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Are we using Social Media all wrong?
On shifting from forum to pipeline
It won’t surprise too many of you to hear that I’ve spent way too much time on social media. When Facebook got big about 15 years ago I was always on there, talking to friends and classmates and playing games constantly. Years later when I got on Twitter I was sucked in both by the dopamine boosts of viral tweets, and because I’ve made connections with smart, interesting people. But recently the pleasure of it all has been increasingly absent, for me. I’m sure this is due in some part to a job where I work more intensively in social media from 9-5, and some of my related receptors getting a little fried, but I’ve also seen more and more people saying that the platform has been less appealing to them in recent weeks and months.
For Twitter in particular there is of course the issue of the billionaire man-child taking over, and welcoming fascists back on in droves while he bans anti-fascists and alters the algorithm to boost his own posts. However, I think the Musk changes account for just a small fraction of the greater social media decline, meaning both the worsening situation for the industry as a whole and deterioration of the conditions for the left online in particular. On a large scale, there’s the ever-present problem that capitalism presents social media. Namely, these platforms function to a significant degree as the modern public square. In a time when physical communities have been dispersed into suburbs, bulldozed by urban renewal, over-policed and under-funded and more, social media is the one accessible gathering spot for many people. You add a pandemic and the increasing attacks on free public space, and it’s no surprise that a lot of people seek community online. Yet we are confronted with the stubborn issue of capitalism fundamentally opposing goods or services existing without profit motive. So this increasingly vital public square must be commodified and monetized, as we see with Musk’s silly $8 blue check verification, followed by Zuckerburg proposing something very similar, not to mention the ramping up of invasive and annoying advertisements across all platforms.
Beyond the fact of monetization are the countless attempts to grab and hold your attention in ways that manipulate your brain chemistry. Social media companies aren’t alone in this, but they seem to be among the most alarmingly effective examples of corporations employing strategies that grab your dopamine and latch on to it. I’ll always remember reading about a Facebook executive who said that he doesn’t let his children use the platform because of the addictive mechanisms that he was all too well aware are part of the infrastructure. And that’s just one of the problems with how these platforms are currently constructed. On Twitter, we’re confronted with the built-in ways that the platform incentivizes disagreement and confrontation, plus the small number of characters available to us leading to the over-simplification of complex issues, meaning that people are often debating and fighting over black and white perspectives on topics that really demand nuance. Even if you hardly use Twitter it’s still the starting point for much of the discourse on the internet, which then trickles out onto other platforms and ultimately, I believe, can have a very real effect on the way many people discuss important issues out in the world. So it comes as no surprise (not just because of social media but in part because of social media) that we see an increasing reduction of crucial conversations to the most simplistic renditions of the opinions presented on either side, and an emphasis on attacking people and their ideas rather than finding common ground or reaching towards solutions.
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Don’t get me wrong, in a whole lot of cases it’s become more, not less necessary to combat individuals and their ideas online and in the physical world. I want to be crystal clear in anything I write about the need to directly confront fascism and fascists both in person and on any online forum. But the desire, partially manufactured by the aforementioned format of these platforms, to be antagonistic even to those with whom we agree on so much, is extremely harmful to the left in particular. With Trump and DeSantis we currently see how the complete absence of loyalty on the right has them at each other’s throats significantly more than we’ve seen in recent years. But the left is equally, if not more, vulnerable to ideological schisms, as we’ve seen throughout history. And the present is no exception. While the left is not inherently more fractured than we’ve been in the past, the forums and the methods we use to engage with each other matter. And with so much of our collective political conversation happening on social media right now I think it’s no leap to say that these platforms, and the ways we use them, are partially responsible for the increasing antagonism between people who really agree with each other 90% of the time, but find themselves (or ourselves) having trouble granting each other grace or respect or the benefit of the doubt when it comes to that 10% we disagree on.
All of this is to say that without an extremely thoughtful use of social media the left is vulnerable to built-in problems with these apps. And the simple truth is that most people at present are not too thoughtful when they get online. A lot of us want to vent, and there’s a lot to be angry about. A lot of us want to build a brand or promote ourselves or our work, which is perfectly valid in some ways in this late stage capitalist environment where I don’t blame people for hustling to get by. And a lot of us simply want answers, even though the short form content on social media is rarely sufficient for full and honest answers to our complicated problems. I’m speaking as someone who has indulged in the oversimplification that is all too easy to engage in on Twitter, and definitely promotes my articles there, so I certainly can’t claim any moral superiority over anyone else. But, while it might seem like this piece is headed towards the sort of social media doomer-ism, that isn’t where I want to go at all.
It’s darkly funny to me that the right has often been better at using social media than the left, despite often being wildly out of touch and tragically unfunny. But even here there is hope, really and truly. I don’t want us to despair and I don’t want to blame the left per se, because I think the relative ideological cohesion of the right combined with the massive amount of money that they have access to is largely what has given them their advantage. But there is also another factor, which is, to my mind, their somewhat better understanding of the role that social media is best suited to play in the political development of individuals and movements. What I often see the right doing is using social media as a sort of pipeline. And while we can and should disparage the goals they pursue, and the place they lead people to, that shouldn’t prevent us from understanding the effective ways they use the tools at their disposal. Specifically, the use of social media as a pipeline rather than primarily as a site of deliberating the final conclusions that they want people to reach is instrumental to their success. On the left a pipeline would of course look different, but it’s worth taking the time to consider how that model differs from how many of us currently use social media.
Specifically, the left often engages in dialogue that presumes we are using social media to find the answer to a complicated problem. Naturally, this leads to legitimate and thoughtful disagreement, as well as a whole range of much less thoughtful disagreement. Now I would never dispute the fact that I and others have learned a tremendous amount from people we have encountered online, whether from their articles, or thoughtful comments, or the generous back-and-forths where people take their time to teach others what they know. But I think the medium is fundamentally not matching the message when it comes to a lot of the discourse on social media. For one, the complexity of the issues we face and the systems we hope to build are not meant for 240 characters. In addition, a whole lot of issues, and in particular the viable and long-term solutions to those issues, require local context and a specific understanding of certain cities or communities or people. So the hashing out of where we need to go and how we want to get there is much better suited for in person dialogue, specifically in-person dialogue with people we organize with, although we should be speaking with others about this as well. However, I want to doubly emphasize having political education and political debate with those we organize with because our solutions can’t be static, they must be flexible and molded by struggle. What’s right one day may not be appropriate a week later when circumstances have changed, and we must learn from the struggle we engage in and adapt our collective approach and action through dialogue with our neighbors and coworkers.
None of this means there is no role for social media, to be clear. When we look at how the right uses social media, and the idea of the pipeline, we see it already in action in many ways in virtual leftist ecosystems. What I mean by this is that the repetitive series of micro-interactions that social media most naturally facilitates has pushed a lot of people left in spurts and bits, even if it hasn’t landed people on the exact position that we might hope they eventually find. Maybe more important is that this pipeline also functions as a gateway, meaning that as people move left in the small increments they are exposed not only to general ideologies, but to individual publications and thinkers and podcasts and organizations. Ideally we would embrace the fact that, as it’s currently constituted, social media is far better at moving people in general direction and introducing people to ideas and individuals and groups than it is as forum for we generally refer to as “discourse.” Ideally we would recognize that fact, and use the tools available to us more wisely.
Social media may one day take a very different forms, and new platforms and approaches are being tried right now that may lead to much more thoughtful and slow and deliberate conversations, and some of them may be successful to various degrees. But I think those of us on the left who really want to use the tool to maximize affect have to be aware that plugging into tangible organizations is vital for our collective success. Some of those organizations can and should meet on zoom, or connect using other virtual tools, but organizations that exist in the 3-D sphere are necessary for contesting the land and resources that we ultimately need to be struggling for. So let us engage in dynamic struggle together, and use our tools as effectively as possible. Let’s use them not as we wish they were constituted or as we wish they functioned, but as they are, while simultaneously trying to take them into our own hands. That, after all, is the struggle.
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P.S. If this piece feels like just a start to you, we’re on the same page. There’s much more to say, and in the future I hope to say more of it, but I also really believe that a one-sided monologue will never really be sufficient for a lot of the topics I like to address. So rather than trying to present a perfect argument of a complete picture, I hope a lot of these little essays act more like sparks, for your thought and for your organizing. Again one day I hope to have the time to write more and present writing to you that feels closer to being complete in some ways, but I also hope you take the ideas I present and bounce them around in your mind and with others, if you want. Cheers! - Josh