There is continuing evidence that social media is making us unhappy. Numerous studies have concluded that the medium makes us more envious, lonely, and simply sadder. As I read the reports, my intuition and personal observation cannot help but agree that something has gone awry.
But instead of vilifying the entire medium top to bottom, I decided to examine my personal experiences with social media over the years to see if I had always felt this way or if the medium took a wrong turn at some point. So I strolled down memory lane through my days on MySpace, to my edu Facebook account, to Twitter, to Pinterest, to Instagram and I believe I pinpointed the moment in time it all went wrong. March 21, 2006… the day Twitter was founded.
March 21, 2006: Twitter Changed Social Media (for the worst)
Let me explain before everyone loses their marbles. Twitter is an incredible product. It has the power to aid in revolution and keep us informed of Kim Kardashian’s whereabouts all at the same time. Also Twitter itself did not ruined social media, it did however pioneer two ground breaking site mechanics that changed how all future social media outlets would fundamentally operate.
Follow Not Friend
The first ingenious mechanism that changed social media for the worse was the Follow feature. Before Twitter, connection with fellow community members was made through a mutual agreement. You were friends. This agreement typically gave you equal rights to each others site content. With Twitters follow feature, the mutual contract was eliminated and replaced with a one directional relationship (if you can still call it that), where a community member follows another giving them access to the followee’s material but not vice versa.
The result of this slight change in member interaction produces a massive effect on how users behave on a network. Instead of members mimicking typical offline relationships (i.e. friends, colleagues, and family), member relationships are now more closely related to that of broadcast mediums such as radio, television and print where one person (or company) produces content for many people with little to no need or desire to consume content from their followers.
Just think about how this would and probably does change what you post, what you consume, and generally how you interact with others. Your relationship with your friends, family, and coworkers is most certainly different than your relationship with NBC.
The very fact that you can create a following (read viewership) makes you produce different content. Your posts will undoubtedly become ultra curated as your viewers are less forgiving than your friends. In addition your content is likely to become more narrow in nature as each of your posts must have appeal to your followers, similar to the way that TV stations must remain on brand and create programming that appeals to their audience. But wait, before you even start producing content, you have to think about creating a following. You don’t need to make friends. You need to create a following.
It is easy to see how this small change can have an immense impact on the community. It quickly makes members of the site break from the social norms of real life that are known to make us happy and gravitate towards something that feels more like a job. Friends give us relief, relaxation, and an avenue to let loose with our real feelings. A job creates pressure, anxiety, and a need for perfection. What does posting nowadays feel like to you?
You may say that this is not really a problem. That Twitter is actually a micro broadcasting medium and should not be used as a social network. And I would answer that you are absolutely correct. The only trouble is that the change from Friend to Follow had a tremendous impact beyond just Twitter.
Following caught fire and nearly all of the social networks that followed adopted this basic structure. Pinterest and Instagram are two billion dollar examples but almost all social sites have integrated this core function into their platform in one way or another. Facebook is the glaring exception, but this is only because it had already grown so big with the Friend model that it could not renege on it.
But have no fear, the second Twitter feature that truly ruined social media, would not get past Facebook. Facebook is now the king of THE FEED.
Twitter Invented The Modern Day Feed
Although feeds existed long before Twitter, The Feed as we know it today, a reverse chronological list of the content of those that you follow was first introduced at mass scale by Twitter. Digg and other similar sites used community voting to create best of the best lists, but they were not based on the people you followed but rather the categories you wanted to read from.
The main social networks of the time prior to Twitter such as Facebook, Myspace, and Linkedin did not include any feature that came close to resembling a feed. Lets remember back to these networks B.T. (before Twitter). To consume content, you would have to go in search of it yourself. Most typically you would use the search box, usually to find a particular person you wanted to get in contact with. In other cases you would search a tag that might bring up a person you wanted to know about. If you wanted to waste time on Facebook, you would need to start somewhere (maybe on your own profile or with a search) and follow links to different profiles as you looked at pictures and read wall posts (kind of like Wikipedia stumbling).
This method of searching for content is vastly different than our current system where content finds us. Although the idea that the content you were looking for is now placed in front of you seems like an advantage, the model itself actually changes the very content that is being produced. So you are actually seeing entirely different content than if you were forced to search for it yourself.
The reason the content is so different is because the creators are part of the network themselves and are quite aware that the content they create is finding you in you feed. The Heisenberg Principal at work. The vast difference in content is not a good one either. Users now need to make content that is suitable to be seen by hundreds or thousands of people at the same time. And those users know, that you know it is meant to be viewed by them, making it paramount that you create something great. This puts enormous pressure on a poster to get that content just right, since it isnt just content that you happen to have on your profile – it is content that you intended to be great for hundreds of others to see. It is easy to see why this can create a lot of anxiety and at the same time not feel very social.
Take an example. Before Twitter and the advent of the Feed, Facebook user’s primarily posted and tagged photos of others so that the person being tagged could have the photo, so that both the users could enjoy them together, and so they could vaguely curate their presence on the web for when somebody came looking for their profile. Photos today are posted to make an immediate statement about the person posting. Since the poster knows everyone is viewing those the feed in real time and not typically making it to their profiles, the incentive is to continually post new photos or else they may never be seen. If the poster does tag somebody else in the photo, it is either so that they seem cool by hanging out with them or because that tagged person has a network wider than the posters which will increase the visibility and potential of the poster’s photo to be ‘liked’ (another major culprit of misery that I will not cover here, but that Facebook primarily popularized after the implementation of the Feed).
Twitter Changed the Very Essence of Social Networks
Prior to Twitter, social networks closely mirrored in person relationships and interactions and maybe even enhanced them. Your friends were your friends, you just had more of them (at least you both knew each other). You could find old classmates, friends, coworkers and message them to get back in contact – Whitepages on steroids. You shared and stored photo albums no longer from a single camera and no longer held at one person’s home. In Linkedin’s case, you referred friends, colleagues and employers to each other with recommendations and resumes online much like we have been doing in the real world for years.
Twitter created the Follow, which displaced the mutual relationships online and created one directional broadcasters. It also created the Feed, which moved the base of social networks away from the profile and removed the core need for users to search for content. Combined this created a powerful new structure where people behaved in a work like environment more emblematic of a marketplace than a social environment.
This works perfectly well for Twitter as method for people to get their content out to the masses. It is entirely needed and I think it will be incredibly successful into the future. The unfortunate part is that it has worked so well that all social networks old and new changed course and headed in the broadcaster direction. We have now optimized our social networks on that model – away from mimicking and enhancing our offline social models.
I believe this is the reason for peoples unhappiness with social media. We are trying to use these sites to fulfill our social needs but they are now optimized for broadcasting. If it were not for Twitter and their incredible innovations, would we have headed in this direction or could we have continued to innovate on the original model?
My personal feeling, or rather hope, is that social media will divide into two distinct sectors. One that focuses on broadcasting, which will be lead by Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest as the main sites and niche industries like Behance. The other will be the truly social sector that tries to enhance real life social interactions. Although there are not many sites primarily in this focus area, there are some signs of growth from dating sites like How About We and messaging apps like WhatsApp.
It is very easy to get fooled into thinking that the current state of social media is natural and has always been this way. But as with many things in life, there are distinct moments and decisions that gave way to our current moment in time. With this knowledge and reflection we have a greater chance of changing them for the better. If we are unhappy using social networks we should change them, we have that ability!
Now to post this article on all the networks!