There has been a lot of discussion of the negative impact of both Twitter and Facebook on the recent election. It’s easy to look at such artificial social spaces and say that they’re anonymous and negative; and hence, simply need to be vetted by good actors to minimize the impact of the bad. Inherently, this leads to censorship of one sort or another, though, so it seems also worthwhile to attempt a more sophisticated perspective of the environment.
In reality, the problematic impact was largely caused by issues that are known to younger users of social media, and have already driven them to abandon both venues in significant numbers. In doing so, they have primarily fled to Snapchat. But why? Often sex is an early indicator of technology utilization, and it is thus in this case, if you look at the analogous models in dating software.
In pursuing relevant analogs, I’d go back to a conversation I had with a 21 year old software developer three years ago. The question had arisen as to whether we could make better dating software than was currently available on the market. At that time OKCupid was still moderately in fashion, and Match.com was the environment of choice for older users. He asked why anyone would want something better? The best was Tinder and he was proud to have already hacked that from a technology perspective to get a high volume of dates. I asked him about OKCupid, which seemed to do all sorts of clever stuff with data through questionnaires and chat analysis, and published wonderful findings on a blog I thought insightful and funny. He looked disgusted and replied that OKCupid was creepy. But surely Tinder is the creepy place; just looking at people and making a judgement based on appearance? No, he said that Tinder was good because you get a look at someone and a hint of their style, and then you meet them in real life, immediately, to see if it works. Places like OKCupid and Match were disgusting to him, because they forced a whole fake world of social interaction that is highly likely to be entirely insincere. In truth, he is correct, and just as the world of casual games, dating sites must have ongoing, potentially deceitful, “mid-core” users who talk through relationships with many other participants and never connect with anyone. The model is not really geared to connecting, rather it’s geared toward stickiness and a moderate degree of satisfaction. Satisfaction that may be based on real or illusionary connections.
Starting with that background is helpful in looking at Facebook and Twitter as enabling pseudo relationships that even participants don’t entirely comprehend. There are many uses for Twitter, from organizing real world activities to political dialog, and the former may always be of value. Similarly, Facebook is more about family connections, but also includes political dialog as a major element these days. As with dating sites, both of these sites/functionalities are created for stickiness and retention. They are not built to help bind friends together. They are built to form the illusion of social bonds. Both also share the burden of extremely broad adoption for specific social purposes having led to their use for almost all social purposes, including those for which they are quite ill-suited. Twitter is great for instantly sharing information that is required in real time, and forces data to be conveniently bite-sized and usable. Facebook is great at enabling families to share updates; the equivalent of a non-awful end-of-year synopsis letter on family and friends. Neither facilitate dialog, both, especially Twitter, absolutely facilitate mobs. If someone is followed by a million people of twitter, they have the instant ability to swamp opposing voices. Even if that voice only gets a thousand likes for a tweet saying something cruel, the target of a hostile message sees every one of those likes come into their Twitter stream, and every retweet of the message immediately reinforces that voice to speak increasingly stridently along these same lines.
When someone posts regarding politics on either service, it is fairly likely that they are intending the message to be read by the many followers, rather than their actual interlocutor. While mainstream political beliefs are not that well served by this sort of dynamic, the real winners are inevitably the far right, by virtue of practices that were well described by Sartre in 1944. Fascists do not hope to win an argument, they hope to humiliate the interlocutor before the largest possible audience, and these social media are ideal for that purpose. They can make the most vile and outrageous statements possible, and also intersperse them in others’ dialogs; stirring up indignant responses that they then mock and deride as weak and womanly.
Contrast them with Snapchat, the environment to which young people have largely moved. I’d suggest that they’ve moved there because Facebook and Twitter are gross and false in just the ways that OKCupid and Match are. Snapchat is realtime communications between friends, and it intentionally positions as not retaining any images for the long term, although any intelligent user realizes that once something is on the internet, it’s possibly out there for good. A Snapchat user likely has a handful of real world friends and possibly a celebrity or two that they follow. Snapchat is by intent ephemeral. There isn’t functionality or audience within Snapchat for mass shaming. It is generally only when images are pulled out of Snapchat and shown elsewhere that shame is invoked.
It may seem that Facebook and Twitter are places where one individual may dialog with another, but in reality, they are inherently one-to-many environments. Snapchat is about leveraging personal content created by a small group of participants. Inherently, it must skew strongly to a younger demographic that is more accustomed to being constant content creators, but it does actually serve human social interaction better. Somewhat similar to Snapchat, Instagram’s functionality is ill-suited for hostile dialog; but here because it so focuses on image-sharing, with dialogs largely hidden beneath the fold, and now also working to replicate what Snapchat does. Instagram, though, is far better suited than Snapchat to use by non-millennials, since it facilitates following of folks who are simply doing interesting stuff and not the user’s close friends.