We live in a time where apparently Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are running a tight race of who can kill their own social media network faster than Rupert Murdoch did with MySpace and who can lose more money in the process than Yahoo! did with tumblr. Musk and Zuck are being supported in their quest by the unlikliest of partners: Discord, Telegram, Whatsapp and various governments. So what is happening?
Social media is connecting us
Social media – and stop me if you heard this one before – brings us one main benefit: Staying connected with friends, family and classmates, and finding new friends. This benefit very clearly serves a need within all of us, as becomes evident when you attempt to leave a social network: Staying connected becomes much harder and takes lots of effort in 1:1 conversations to keep the connection alive.
Yet, at the same time, social media has become a battleground of attention. It’s a free-for-all between advertisers, influencers and your friends, and your friends are hopelessly outmatched. Facebook is a marketplace competing with ebay, YouTube is competing with TV stations on ad money, and inbetween it all are influencers, opinion leaders and content creators, trying to get their voice heard and their art seen.
And it’s tiring.
Social media is dividing us
This battleground of attention is particularly nasty when it comes to politics. There is no discussion, there never has been. It’s a strawman building contest, the “other side” needs to be vilified, and the most outrageous believable claims are typically the most viral. Social media sites intentionally or unintentionally support this behavior: Enragement = Engagement. And once the villain is constructed, it can be justifiably attacked, either with hate online or with hammers, guns, explosives or incendiaries offline. Throwing soup, cakes and paint suddenly is one of the least worrying outcomes in context.
But remember, the battleground of attention isn’t actually why we are on social media sites! It’s a byproduct of the technical availability of it. It’s a fluke, caused by a product manager many years ago figuring out that by adding a “share publicly” option, social media also can take over the blogosphere.
Social media is dying
During the rise of social media sites, there was nothing which could connect us in just the same way. IRC and email were cumbersome and ill-suited to picture sharing. SMS and MMS got expensive real fast, and the very thought of using mobile data when it wasn’t strictly necessary burnt a hole in our pockets.
This situation has changed. Group chats and communities exist, on Discord, Signal, Telegram, Whatsapp and more, and they help us stay connected with friends, family, classmates and find new friends. Social media is obsolete.
Group chats are the future
Group chats don’t need to participate in the battleground of attention. Should an influencer invade a space and start promoting products, an opinion leader appear and always and exhaustively talk about the same issues, or a new parent share baby pics excessively you can just make a new group chat with everyone you care about, and without this annoying person. The original group chat may grow quieter or die altogether, but at no point did anyone need to interfere, kick someone, or hurt anyone’s feelings.
Group chats also facilitate the one good thing about Google+: social circles. It’s not just possible but naturally occurring that you share stuff with only the people you know will care about it – you ask your question on how to draw perspective in your art group chat, share the news that you just broke up in your close family group chat first, and geek out about model trains in a model train group chat.
To me, the group chat apps of today – especially discord and signal – have completely replaced social media as a way to stay connected. To me, twitter now is assuming the role of YouTube for most intents and purposes: It’s just media now. Media which I passively consume and sometimes create, the battleground of attention.
A battleground that no longer is a source of social connections.