So, the original idea of Social Media — at least as we framed it in 1994/5 — was to make the social *structure* around content accessible and engageable — so you could interact with the other people who had engaged with the same stuff as you. In consequence of that, it was effectively a way of hooking people up who had shared interests, then letting them get on with their lives — it was about facilitating connection, then leaving the rest to existing social structure.
That’s a pretty simple idea, and intended as simple utility. That’s that Social Media was about, for us, then.
Over the past decade or so, we’ve gone from that simple idea of utility to ‘social’ (which I put in quotes to create some kind of critical distance between the naive meaning of the word and the reality of Facebook etc and what they are becoming) in its current incarnations.
Aside: Remember when Facebook’s positioning was ‘social utility’? I can’t remember when they removed that from their home page, but was meaningful that they did — and indicative of our inattentiveness to their nascent power that it didn’t raise much comment until after the fact.
The issue everyone blithely ignored, during the de-evolution (and monetisation) of Social Media to ‘social’ was, I think, what we *already knew about people* — the power of homophily, tribalism, etc, and the consequences of removing the real-world impediments to those things (cost, distance, time), which, in the day-to-day world tend to moderate their worst pathologies, for most of us, most of the time.
Removing those dampers, or — in the case, say, of Facebook’s strategy of ‘show em more of that stuff they like so we get more clicks on the ads’ — actively *amplifying* enablers of homophily and tribalism, is one part of the problem to which ’social’ has contributed. The other is, that once those structures have been created, the maximum return for those in a position to monetise the pathologies thus amplified, derives from positive feedback on behaviour stimulated by raw emotional response, rather than by considered evaluation or civilised argument.
As an off-the-cuff provocation, I’d say that ‘social’ in its current, profit-motive-steered sense, can really be considered usefully in the same way as porn: a big business, with issues of ethics, safeguarding etc, yes of course. But also in that it exists at all, due to our seeking of easy stimulation: an amplified pathology of something innate — in porn’s case, sexual gratification, in ‘social’s, the lizard brain kick which comes from positive feedback from a peer or affinity network, and a good tussle with the ‘others’, whoever they might be today.
Probably, ‘considered evaluation’ and ‘civilised argument’ is a big ask — and they don’t matter if we’re discussing celebrity haircuts or cats. They *do* matter when we’re in the realms of politics and discrimination — meaningful sense-making in the world of consequence.
Furthermore, plenty of culture can (arguably) be ascribed to the pathological expression of evolutionary-advantageous behaviour. However, the speed of development of pathological ‘social’ is probably unique in human history.
What’s the solution? TBC, but as a start, exposing what it is that actually is driving behaviour, across the widening gap between political worldviews, belief systems etc. We’re doing that at Significance Systems, and you can try it for free.
And, meanwhile, keeping in mind that we have at least two good, time-proven tools for dealing with this stuff — scientific method and good old rhetoric.
More on this to follow.