That’s what Ian Bogost writes about in the current issue of The Atlantic. He notes that “social networking” morphed into “social media” sometime around 2009, thanks to the debut of smartphones and Instagram. The difference is simple but profound.
Social networking promotes ties between people who actually know each other and communicate intentionally. Social media, on the other hand, radically expand an author’s audience to hordes of people that are unknown and anonymous.
While this transition has proved quite popular, it has also proved to be highly anti-social, per Bogost. That’s because the social media platform owners quickly discovered that emotionally charged content (and all its ill effects) drew the most eyeballs and this created enormous profit-making potential, thanks to marketers who wished to disseminate commercial messages to as many people as possible. Platform algorithms are designed to broadcast the most emotionally charged posts. Social media posters, meanwhile, revel in their seeming popularity, thriving on likes, shares, retweets, and the like.
Bogost says, “…social media produced a positively unhinged, sociopathic rendition of human sociality…” that has been actively fostered by Big Tech firms “…where sociopathy is a design philosophy.”
Bogost’s condemnation is unrelenting and unforgiving. His conclusion is: “We cannot make social media good, because it is fundamentally bad, deep in its very structure. All we can do is hope that it withers away, and play our small part in helping abandon it.”
Nonetheless, I for one think that Bogost wants to throw out the baby with the bathwater. This very post by me on this blog is itself a social media transmission. I use Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to make as many people as possible aware of my blog posts. Ironically, this post serves to make Bogost more widely read to an audience that doesn’t read The Atlantic.
I don’t dispute what Bogost says about the various platforms’ business models and their toxic effects. But I hold the view that tools are tools, and they can be used for good or ill.
It seems to me that the likelihood of social media’s demise is nil. People are people, human nature is human nature. It may well be that growth is slowing and perhaps may stagnate. Will it actually start to shrink? Only when the world’s population starts to decline. There may be consolidations and mergers as the various platforms lose their distinctive attributes as they all copy each other voraciously. They all seem to want to be all things to all users. But social media are like hammers. And they will be around for millennia to come.
Here’s the link to Bogost’s article: