The Zuckerbergian vision of social media bringing the world closer together looks naively optimistic in retrospect.
Roughly 15 fifteen years into a life largely lived online, we find ourselves not the beneficiaries of the sort of cultural cyberosmosis imagined by the Facebook founder and his peers, one where we all learn from each other and delight in gaining new perspectives. No, instead we have largely cast out those we disagree with – deemed unfit for our friendship, or even respect, by dint of their opinions – and retreated into our ideological cliques. But we’re not particularly happy here either, competing with our allies for attention and acclaim, hoping it will bring us validation but finding the goalposts move with every successful tweet or story.
This discourse tournament, this dense field of soapboxes, is something a lot of us don’t happily participate in. That such a vast swathe of human beings are engaged every single day in an activity that makes them at best frustrated, at worst repulsed, is quite astonishing. We’ve never as a species managed to create anything close to a meritocratic society, but what we have right now is particularly perverse: a system which favours those who are loudest, most extreme and, crucially, most gifted at self-promotion. So, what is the solution?
Just delete your account, would seem to be the obvious remedy in terms of preserving our mental health. But it’s not realistic. “FOMO” (fear of missing out) doesn’t really cut it here. Countless professions are borderline impossible to sustain without a social media presence, and to disengage completely with social media is to deal a possibly fatal blow to any hopes you had of keeping up on mainstream trends in thought, culture and politics. You might be able to follow news items like the Kavanaugh hearings or the unexpected and mercurial rise of an indie film to awards glory, but you won’t fully understand why these topics are dominating headlines.
If you’re going to delete all of your social media accounts you may as well snip your phone lines and build a moat around your home too. You might find some serenity in not being apprised of the latest topic of hysteria or outrage, but you’ll also essentially be making a U-turn in heavy traffic and mounting a jump ramp headed for alienation from friends and peers, and quite possibly irrelevance. I’d wish you the very best of luck, but it’s a high-risk manoeuvre.
Instead, perhaps we simply need to alter how social networks grade and reward online utterances. Kanye West, whose name I mention at significant risk to the credibility of this piece, recently suggested that “the term followers should be changed to observers”. I believe he’s onto something with this shift towards more neutral and non-competitive language, and Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey seems to agree.
In a text to West that the rapper posted on Instagram, Dorsey wrote: “We’ve been thinking deeply about the follower and like counts, and what that incentivises. We want to change. What made sense 12 years ago doesn’t make sense today. At least for us. Us making that number bold and big incentivised people to want to increase it, and feel bad if they couldn’t. That’s not right. We want to incentivise contribution to the global conversation and consciousness.”
But changing terminology and font size on follower, retweet and like counts isn’t enough, we need to hide them altogether.
With this tweak in place, people would still be able to follow or observe someone, retweet or reproduce their thoughts, but there would be no totaliser involved. Users of Twitter, or any social network for that matter, would be putting out into the world whatever they feel best represents them and their thoughts and feelings, not what will draw attention.
There would be considerable challenges. Third party software determining counts might prove impossible to stamp out completely, and even if it was stopped, there would still be an element of people pushing out what might get widely disseminated. But in both of these cases it is still fundamentally harder for people to curry favour and competition is disincentivised.
There would also be considerable sacrifices. Everyone from the social network companies themselves right down to small business owners would take a hit, no longer able to reap the reputational and financial awards of having nice big follower and like counts. Correspondingly, private citizens might have a harder task knowing who or what to trust – though if the spread of fake news was anything to go by, the system currently in place isn’t exactly in perfect operation.
It would be a destabilising time in the online environment, but we managed just fine before we knew how many virtual followers a politician or a cereal brand had. Couldn’t we go back to that again? A paring down of publicly visible social media analytics would need a lot of thought and experimentation, but the way we communicate is broken, and it’s high time we started at least trying to fix it.
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