One of the true hidden gems of being a part of a big community is the ability to discuss ideas and see different perspectives. It’s one of the reasons why I enjoy working at Tech Field Day and why I’m lamenting the death spiral of Twitter. My move to Mastodon is picking up steam and I’m slowly replicating the way that I consume content and interact there but it’s very much the same way I felt about Twitter thirteen years ago. There’s promise but it needs work.
As I thought about my journey with social media and discussed it with people in the community I realized that a large part of what has me so frustrated is the way in which my experience has been co-opted into a kind of performative mess. Social media is becoming less about idea exchange and more about broadcast.
Give and Take
When I first started out on Twitter I could post things that were interesting to me. I could craft the way I posted those short updates. Did I want to be factual and dry? Or should I be more humorous and snarky? I crafted my own voice as I shared with others. My community grew organically. People that were interested in what I had to say joined up. Others chose to stick with their own circles. The key is that I was allowed to develop what I wanted to present to those around me.
As time went on I realized that I was an aberration in the grand scheme of Twitter. I made content. I offered opinions and analysis. I was a power user. Twitter wasn’t filled with power users. It was filled with passive consumers of content. Twitter wasn’t overly concerned with enabling features that allowed users like me to have an easier time. Instead, it was focused on delivering content to the passive audience. Content that Twitter determined was either interesting enough to keep users coming back to the service or generated enough revenue to keep the lights on.
That shift happens in pretty much every social platform that I’ve been a part of. Facebook moved from reading through other people’s status updates about their dogs or their lunch and into a parade of short form videos about craft projects or memes about Star Wars. Every interaction with those posts just enhanced the algorithm to show me more of them. Facebook only shoves more of what you see into your face. It doesn’t take what you create and build from there.
The algorithms that run these services now don’t care about you. They don’t facilitate the discussions and information exchange that make us all better. Instead, they feed us mindless interaction. They give us 60-word posts about a topic with vapid insights or any one of a number of endless popcorn videos about “life hacks” or people having accidents or, worse yet, very clever advertising that looks like a random person posting about how amazing a t-shirt is.
Does It Ad Up?
If you’re thinking to yourself this is starting to sound a lot like television advertising, you’re not far off the mark. The explosion of content that has been pushed in front of us is all about the advertising. It’s either brands that are looking to have users buy their product or service or it’s services looking to gain tons of users for other reasons.The advertising dollar rules all now.
This isn’t a new thing. Anyone that tries to tell you that invasive advertising is a modern construct has never opened up a copy of Computer Shopper magazine from the 90s or enjoyed hearing the host of a 60s game show shilling for Lucky Strike cigarettes. Advertising has always been a huge part of the content that we consume.
Modern YouTube videos have pre-roll ads and breaks in the middle for more ads. Podcasts have one or two ad reads, either by the hosts or through a slick, produced read. For a society that hates advertising we sure don’t mind taking money from them when they want to place an ad in the content we’re creating. Yet unless we’re willing to bankroll our own platforms completely we’re stuck with the way that those platforms make money.
This all comes together in an insidious way. The algorithms show us things out of order because they want to grab our attention. The system wants to weave in content we might enjoy along with ads that pay for the platform alongside of the content we actually want to see. Unlike broadcast television, which has specific rules about advertising, these systems can flood us with content that is designed to make us stick around or pay for something that someone wanted us to buy.
At no point in that whole process did we see highlighting of blog posts (unless they were boosted with ads) or bringing conversations to the top of the feed because we’ve interacted with those people. Power users and non-sponsored content creators are a drag on the system. Because they’re not interesting enough to draw in the regular users, unless they’re famous, and they don’t pay the platform to prioritize that content.
As the social network matures and relies less and less on users to create the interactions that sustains the user base it flips the model to be more focused on providing for the brands that pay to keep the lights on and the popcorn-style content that keeps the users hanging around. That’s the ultimate reason why the twilight of social media platforms feels so wasteful. What was once a place to grow and expand your horizons becomes the same mindless drivel that we see on TV. A late-stage social network is practically indistinguishable from what The History Channel has turned into.
I want Mastodon to succeed. I want the idea exchange to return. There are many on the platform right now that are hostile to brands because they worry about the inevitable slide into the advertising model. That doesn’t happen because of the brands themselves. The move happens when users grow and the platform needs to keep them around. When the costs of running the infrastructure grow past the ability of the users to support it. Here’s hoping the idea exchange and learning continue to be the primary focus for the time being. At least until the next new things comes along.