Social media, and how the Internet was supposed to be

posted by Jeff | Saturday, February 10, 2018, 11:58 PM | comments: 0

I'm not sure when the term "social media" was coined, but it didn't seem to really get tossed around until it was clear the Facebook and Twitter weren't going away. It just feels silly because long before these institutions were founded, we had things like AOL Instant Messenger (RIP), Usenet, countless forums and even Live Journal. Heck, my idea for Campus Fish predated Facebook by several years, and even targeted college kids (I mistakenly thought they'd pay for a place to post a blog and photos, though in my defense, this was pre-Napster). My point is that getting out among people in a virtual sense was hardly something invented by the big services, they just refined it and hit the critical mass first.

Before the days of ubiquitous connectivity, which started to really come into its own with the second iPhone and public WiFi starting to appear all over, the Internet was largely tied to desktop and laptop computers. The gateway was the browser. There was something fantastic about the fact that popular sites were not made by any of the "old" media companies. Every niche had its own home-grown players. Sure, Google started owning search early on, but the best stuff often came from recommendations from friends. Anyone could win on the Internet, you just needed something compelling that people would keep coming back for. There was even a rich system of companies anxious to sell advertising on your behalf. I paid my mortgage that way for a long time.

Then certain players emerged as bigger winners. Facebook and Twitter were the biggest in terms of mind share and engagement, even if they didn't make money at first. Google won not only as the gateway to everything, but also started owning an alarming portion of the ad market. For a lot of people, Google and Facebook are the Internet. The mobile transition made this even worse, with apps and shells in the mobile operating systems walling you off from the Internet at large. Entire industries cropped up around trying to game Google to make sure your thing showed up first in the search results. YouTube, part of Google, became the de facto Internet TV station.

With these established platforms, we've seen another strange phenomenon: People who get famous for no particular reason. I've been seeing these stories lately about this Logan Paul guy and the stupid shit he's been doing on YouTube, apparently making a ton of money. It has caught up with him, in that Google is suspending his pay for violating "community guidelines" or something, but he's still defiant and doesn't appear to be learning anything from the experience. How weird is that... a person with no life experience or clue about how to conduct yourself as a contributor to society makes money for that inexperience. That's what our culture is rewarding. (Which you already know... we elected a morally bankrupt reality TV star to the White House.)

The promise of the Internet was that it was the great equalizer. Anyone could make something and be the next big thing. What happened in practice is that a half-dozen companies are the platforms, instead of the Internet itself being the platform. And the stuff that has risen about has in many ways been of the lowest possible quality. That's discouraging, but considering the way reality TV took off even before the Internet became a daily fixture in our lives, I guess I'm not surprised. The most frustrating thing about that is that it's never been cheaper or easier to respond to popularity. It once cost me a grand a month to keep my little hobby sites on the air. Today, with half that amount, I could scale up to accommodate massive traffic with some button clicks if I had to.

It's not all bad. The ability to raise money for non-profits has become extraordinary. Ubiquitous connectivity means the death of locally installed software, and software-as-a-service is what I do for a living, competing against incumbents with inferior product. Buying basic essentials doesn't even require making lists and going to a store, as you can just push a button on a refrigerator magnet to get more soap delivered. Connected devices figure out the most efficient way to heat my house and put my lights on timers that I can turn on from anywhere. I can talk to my car and it maps out directions on a 17" touch screen. I even bought that car without having to fuck around with a morally questionable dealership. The Internet has without question made life better.

I'm not sure what we do about it, but the difference between me and the people who watch this Logan Paul guy is that they watch him and I don't. Despite the fact that the Internet has almost everything to do with my professional success, it's not a substitute for real human interaction and meaning. Social media is great for keeping in touch with the friends I've made all over the world, but at the end of the day, I want to hang out with my wife and kid, people in the neighborhood, real-life friends. When I do consume electronic media of any kind, it has to have some value to it beyond, "That's popular." Why have we lowered the bar so much?

My going theory is that nothing has really changed in terms of human social behavior, it's just more obvious and pronounced now because the cost of surfacing it (loudly) is so low. That's why I'm annoyed when people make some kind of "kids today!" comment. I'm still not convinced that any generation is worse than the previous.


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