Social Media and This Moment

It feels like we're having a moment.

Social networks’ evolution into social media brought both opportunity and calamity. Facebook and all the rest enjoyed a massive rise in engagement and the associated data-driven advertising profits that the attention-driven content economy created. The same phenomenon also created the influencer economy, in which individual social-media users became valuable as channels for distributing marketing messages or product sponsorships by means of their posts’ real or imagined reach. Ordinary folk could now make some money or even a lucrative living “creating content” online. The platforms sold them on that promise, creating official programs and mechanisms to facilitate it. In turn, “influencer” became an aspirational role, especially for young people for whom Instagram fame seemed more achievable than traditional celebrity—or perhaps employment of any kind.

-- "The Age of Social Media is Ending" - Ian Bogost

Journalists and news outlets are publishing articles like this more and more frequently, especially in the last ~two weeks since Elon bought Twitter. It's like an awakening is happening across culture, one that many people I've been listening to have been heralding for the last few years. I won't keep going on and on about the open/indie web. But eveyrone from Neil Postman to Alan Jacobs to Austin Kleon to Cal Newport have been dinging this bell for a while now (Postman saw it decades before anyone else did in Entertaining Ourselves to Death.)

But what's even more interesting to me is the cultural icons that are also dealing with this in music and comedy. Bo Burnham's Inside was never really about the pandemic, even if that helped frame it. It was about an individual person's interaction and obsession with the internet and social media. The feeling of constantly being watched, of having one's whole life online ready to be consumed and spit out by the masses.

Kendrick's Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers didn't get the critical acclaim that his work normally does, but the more I've listened to it, the more prescient it has become. "N95", a song about masks, written as a reference to covid-era protection, was never about either covid or the just-sub-surface level idea that "riches and materialism need to be removed to see the real you." No, deeper than that, it's about how we allow the outside world to determine how we present ourselves. Our (often imagined) worst critics determine the masks we put on, and those masks slowly fuse onto our faces until we can't tell the difference between our false selves and our true selves.

Social media may not have been the cause of all of this. We are humans and suffer from that condition, after all. But it has certainly exacerbated those tendencies. And due to its unique ability to force us to live in the algorithm-feed-moment, many of us have forgotten that the world outside is different than the one we interact with every day.

Tagged: Bo Burnham, Kendrick Lamar, individualism, social media, open web,