Is social media still truly ‘social’?
Updated: July 2019
Does anyone remember when social media was shiny and new? When we were discovering new friends on MySpace? When we all migrated en masse to Facebook so we could ‘poke’ all our existing friends? When Twitter was the new kid on the block?
Those were heady days: days of discovery and possibility, when new friendships were born and relationships forged. Yes, they were fun and frivolous but they also opened new, exciting windows on our world. YouTube democratised entertainment media, creating a host of new stars. Twitter brought us breaking global news – the Hudson river plane crash, Arab Spring – before traditional news outlets were even able to mobilise.
And those days weren’t so long ago. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were founded in 2004, 2005 and 2006 respectively. Instagram doesn’t turn nine until October but already has over one billion users worldwide.
But somewhere along the line, while we weren’t looking, did social media stop being social?
Here are eight things that have changed in the social media universe in less than a decade – and not for the better:
1. Proliferation. First there was MySpace. Then there was Facebook. Then Twitter came along, and Instagram, Pinterest, Google+ and oh so many others. Everyone is everywhere and we all follow hundreds if not thousands of people across multiple channels. It’s no wonder anyone has time to be sociable any more, let alone optional extras such as work, eating and sleep.
2. RSI. Not Repetitive Strain Injury but Repetitive Scroll Injury – that twinge in your thumb from constantly flicking through various timelines in a frantic attempt to keep up to date with who’s been taking photos of their lunch today.
3. Curation. Yes, I’m looking at you, Facebook. I don’t need you to mess about with my News Feed to show me what you think I need to see. I’m happy making my own decisions by scrolling through my Most Recent timeline, no matter how difficult you make it to access.
4. Boastbook. Enough of the constant ‘Look at me! Look at MEEE!’ oneupmanship from people telling me how wonderful their lives are. You’re not fooling anybody.
5. Advertising. In the endless drive for social media companies to monetise their business models, our timelines are increasingly filling up with adverts we never asked for. It’s an inevitable part of social networks being free to use but they can still be annoying.
6. Self-promotion. At least 50% of my Twitter timeline (and that’s probably conservative) is made up of fellow bloggers plugging their latest post or some random post from their archive. I’m guilty of it too, although hopefully I’m relatively moderate in my self-promotion. It seems that we use Twitter much less these days to actually talk to people – we just talk at them instead. Oh, and by the way, people who ask me to retweet their latest post who never otherwise talk to me: uh-uh, not happening.
7. Gamification. Again, many bloggers (me included) are guilty of this to some extent. We have blog rankings. We grow our follower numbers by hook or crook. We post at the optimum times of day. Now I’m not criticising bloggers who are seeking to make an income from their blog, for whom all this is a key part of a professional approach. But it feels like we’re all playing the game these days, and social media is less fun as a result.
8. Trolls and bullies. They have existed online since before social media, lurking in internet forums before pouncing on unsuspecting victims. Trolls whose sole aim is to provoke an argument and persist in twisting their victims’ words and frustrations against them. Bullies who delight in dishing out abuse, hiding behind the shield of free speech. You may disagree vehemently with someone’s view but that’s no excuse to belittle them in the way that certain people do when arguing about sporting rivalries, political views or lifestyle choices. I will always defend anyone’s right to free speech – just as I’ll reserve the right to consider them to be a thuggish idiot when they abuse it.
Pretty depressing, huh?
A force for social good?
And yet there are times when social media transcends all the white noise.
I have made so many friends via social media. I’ve discovered many good causes and amazing personal stories. What social media does brilliantly is to give individuals a voice, creating a new media landscape that is truly, well, social.
Let me share a couple of small anecdotes to illustrate the point.
Firstly, there’s the 2015 story of the teenager who was caught short in a Virgin Trains toilet when he discovered there was no toilet paper left. He tweeted Virgin, they tweeted back and arranged to send an attendant with fresh supplies to spare his embarrassment.
Then there’s my friend Chris. A couple of years ago he and some friends travelled from the US to watch and ride some of the stages of the Tour de France, only for his bike to be damaged in transit. Stuck in the Pyrenees on a weekend without access to an open bike shop able to provide him with a machine large enough for his 6’5″ frame, a surge of support from Twitter eventually helped sort him out, including an offer of a spare racing bike from the manager of one of the Tour teams themselves. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?
So all is not lost. Social media can still be social. We just need to keep the conversations going.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and promote this post on Twitter. And Facebook. And Instagram. And …