I dropped social media over Lockdown: partly fatigue, partly blacking-out in doomscroll, partly performance anxiety over what to front, partly feeling like a lurker who’s arrived to every party a little too late.
I do miss it as a means to discover new things that I’m likely to like. I don’t miss the decade-long feed of my personal history determining what happens next.
I’m not the first to notice that we visit fewer and fewer websites every year – the majority routed from social media and messaging ‘super apps’ like WhatsApp, WeChat and LINE – to save us from the flood of keyword detritus, 1 content unit repackaged 100 ways, sites that still don’t work on mobile, broken links and sites that are poorly maintained.
Influencers – self-described ‘internet prophets’ – have started describing this phenomena as ‘regression to the mean’. They aren’t wrong. The underlying variety on these centralised platforms is declining and becoming increasingly homogeneous. Content is slowly turning into the flavours of the week of a candy bar, the width and depth of topics discussed gets thinner and shallower, and a bit more heated.
We’ve also reached – in my view – the logical conclusion of a campaign to create stable online avatars – even though anyone can be a dog on the internet. The big detour over the last 22 years has been to park and triangulate stable identity – with ‘real name’ rules on Facebook and the data passport that snowballs in advertising value with every new tracked interaction.
To me, this is the ‘unforgiving’ aspect to these platforms that facilitates bullying and diminishes mental health and coined the weird formalities of ‘defriending’, collecting invisible status symbols, conversations about being ‘Facebook official’ and how dare they not press a button for me!
It wasn’t always this way.
When I signed up for (the) Facebook in 2006 in the heyday of ‘one hand didn’t know what the other was doing,’ there wasn’t a clear business model, just numbers that could be read with a straight face off a Powerpoint for an online black book with the value t.b.d. figured out by us, the users themselves, shaping the norms despite the many product iterations and poor moderation we ragged on.
It was a fun time, which in hindsight and with more business training was super super weird. We spent years with Venture Capital subsidising our (millennial) experience through the losses – the ‘millennial dividend’ – where our youth and energy shaped and ripped up the landscape from the ‘airspace aesthetic’ of coffee shops to digital nomadism of heavily subsidised Airbnb rents.
The sum of these experiences on each platform is known as the ‘social graph’, more than the sum of the relationships and communities we’re connected to. It’s the basis of user-generated content and the leverage platforms need to amass to trap us there with the faces of our friends when we want to leave.
Earlier still, on late-90s/early-00s chatrooms your handle was a burner. You could easily start over with little track record to worry about or accumulating. But our footprints were pretty small to begin with.
What’s missing are ‘forgiveness’ and ‘portability’.
Forgiveness is just another way of saying ‘undo’.1
It’s as simple as a 1-step undo to restoring from a backup or save file or being able to reference something at a later date. It invites experimentation. What if I graffiti-ed this photograph with a bright-red moustache? It’s what makes software soft and allows us to shape digital material in a way that we can never do with physical objects.
When it’s missing, there’s a real sense of hawkish vigilance, hovering the cursor over the save icon or compulsively saving screenshots to review later. Funnily, it’s something that blockchain completely lacks. I love thinking about this in relation to other human-made things that we forget are totally made up – from corporate policy to traditions that are not as old as we think they are. It definitely drew me into low- and no-code where I can throw something together and take it apart just as quickly.
Online the question becomes: how easily can I make mistakes in ‘public’ – no stupid questions –and recover from them without judgements? There aren’t many places like that, other than maybe invite-only spaces of learning or professions or interest. I find it very occasionally but never consistently. I’ve watched friends be harassed, bullied and shadow-banned for the smallest things from an innocuous picture to a comment taken the wrong way and their whole internet presence needs to be locked down. Moderation certainly helps cultivate forgiveness. So does the fluidity to abandon our profiles, start-over and reinvent ourselves like we would naturally over the course of our lives.
Portability is being able to take ‘you’ elsewhere.
That could be taking your photos with all their comments and likes to another platform as seamlessly as changing email addresses (and keeping all your mail and contacts).
It’s a hard problem to solve. There’s no real incentive for platforms to provide the data in a format that’s anyway useable, though many new ones focus on concierging the data over. Thanks to data legislation, you’ll get your data but not the way you need it. Usually a .csv, a very old school text file that stores your data as a long paragraph separated by commas that can be laid out as a spreadsheet. Because of the level of customisation and technical debt, it’s like a photocopy of a photocopy with some coffee spilled at some stage. The richness is fully divorced from the data you get. The short of it is that we need standards for this not just to move from platform to platform as we wish, but in the off-chance the platform is sold and/or collapses.
If we meet these two – there’s plenty of value for us, but the platforms will need to think harder about how they seek and maintain consent so that we want to be there.
I got the idea for this when re-reading old design principles for human-computer interaction. This article talks about how many of the best ones have been abandoned and lost in translation with the move to smartphones. ↩