costs — and so the groundwork was laid for all social media to come after it. Zuckerberg may tout the lofty ideal of “connected experience” as the motivation behind his juggernaut corporation, but he definitely wasn’t going after the “all-is-one” effect of an acid trip. After all, whereas psychedelic drugs engender in us a feeling of connection with nature, our own spirit, and our place as human beings in the natural order, social media simply plugs us directly into the motherboard of a digital commercial superpower — whose scope and influence rival that of any government, and whose primary objective is to engorge us with branded content, all under the pretense of “connection.”
So to whom or what, exactly, are we connected? I think few would say each other. It’s no secret that despite plans for unity, and business spiels about connectedness, social media has made us individually feel more isolated from one another and lonelier than ever. It’s old news that social interaction on “social” media is fickle at best, lethally cruel at worst. And with commercial content sitting so closely to our own on the digital landscape, the line between where each begins and ends is becoming increasingly blurry. Perhaps, if the Internet is indeed like an acid trip, then the state of social media today is something resembling MKUltra: a tool of the people harnessed by the powerful in order to control the people in turn.
For this reason, to lament losing so-called “real” content by our friends and families on our feeds — content that has been mathematically buried by evolving algorithms — is to miss the point. Social media is not and never has been supplemental to human connection, and certainly does not replace it. The Internet by way of social media was never going to cultivate true oneness, despite the aims of its psychedelic pioneers. Social media cannot provide the spiritual enrichment of a well-received acid trip — not in an environment ruled by profit and power. And it’s this spiritual enrichment that’s needed for humanity to truly connect.
I think the necessary question is not why do we put up with it — social media does have aesthetic and cultural value (think a living, breathing fashion magazine). But with its pervasive influence, its effects are insidious. The question is how do we begin to reconstruct our collective spirit? How do we, as a society, free ourselves from the vice grip of commercialism, branding, and precarious economic growth? So that we may get back in sync with the natural world, take stock of the damage, and salvage what’s left. So that we may truly connect with one another, and with our universal values.
Increasingly lately, I’m reminded of Plato’s story of Atlantis: an advanced and prosperous city, whose people, once generous and good-hearted, became possessed by power and excessive wealth. As punishment for their spiraling greed, the gods assailed the island with earthquakes and floods, and the city and all its riches sank to the bottom of the sea.
There is work to be done. Once we collectively trace our steps and acknowledge that as a society, we’ve been following an ouroboros path of greed and spiritual corrosion — not connectedness with one another, as we’ve been made to believe — only then can we get our bearings, and decide with a clear head where we want to go from here. Yes, social media has been usurped by corporate powers. But even in its purest incarnation, is it really what we need? Or is it time for something else, something better.