The Day Social Media Died

Remember the Fail Whale?

The drama at Twitter is just the latest sign that Social Media is becoming Tribal Media.

My adventures in Social Media started in 2003 when I joined LinkedIn but did not do much on that platform until 2008 when I also became active on the pre-Like button Facebook and a scrappy startup platform called Twitter which kept crashing all the time.

The promise of Mindcasting

I was especially enthralled by Twitter’s promise to have near-real-time conversations with “people you know and trust”. NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen called it “mindcasting”, the frequent sharing of ideas to spark conversations. Professor Rosen’s view of mindcasting was to build communities through multi-directional conversations that would otherwise be impossible to conduct offline. This community succeeds when everyone adds positive information to the conversation through thoughts, links, feedback and constructive discussion.

I built my following by connecting with people whose tweets I liked. In those days, the courtesy was to follow back. In those early days, when algorithms did not too influence my feed, it was a delight to discover new people. I would also follow authors I liked, journalists and bloggers I read and people with interesting points of view.

Is anyone there?

In those early days of Twitter, many of us were optimistic. Looking back at my Tweet archive, I tweeted up to 5 times per day, which was probably on average. At least half of my tweets were ideas (which I labelled “Thots”), then one or two responses and the occasional announcement (or advert) or a flippant remark. Several of those ideas turned into more profound blog posts or articles, which I shared again on Twitter. Unfortunately, my Tweet archive does not capture engagement, but I remember getting enough retweets and stars to keep me going.

I kept pretty active on Twitter through the years. However, while live-tweeting an event in 2015, I started to wonder if the medium was still effective. Out of the 250+ attendees, I was the only one using the event hashtag. Not that there wasn’t good content, quite the opposite. Not that people weren’t looking at their phones, because they indeed were. What was happening?

Then the 2016 US presidential election turned my timeline into an ugly mess. No longer were positive ideas getting through the algorithmic filters. Instead, it was all content aimed at triggering my lizard brain.

As that era dragged on, it came to a point where I decided enough was enough. I stopped tweeting. My engagement on Facebook and LinkedIn also dropped.

The day social media died

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter in October 2022, and the chaos that ensued, convinced me to delete my Twitter account finally. Despite my early and naive dreams of the power of social media, the game has always been engagement…to get advertisers. The quality of the conversation was not necessary. It was how to get eyeballs to doom scroll the day away by continuously shocking the lizard brain.

The frantic actions of Twitter’s new owner convinced me it was no longer a place to share ideas safely. But where to go? Mastodon? The concept is very different despite Mastodon’s visual similarities with early Twitter. First, you open an account on a server with a small community of people who usually have similar interests or geographic locations. Looking at the “Federated” newsfeed, which represents a non-filtered chronological list of all “toots”, I noticed it was the old game again: how to migrate one’s tribe from the ol’birdsite to Mastodon. Or join an existing tribe.

Social media is no longer about social conversations. Instead, it is about seeking out one’s kind. Or blurting out platitudes in the hopes of some recognition, as does my LinkedIn newsfeed, which is full of promotion announcements, selfies with awards and mindless posts of double-spaced short sentences interspersed with ads from LinkedIn encouraging me to apply for a new job while I just got started with the job I now have…

Where is a space for intelligent engagement about ideas? Not on TikTok, which is simply video candy. Is it Reddit? Pinterest? Discord?

Is a “town square” even possible these days?

Will there ever be another “one true town square”? Or is the digital vortex spinning so fast that the only option is to be cast off into our media bubbles?

Zuck knows Facebook is declining, so he throws all his resources into Meta so we can wander as a legless computer-generated avatar in a bland computer-generated world. Musk wants Twitter to be a town square where everyone has an equal voice — if you pay your $8. LinkedIn aims to be the conversation by the cubicle à la “Office Space“. Each media wants to be inclusive, but they all have the same weakness: to get engagement, they need, at some level, to provoke enragement, which leads to tribalism. No amount of technology can counteract this.

Is there a space for a real salon-type conversation that elevates and educates? I think there is. The pandemic pause cut us off from real human engagement. We need to rekindle the conversation before tribal media kills community forever.