You want what cannot be had
We thought electronic media world create a global village in all the best ways, and instead it created the digital longhouse.
A retreat into private fora, group chats and other walled gardens, is very likely to be a major reaction to this. After the brief narcissistic love affair with social media, a lot of people - maybe a majority at this point, it's intrinsically hard to say - realized they don't actually like having their personal lives on display for the world. It's icky and hazardous. Anecdotally, many people I know have withdrawn from social media entirely, and have retreated to group chats in Telegram, WhatsApp, Messenger, etc., where they can limit their interactions to family and friends without worrying about their dirty laundry drawing the Eye of Sauron.
Your piece is excellent, and the parts about people gathering for the spectacle around a stockade is reminiscent of people who gathered to watch executions or beheadings in France during the terror. It's rubbernecking on the highway during an accident or gawking at a train crash. There's something primal in the voyeurism of tragic witness.
I was listening to an old episode of Joe Rogan as he spoke to Dave Chappelle, and Chappelle made the point that a lot of the sociopathic, predatory behaviors we see on social media is due to the anonymity of the interactions, the lack of responsibility, and a real inability to see the interpersonal emotional damage done to the receiver of the attack. Social media reveals the darker parts of our animal natures, and as you said, all the sane people left Twitter a while ago.
True. Wrote this recently: "The reason Substack Notes is so good right now is because there aren’t that many people here yet. A park with a few hundred people will always be nicer/cleaner/more enjoyable than one with thousands of people in it. We don’t consider group size dynamics enough when discussing why social media sucks so much. It’s unnatural to have millions of random (often anonymous) people engaged in dialogue. It inevitably descends into trash."
💯 though I discovered your writing and all of Substack via a retweet of your essay about MFAs. So thank you 🙏 for that.
But you’ve nailed it once again. More and more I’m thinking about leaving social media, especially Instagram, which I perceive as the worst.
Also, people like Haidt keep talking about social media causing depression in teenage girls, but I’m just as certain that it causes chronic anger in adult men. Seen male relatives and friends become radicalized by social media and they’re constantly angry or experience incidents of unusual and explosive anger.
"That's just the power of the internet"
I think this is the most immediate answer we have to the problem. The best social experiences I have online are in niche social sites—whether that's a paid forum site for recruiting news for my local college football team, or a club of people trying to visit every national park in the country. It doesn't seem that surprising...smaller groups focused on a clear topic is going to work much better than large groups focused on everything. If you're a chess fan, you're probably going to enjoy an after school chess club more than sitting in the auditorium with the whole school—including the jocks, stoners, and everyone else—even if your chess friends are still scattered amongst the audience. The way to amass social status in the chess club is to either be great at chess, or help others get good at chess; these are one-on-one relationships. But the way to amass social status in the auditorium amongst the entire students body is quite different— it's to be disruptive enough that you gain attention.
For instance, I run a photo sharing site for regular travelers that prompts them to post one photo each day of a travel memory. The topic is specific, there's no monetization (including ads or data mining), and even the way you interact with the site includes limitations (you only post one photo for each prompt for each day). It's the most supportive online community I've witnessed, and I think that has more to do with the format and simple limitations of the club than anything else. The structure is key—it's focused on one topic that everyone has an affinity for, it's a space where sharing your experience can provide inspiration for others, and there's no algorithm that chooses what people see, so there's no game to be played there. The only reason to participate is because you enjoy participating, not because it helps you establish a following to be monetized, or because you're hoping something will go viral.
I think we should return to a variety of these smaller, more focused social internet sites—though I'm afraid that there's enough motivation to do so, as too many people view "success" as having an online following these days. Even most of my fellow travelers have a "side hustle" aimed at turning what was once a hobby—traveling to new places and experiencing new cultures—into something to be monetized and promoted.
At the very least, I'd love to see us "own" our own platforms and go back to the original "social media feed," where everyone blogged on their own personal website and we aggregated everyone's posts by an rss reader.
"Semantic nadir." That is such an accurate description. I'm sure I'll be quoting you in some future essay.
I think blaming human nature risks failing to acknowledge the enormous role that tech companies have in prompting our bad behaviors and addictions. It also sweeps over the fact that the internet was both social and often great prior to the implementation of algorithms and ads.
There have been a number of writers (Johann Hari, Jaron Lanier, Zadie Smith, and more fringe thinkers) who have imagined design changes that would create community and decrease or eliminate the risk of addiction.
Long time reader, first time commenter!
I think the essay is missing the primary reason that social media is "great" and "terrible" which is network effects. Network effects are a double edged sword and lead to many of the terrible things the essay laments. However, network effects are also quite powerful and useful, and not something "The Internet" provides on its own.
Also, it's true that all social media platforms of a certain type are likely to suffer from the same problems (here's a piece that lays it out nicely: https://www.techdirt.com/2022/11/02/hey-elon-let-me-help-you-speed-run-the-content-moderation-learning-curve/). However, that doesn't mean it doesn't matter how a platform handles those problems. A platform's content moderation policies, affordances, and governance approach may not be sexy, but they do have a meaningful effect on people's experiences of the platform. There are countless studies that demonstrate that.
Finally, the gossip trap critique is strong but instead of being used to argue for the pointlessness of trying to improve existing social media platforms, it should direct us to the need for civilized digital institutions that are independent of existing social media platforms. We need digital institutions that distribute power, influence, and opportunity using thoughtful processes rather than popularity. This could buttress sclerotic offline civilized institutions whose processes for distributing power, influence, and opportunity have largely failed to adjust to the digital age. Some possible examples: a Wikipedia-style service for public health information, a foreign policy prediction market, and a gamified network for grant-funding.
When you optimize for time-on-site, you're always going to create something that leads to doom scrolling and awfulness. And no investor driven social media company is *not* going to optimize for time on site. They need advertisers paying big bucks to please their VC overlords!
But I could imagine a social media site cooperatively owned by influencers that would optimize for click throughs and deeper engagement with their audiences that would be substantially less evil. Or a social media site co-owned by publications that builds off of internet comment sections, optimized for developing and exchanging ideas and deepening subscriber relationships. The latter isn't too different from what notes could be (and maybe almost is), with the "Also share to Notes" button added here.
tldr; the reason social media sucks is the incentive structure created by VC funding, not people being intrinsically terrible.
I am so glad I got off Twitter.
i've been thinking (and hoping secretly) that maybe we just went through a very not-normal period of the internet's long life when you could sort of trust other people. Maybe soon with AI it will be very hard to know if anyone on the other side of the chat or video call is real, and everyone as a result will sorta just stop using the internet lol
could be soooorta dope no?
It's all fun and games until the businesses and bad actors show up.
The rise and fall of any new social media service is inevitable. It feels like it's just human nature, unfortunately.
This is one reason I'm spending more time on Discord lately. I'd rather be in a handful of small groups than spend time on a massive platform with people who want to smash others with hate hammers.
I agree that social media is one of the clearest modern examples of your Gossip Trap idea. The way that I conceptualize it is that it is really just an endless digital re-creation of the middle school cafeteria (you say high school in the example, but I think middle school rings truer to the visceral nature of the social media situation). Most social media experiences are digital versions of the really bad parts of the middle school cafeteria. The middle school cafeteria gets a generally bad rap, for very understandable reasons, but there are also profoundly pro-social parts of this experience.
Perhaps I am naive and still in the euphoric optimism stage of the Notes and Substack experience generally, but I have mostly found my time on Substack to be closer to the pro-social and positive end of the spectrum--being introduced to new people and new ideas. Or maybe Notes is still small enough that it hasn't moved to the beating of random people with hammers stage of things.
Erik - loved this piece, especially the conclusion that people may stop taking it as seriously, but I still would like to see a few more experiments run, especially since I am not the person building them.
A few thoughts: Is there a way to bring the human element online? Before responding to someone, can you replicate the experience of making a snarky comment to one's face? Will there be a way to use more intelligent AI filters to reduce the weight of bad-faith arguments?
Well articulated. No context? No way to set interpretive guardrails? Semantic chaos ensues and one’s statement just becomes fodder for whatever internal rant the reader is focused on at the moment.
A different perspective from Graeber's book, which I really appreciated because it emphasized the diversity of small tribal societies. https://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374157357/thedawnofeverything
I gotta say, though, that my personal experience of small-town life was more like the tyranny of gossip you describe.