Responsibility in Using the Web

An image of a computer keyboard with social media icons over certain keys.

I was having coffee with a friend recently and we were discussing the direction in which we think the Internet is headed. Now, full disclosure: both of us have been around long enough to remember life without the Internet. That is, we are far from being digital natives. We have experienced the seismic cultural shifts that the web has brought with it. That experience brings with it a certain perspective.

As philosophical conversations about the web tend to do these days, our discussion turned to social media. Spoiler alert: I have a poor opinion of it. We were reminiscing a bit about the bygone days when social media was actually fun, and not a hate-filled dumpster fire comprised primarily of people yelling at each other. My friend wondered about where the web would go next, and I responded with my perspective that social media is dying and we’ll all be better off without it.

My friend reacted incredulously. Let me explain.

I do think that the age of social media is ending, more slowly for some than others (older generations that have normalized the usage of Facebook to keep up with the lives of their grandkids, for example, are going to let go far later than you or I might). As I write this, though, the odds of having readers that don’t have a Facebook account are, I think, much higher than they would have been even five years ago. And, adding to that, the odds are good that many of you who are reading this and don’t have a Facebook account had an account at one point and chose to delete it. That’s the category into which I fall. My point is, there are lot of us with few, or no, social media accounts, and that is a change from the definition of “normal” within the last decade.

Why I Believe Social Media’s Demise is Imminent

I think that this is due to a perfect storm of events. In the past few years, a lot of people have suddenly awoken to the fact that many “free” web services, and Facebook in particular, are intrusive on our privacy. That is, they have made assumptions about how private we desire to be, those assumptions have been subsequently exposed, and it turns out that their calculations were incorrect. Surprisingly to them, most of actually do care about how much they know about our lives. Facebook’s parent company, Meta, is doubling down on the gamble that people are going to be tripping over themselves to live parts of their lives in virtual reality. I think someone there spent a lot of time reading Snow Crash, which, don’t get me wrong, is a great book, but I think that Meta is going to lose this bet in the same way that their assumptions about privacy were wrong. In short, I think that the days of Facebook being a relevant experience to most of the lives of people who haven’t already deleted their accounts are few. Like Blackberry, I think they’ve made some assumptions and decisions that will result in them failing to stay relevant.

Now, normally, if I were predicting the collapse of one social media platform, I would predict that another would take its place. After all, Facebook filled the vacuum left by the demise of MySpace, and so on. These are not normal times, however, because Twitter appears to be imploding before our eyes. It’s no secret that I’ve been frustrated with Twitter for some time, but when I could no longer access it with Twitteriffic, that was it. Like Facebook before it, I deleted my account. Judging by the surge of people into Mastodon, I’d say I’m far from a minority there.

What social platforms does that leave us? TikTok, it seems, is about to be regulated out of existence in most countries. LinkedIn is…well, LinkedIn is a necessary evil at this point, but also not really a space where people post on a regular basis. Mastodon solves a lot of the problems that Twitter presented at a technology level, but there’s also a higher barrier to entry for most users (choosing a server and so forth). I personally haven’t found it to be that compelling, and see others expressing similar feelings.

That really leaves, some would argue, Reddit, but I just don’t consider Reddit to be a social media platform. It’s a discussion forum where most of the subreddits in which I’m involved, at least, contain posts by people who post thoughtfully, so it doesn’t really count.

So, I stand by my prediction. The era of social media is coming to an end, and, I think, we’re going to be better off for it.

What Does That Mean?

Blame this on nostalgia, or maybe I’m just the old guy yelling “get off my lawn,” but I think it’s a return to better days. What social media consumed and devolved into an algorithmically fed zombie web was once the realm of blogs. Blogs require thought. They encourage conversation by their nature. More than that, they require responsibility…some ownership of what you’re reading. To explain what I mean by that, let’s look back to a time not long ago. Everyone had a collection of blogs that they read regularly. Some were businesses, many were friends or Internet acquaintances. The blogs that you read were blogs that you found, or were recommended to you. Serious blog readers did what I still do, and kept an RSS reader full of their favorites. The reason that this was different is that it required more work, and that, my friend, was a good thing. We weren’t letting a machine tell us what to read because it’s programmed to get more clicks. We were reading what we wanted. Exploring, Getting to know each other at a certain level. You know, the sorts of things that make the Internet worth having.

So, if I were to look into a crystal ball, I would predict that we’re going to return to a similar way of using the web that we had at the height of the popularity of blogging. People who want to be online…who actually are willing to put effort into it…will have their own space, not just a page on a social media platform. Their thoughts will be theirs, they will be able to have conversation with readers if they choose, and their readers will be readers who want to read them.

Yes, I am discussing this as though they were golden years, because I think that they were. I think that we’ll see a resurgence of this. And I think that it will be a good thing.

Image attribution: TT Marketing under Creative Commons.

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