#31: The End is the Beginning
Social media appears to be heading towards the iceberg. So where do we go from here?
In a basement office of the psychology department at my university, the two honours’ thesis students under my supervisor sat next to me, stunned that I had not heard about this new website. Being only 3 or 4 years older than them, I take solace that they didn’t see the PhD candidate in the lab as completely uncool so as to not bother with asking.
After showing me their accounts, they left the office and I signed up for Facebook.
Five years later, I had my first photography exhibition. On the advice of another local artist who had success advertising their own show, I signed up for Twitter in the hopes of spreading the word.
Shortly after, I jumped on the next platform, using preset filters to share awkward selfies and artful food pictures on Instagram.
As more people signed onto these apps in the mid- to late-2010s, I observed how their respective purpose and meaning crystallizing - Facebook became a place for family and friends to share memories, Twitter for exchange of ideas, Instagram for display of craftsmanship both analog and digital. Within these apps, small organic communities were seeded and grew. I leaned into all of these, finding unexpected opportunities that have modified my own personal and professional development. These were the halcyon days of social media. Sixteen years later, these platforms are nearing end-stage, and there’s a lot of chatter about what lies ahead for the relationships we’ve (re)built.
Changing Dreams, Changing Schemes
Over the pandemic years, and in part due to its increasing bloat, my use of Facebook has declined to a near-flatline. I’ve learned it’s a good tool for engaging people in certain demographics for research, but otherwise gets little activity. Twitter is my primary social media network, where I’ve learned to, ironically, be more extraverted and engage with others. It’s given direction to a rough-cut path I’ve followed since my PhD and has connected me with amazing people. I want to share my photography, but my Instagram use is cyclical with my tolerance for their algorithm rubbish. (I might start another Substack simply to control photo quality and stories I can share.)
Regardless of the specific platform, what I’ve observed through my own use is that I have a set point of platforms I can engage and reliably curate with any measure of quality. (It’s two, being Twitter and Substack.)
Indeed, the parent companies of the apps are no longer content to shine in their respective niche, so they all moved towards low-quality copies of each other. Newsfeeds were ranked and sorted based on engagement, not the passage of time. Advertisements were introduced and awkwardly inserted. Micro-video features mushroomed in an attempt to capture the lost Gen Z demographic that were on other apps altogether. Throughout them all, unsolicited views infiltrated and watered down newsfeeds, be they from malicious actors and bots spreading batshit theories about elections and vaccines, or from glossy “influencers” all converging on a singularity despite attempts to stand out.
Social media had become, for lack of better terms, a grade-A goat rodeo.
“If you haven’t noticed, Instagram has gotten terrible lately,” [Kyle] wrote in his Substack newsletter. “My main feed is overwhelmed with recommended posts and videos from accounts that I don’t even follow. Instagram Stories, which was once a haven of real-time moments from friends, is now a similar melange of videos, ads, and brand promotions.”
Kyle Chanka, as quoted by Mark DeLong in “Kim and Kylie don't like algorithms”
Am I surprised that advertising is present in social media? Of course not; someone has to pay for the infrastructure, and the price of admission we’ve accepted is annoying ad copy. I’m also not surprised the algorithms shifted to reward those who understand the game. Whether one is driven by dollars to become ambassadors to brands, or they are driven to strive for viral fame in search of their unique legacy, I understand but am disappointed in us as a society for it.
A sidebar about influencers. Last year, I read “Influencer: Building Your Personal Brand in the Age of Social Media” in an attempt to better understand the ever changing spaces I occupy online. Although some of the messages are valuable for anyone with an entrepreneur or creator bone (e.g., identifying and sticking to a consistent core message that drives how you organize and present your outputs), I felt cheap after finishing it, like most do after ill-advised hookups. (Perhaps I wasn’t their target audience.)
If I Leave Here Tomorrow, Would You Still Remember Me?
Why does any of this matter, and what does it have to do with a newsletter about science communication? Well, amid the recent news that the low-rent Lex Luthor has commandeered Twitter, my newsfeed has populated with a not-insignificant number of posts stating intentions to pull up virtual stakes and seek out the next Geocity. (For example, friend of the show Mark Dykeman - How About This - posts this week about social media outposts and where he might pop up instead of Twitter.)
What I initially worried about, then, was finding that next kitchen table to listen to the meaningful conversations happening in the world about science, art, and communication - the discussions that have sparked much thought, inspiration and joy for me.
And knowing my own limits (n=2), I was mildly anxious that I would now need to join 10 platforms to network with all the lost colleagues.And then, who do we lose, then, who don’t have the resources to find and join all the networks?
After all, in the continued interest of democratizing science, we need to ask whose voice is no longer at the table when we only prioritize and reward the content of those who have the means to do so.
You’ve Got to Keep the Faith
Yet with all that said, I’m actually not all that concerned with the future of social media.
In February 2018, I started following a hashtag (#HowNotToDoEngagement) that created a spark in my career and, really, my life. I wasn’t anticipating it. I just took advantage of the opportunity to engage more with the authors of the tweets, and help share their voices.
And there’s the thing. There will be other opportunities to explore. Someone will create a new space. We can scour the accounts we follow and ask ourselves how we can continue to engage in their content. We can let followers know to find us on Substack, share email addresses like it’s 1998, and ask how to best connect with them. We can keep our eye out for who is missing at the next table.
If the community has a strong foundation, it will stand and support a rebuild. If the content is meaningful to you outside of simple scrolling, you’ll make time for it through other means.
What comes next doesn’t exist yet either, but we’ll figure it out.
Thanks for reading this week’s edition of Campfire Notebook. Please consider joining my kitchen table for future conversations, and bring a friend, too.
Which, then, drives more users to the platforms. All about the money, baby.
Some are already reserving seats at Mastadon. I have, but already can see how the user interface will limit the voices present. Another person I know is making their own social network for patient advocates, with a range of subscription plans to support the infrastructure (including a no-questions-asked free plan).
This is exactly how I feel. Whatever’s next isn’t out there yet, and I’m good with waiting to see how this all shakes out.
Thoughtful post, it's good to see that your professional and personal worlds have both thrived via social media.