Friday, 12 October 2018

The way we use social media is becoming more like old media

This is just an intuition - I’ve got nothing but anecdotal evidence for it - but social media doesn’t seem particularly social. In fact, it’s as if genuinely communicative activity peaked a couple of years ago and is now waning.

Think about it yourself: unless you’re a really dedicated poster, when was the last time you got into a real spat? And the time before that? My (unfounded) sense is that the frequency of what experts call ‘horizontal interactions’ (between normal people rather than from the top down) relative to the number of participants is falling. Even if the number of social media users is growing in absolute terms, interactions ‘per capita’ must surely be in decline. Or at least it seems that way among my cohort. 

Moreover, there is surely an increasing passivity. When media experts talk about social media, they normally talk about Twitter. They talk about the democratisation of communication, how anyone can now ‘have a go.’ Aside from the fact that, for the vast majority of its users, Twitter can be a lonely, almost silent place, most people aren’t even on Twitter. A million people have left it this year. Its share price is plunging. The media experts are always careful to mention Facebook - where most of us really reside in some permanent sense - but even there people don’t talk to each other very much. If you want to talk to someone, you use messenger or Whatsapp. If you want to tell someone about something, you post. But you do it in a way that suggests you want likes, not a long conversation.

The way experts often talk about and think about and even see the internet is as a potentially wonderful, often dangerous, horizontal, participatory democratisation of communication. But that’s a view based solely on status. It is the instinctive ideology of the influencer. It’s not that everyone is having more and greater communicative interactions, sharing (real or invented) knowledge, correcting or deforming the old information channels.

Instead, for most people, social media looks increasingly like, well, media. Yes, the sources of production are relatively decentralised. Yes, it’s sort of personalised. Never mind the selective algorithms (which are designed to reproduce the popularity of the already popular), the extremely constrained process of discovery is pre-tailored. We are exposed to a curated feed of information - call it, I don’t know, a channel - to which we passively display approval by rewarding it with views. The nature of the user’s activity is increasingly familiar - because it’s precisely what people used to do in front of the telly.

Twitter gets talked about a lot by a certain kind of journalist and media expert, Instagram less so. Ask yourself when was the last time you met someone under the age of twenty-five - even thirty - who uses Twitter. And then recall all the times you’ve watched - perhaps bemused - as you’ve seen people double-tap their screens to like content on Instagram. It might even be you doing it. On Instagram no one really talks. I asked several groups of young-ish students over summer how often they talked on social media (rather than just liking) and the answer was unanimous: almost never.


Communication has retreated to various private and semi-private, semi-public spheres. The utopia of the smooth, undifferentiated, universal public sphere - still being debated on my university course last year - is long dead. It never existed. Because communication needs a channel and a prescribed audience or it just becomes shouting into the void. Social media, just like old media, is structured by power relations that exclude some voices and include others. But that’s not the interesting thing. What’s interesting are the private, semi-private and semi-public spaces people build where they can be heard (even if not always safely): from family Whatsapp groups to large Facebook groups of tens of thousands. The interesting thing to think about is what new configurations of the relation public/private (which are always mutually constitutive and produce each other in the very process of their differentiation) are emerging.

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