Adversity doesn’t create character, it reveals it.
I had my first exposure to what could be called a ‘social network’ when I joined Prodigy.net in 1991 I have two main memories of being a Prodigy member:
- The users were insanely nice and courteous
- There were very few users
I remember there being many message boards and forums, organized by interests. Some of these had decent activity, others had little to none. But if a forum had posts, there were friendly and civil discussions to read and join. As I said, it was a wonderful environment, and I had no qualms about reaching out directly to users and it was quite common to share a physical address with members and continue conversations via mail.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about those online conversations some 30 years ago, the civil tone as a stark contrast to the toxicity that many social media sites swim in these days.
The Rise of the Shame Culture
In theory, 2020 should have been social media’s finest hour. Never before have we needed to have conversation, communication. Never before have we needed to listen to each other, to understand each other, to learn from each other. So at a time when we all needed to listen to each other and understand each other, instead these social media tools are being used by many to shame others. If you don’t hold a certain opinion, you are being shamed for it. If you don’t hold a certain opinion on a certain issue, you are told to unfollow that person.
I’ve disconnected from probably 25% of my online network simply because these people were being judgmental assholes. And we are talking people I have been connected to for years, some over a decade. But all it took were a few hot-button issues, and suddenly these people turned into tyrants. And they used social media to do it. Many of these same people have advised clients to NOT do the very things they were doing every day on Twitter and Facebook.
Why is This Social Media’s Fault?
It’s easy to look at what’s happening on social media sites right now and say that you can’t blame the tools, you have to blame the people using the tools. I can’t completely agree with that. The reality is that social media sites aren’t built to facilitate conversations, they are built to facilitate engagement.
Let’s look at Twitter. I’m a bit of an outlier, in that I started using Twitter back in the social media stone ages of 2007. If you talk to any long-time Twitter user that joined prior to 2010, they will tell you that Twitter was a completely different environment ‘back then’. Organic conversations that were CIVIL sprung up like kudzu in the South in the Summer. If a day went by where you didn’t get sucked into at least one engrossing 30-minute conversation on Twitter, then you probably didn’t get on Twitter that day.
So what changed? The celebs discovered Twitter:
And those of us that had been using Twitter before they arrived began to notice something: Literally every silly thing these celebs tweeted got hundreds, even thousands of Likes and Retweets! And they gained thousands of followers every day! If you’re using Twitter every day and you only have 237 followers and nothing you tweet seems to get a Like or Retweet, well it’s natural to envy the huge engagement numbers the celebs were getting!
Which often led to a change in behavior. Many Twitter users stopped focusing on engrossing conversations, and started trying to drive higher levels of engagement.
The Birth of the ‘Twitterbyte’
I was speaking at a conference in 2008, and at one point found myself chatting with my fellow presenters. One of the speakers had come up with what they felt was a brilliant idea that they had to share. The speaker remarked how as the audience was tweeting out our talks, they would condense our ideas into 140 characters or ‘Twitterbytes’, So on the fly, this speaker had bought that domain name. But this story is a great example of how we, as content creators, were working within the parameters of the Twitter platform. We were trying to distill complex ideas down into 140 chars so they would be easily memorable and…drive engagement.
As Twitter’s growth exploded, the sheer volume of tweets went through the roof as well. It made it increasingly hard for each individual tweet to stand out. So again, content creators adapted. They started working on how to make their tweets stand out in a stream where dozens of new tweets are coming in every second. So of the changes were innocent enough, like simply adding a picture or a link.
But somewhere along the way, we all figured out a basic truth of social media: If you say something inflammatory, it’s more likely to have higher engagement. Everyone stops to watch the trainwreck. If you are yelling, people will pay attention. So again, user behavior adjusted. Yelling and being outrageous resulted in higher engagement levels.
Notice that we continue to get further and further away from the one thing that made social media so appealing from the start: The power of organic, civil conversations.
Think about this for a minute: How would the way you use Facebook and Twitter change if you had no idea how many Likes a Facebook update received, or how many RTs a tweet on Twitter had received? I suspect you would spend more time actually reading the content and paying closer attention to what was said in order to decide if it was worth your time. I saw this coming years ago and began arguing that social media sites should remove all public engagement metrics. Don’t tell me how many friends or followers someone has, don’t tell me how many Likes or RTs their content gets, don’t tell me how many comments it has. FORCE me to judge the content’s value on the content itself, not on engagement metrics, which can easily be inflated.
Are Blogs Also Social Media? Should They Go Away As Well?
I’ve always had a problem with classifying blogs as being social media. Yes, I get that in simple terms, it probably makes sense to call blogs social media. But I’ve never really felt comfortable with the description. I think the reason why, is that blogs are a space that YOU control. And they are a place where you have the ability to clearly and completely explain your opinions. Whereas social media sites are geared toward engagement, blogs are geared toward conversations. Think of the mess it would be if I tried to take this same post, and put it on Twitter. I’d have to create a thread of probably 50+ tweets that would end up being a jumbled mess that most people would never read all of. A few tweets would get some engagement and shares, the majority would be ignored.
We need less engagement-driven content, and more conversations. I’ve reached a point where I would be fine if Facebook and Twitter went away today. But don’t take my blogs, don’t take my conversations. That’s what we need. We need more opinions, we need less shame, we need more humility, we need fewer closed minds.
At one point, social media was offered as the solution to our problems. Now it IS the problem. And we need to solve it.