Social media. It brings us together, so it appears. That was the utopian ideal set amongst the Facebook tagline that “helps us to connect” and Twitter’s urge to figure out “what’s happening”, but over time the mechanics of social networks added undue incentive to the human experience. Platforms incidentally or otherwise, become exploitative; they are influencer oxygen, the shop window of promoted vanity, to cattle farms for the ethically challenged profiteer.
While Facebook turned Harvard-born voyeurism into the Web 2.0 version of the Mad Men carousel; we dutifully lapped up the highlight reel. We took pictures and inducted selfie into the dictionary. We imagined imperfections, filtered out the humanity, and cropped and over-processed our lattes and beach snaps. When we look back, we will ask, were we ever there—and if not, who was?
Monolithic corporate entities dictate the terms of engagement with abominable licence agreements and despite protest, are less concerned about privacy than email scammers threatening to expose a long-retired password. The Cambridge Analytica debacle foreshadowed Epstein, exposing what we suspected in our ubiquitous, slavish use of these platforms. The petit mort of illusion; we know we signed up to. If the service is free, you are the product.
We give regardless, because their reach, becomes our reach. They silence Presidents, we cheer from the side-lines. Ever more complex algorithms infiltrate and reduce you to a set of variables, and those bereft of their own identities marvel at the predictive possibilities. See, social media is part of the fabric of everyday lives, but who stops to ask what our lives have become?
The Walled Garden
Facebook is an old warhorse, with the days of Farmville harassing you long in the past, but it has left its tentacled mark. A social network built first to be a website; the lagging mule failed to make the transition to experience. A tech-world legacy of exploring novel features just because you can, is hard to shake, but compounded, as Facebook is a Matryoshka.
The database programmer’s bane of existence, parts of Facebook spiral into functions within functions. You upload a picture, well do you want to share that with the world, your friends, one friend in particular, the goldfish? If there is an option, Facebook will attempt to cater to you, leaving you adrift in a sea of possibilities.
In that we have limitless supplication. If there was a terrorist attack, a national sport event, a worldwide pandemic or even institutional besiegement, there is a means to signal you are part of the group. It seems so innocent, but before you know it, Facebook is dictating to you like it is a representative of the government, and because of our sunk cost folly, we start to trust it.
To match pace with changing social and political contexts, feature updates brought you further into the matrix of organised social life; the events of your life were sorted out here, wares were sold, and the major questions of privacy brought an overcorrection to the point Zuckerberg jumped the shark.
You can lock down your profile to such a degree that the walled garden is impenetrable, like a speakeasy, turned away at the door. Bar a name, the rest is unknown, and even then, you can restrict almost everything from your friends. On the surface nothing is wrong with that, but like King Theoden on his throne, the absolute sense of safety breeds inner corruption.
The pernicious duality emerges; stay in your cocoon, never venture forth and let the masked masses dictate that every new contact is a risk factor. Make sure, in concurrent tragedy, to gleefully follow along to every new political and cultural topic. You’re part of a larger network but you’re barely a participant, the illusion of friendship and connection, ensconced within endless options for self-protection.
The Pseudonymous Battleground
Twitter offered so much hope. It brought ideas to the forefront, enticing the world of celebrity and big names. It was a vanguard, and this buy-in from the would-be verified gave the platform impetus to stand alongside Facebook as a fierce rival.
There was a sense of freedom to Twitter—gatekeeping abolished in the directness of communication, like the no man’s land between warring camps. Your affiliation and tribal significance did not matter, it was the free-for-all melee of the independent. Such was the thin thread of optimism Jack Dorsey inculcated.
As his clean-shaven naivete gave way to bearded seriousness, a humbling occurred. The “bird app” exposed the gullibility of a free market of thought, where in the void of expectation and rules, followed the inevitable proffering of base human nature. The wave of anonymity became a cultural signal apropos of the social network and its relationship to personal security; challenging orthodoxy but staying employed.
The Trump era on Twitter proved that in the absence of gates and walls, the open space becomes intensely tribal—dogmatic to such a degree that any kind of moderate position is caught in the crossfire, further incentivising the need to shout from beyond an anime avatar or bust of a historical figure. Yet this is merely the jab and counter of politics.
The gradual, lethargic breakdown of trust in “the system” led to the venture capital thrust behind personal business, as well as building a model image of yourself, take on a newfound life in the form of Twitter showboating, with an example such as Naval Ravikant, representing the subsumed identity into a fount of soundbites, snippets, and excerpts of insight. Thus, spawning a thousand would-be brands and facades.
The lack of conversational dynamics on Twitter and individualist focus (in that your profile could be anything) produces a thrall of self-styled narcissism and ideology at times, and increasingly so with the breakdown of societal structures. Torn between predatory Machiavellianism, ardent crypto acolytes, or trad-feminine circles with burn books in the DMs.
Twitter does not hold your hand, for good and for bad. If you have been around the world, are wizened by the trials of life, then it is a place where cultured wisdom may find an outlet. If not, it might just be a perpetual labyrinth of rabbit holes, twisting and turning your thoughts until you realise, they are wholly a product of the internet.
An entropic dark energy web… wait I’ve gone too far.
Ghosts and Ten Second Bucket Lists
It is nothing new for a generation to be held captive by an interest, product, or idea. The manifest craze of Pokémon still lingers in my memory, and even now, the trading card game is resurgent. Yet, we are in unprecedented times, where generations are programmed without the conscious awareness capable of keeping up.
YouTube is a haven for the creator, it’s got an earnestness to it that is inarguable, there are no distortions because of the implicit creative process of alchemising a product of the mind; it is never direct or immediate enough for self-exploitation. While its algorithmic pressures remain, the sheer desire to create in a leg race beats the clickbait. Instagram, well, it’s WYSIWYG. It’s not the salvation of humanity, but it’s fairly transparent.
Snapchat and TikTok however, seem products of something else. The sinister side of the app culture.
In the time of profuse ghosting, Snapchat’s logo steps into the shoes of Casper, but there’s little friendly here. Be it Casper or Grimer, the quaint ghost image in yesteryear animation heralded untapped potential as the lovable characters sought to bridge worlds, but Snapchat is the inverse—the potential that can never manifest.
The death by a thousand cuts of the light bending to touch your retina, boom, gone again. An instinctive, dopaminergic surge to take aim and have the dictates of the app instigate its purge. Camera lens, the gateway to invalidation. You can’t stay for more than a few moments; a life lived in impermanence. Why then after its inculcation, would you try to make anything stick?
TikTok, tick tock, that’s another second of your life gone. The logo itself has a fake 3D effect; that’s your world held hostage. Even worse if you understand the algorithmic mechanics, the awe is blinding. Soma has a new flavour, people living in their bucket lists in 20 seconds, cramming the seconds for relevance before their time is up. Girls knocked for six in their subconscious, entering a trance, coopted by the ritual, the space emerging a repressed ent…
Wait, I forgot, you know what you’re doing. But that’s just it, isn’t it? Let the vampire in, and suddenly there’s a frat party at your house and all the ghouls are invited. You’re forced to tell the neighbours that’s how you wanted it all along.
Does the algorithm predict you, or are you predicted by the algorithm? At a certain point, it’s impossible to tell.