Was social media a mistake? I’ve been wondering this recently, and my thinking was crystallized by two recent events. First, conservative comedian Steven Crowder had his Twitter account suspended for a week because he posted a video on YouTube that was critical of “gender fluidity” and used a Bad Word. The video was also pulled from YouTube, which you might not think of as a social media platform, even though it definitely is.
Then Brandon Morse noticed that Twitter was preventing him from tweeting a link to an article by a controversial conservative columnist. This follows stories of Google-owned YouTube “demonetizing” videos by conservatives, unplugging them from the ability to make money from ads, and Facebook and Google targeting conservative sites for hilariously inaccurate and tendentious “fact checks.” It’s becoming clear that the big social media companies are targeting ideas and thinkers on the right, and not just the far-out provocateurs and trolls like Milo Yianopoulos, but everyone.
What strikes me most is the contrast between this and the Internet era before social media, before Facebook and Twitter and Youtube swallowed up everything. I’m talking about the 2000s, which was the great era of the blogs.
Do you remember what that blog era was like? It felt like liberation.
The era of blogging offered the promise of a decentralized media. Anybody could publish and comment on the news and find an audience. Guys writing in their pajamas could take down Dan Rather. We were bypassing the old media gatekeepers. And we had control over it! We posted on our own sites. We had good discussions in our own comments fields, which we moderated. I had and still have an extensive e-mail list of readers who are interested in my work, most of which I built up in that period, before everybody moved onto social media.
But then Facebook and Twitter and YouTube came along and killed the blogs. There were three main reasons they took over.
The first was that maintaining your own website is kind of a bother. It doesn’t cost much money to buy a web address, set up hosting, load up WordPress and get going—but social media sites are free. It does cost you a fair bit of time to set up and moderate a blog and to deal with the various technological complications that arise. Figuring out how to post ads or take subscriptions and get paid for your work is even more time-consuming.
The second reason was that most bloggers were not professional writers and could tend to ramble a bit. There were real gems to be found, but often I would find myself wading through 1500 words of setup to find one really good idea. The restricted character limit of Twitter—which was originally referred to as a “micro-blogging” platform—made it easier to discover and amplify these gems.
The last reason is that instead of having to remember to go to your favorite blogs, Twitter would come to you in the form of an app on your phone—at a time when more readership was going from desktop computers to phones. Moreover, a social media network feels like it’s all one big place, where it’s easy to interact with fellow writers, and you can switch effortlessly from sparring with a New York Times reporter to trading jokes with an anonymous nobody who just happens to have a quirky, interesting personality. There is a lot of charm and value in that aspect of Twitter.
So the blogs were mostly outcompeted. A few of the best and most interesting blogs became full-fledged online publications, but a lot of the small, quirky, one-person amateur bloggers moved onto social media. That turned out to be a big mistake, because what the era of social media has done is to recentralize the media. Instead of a million blogs—what Glenn Reynolds of “Instapundit” fame called an “Army of Davids“—we now have a social media economy mostly controlled by three big companies: Twitter, Facebook, and Google.
So we get shadowbanning, totally arbitrary Twitter suspensions, and Twitter throttling the traffic of people they don’t like and controlling what articles you can and can’t tweet links to. We traded the old mainstream media gatekeepers for new, worse, less publicly accountable gatekeepers in Silicon Valley—a new breed of pinch-nosed Puritans with pink hair, piercings, and tattoos, who will shut us down if we don’t use the right pronouns.
The point is not that this is censorship and they should be regulated. The only thing worse than social media controlled by petty tyrants in Silicon Valley is social media controlled by petty tyrants in Washington, DC. In any case, regulation is unnecessary. These platforms have power and influence because we gave them power and influence. The moment enough of us stop doing it, they turn into MySpace.
The role of social media as the new ideological gatekeepers is just part, though the leading part, of our overall dissatisfaction with their product. There is the damage they are doing to the attention spans and social lives of teens who are growing up on them. There is the phenomenon of the Twitter mob and the way social media is responsible for the gamification of moral outrage, where readers score points and level up by getting people fired, often based on nothing more than rumors and mass hysteria.
Then there is the awful economics for the actual producers of content. Social media companies are designed to profit off of our free labor even while they treat us like garbage. For example, I have 11,000 Twitter followers—but I don’t know who they are or have any independent way of contacting them. In effect, I have spent years building up a mailing list for Twitter and not for myself. What kind of raw deal is that? And I can’t point to any measurable way in which Twitter has driven traffic to my articles or put money in my own pocket. Then again, I can’t point to any way in which Twitter has put money into the pockets of its shareholders, either. At least Facebook has the decency to return a handsome profit by exploiting its access to my entire social network.
It’s time to give up on all of this, writing it off as a failed experiment. So here is what I’m going to do.
1. I’m going off Twitter for a month, starting Sunday. And no, this is not a fake Farhad Manjoo Twitter break, but a real one. At the end of 30 days, we’ll see if I bother to come back.
2. Instead of staring at my phone all the time, I’m going to carry around an honest to goodness book to read. Here’s the first one.
A lot of the time I spend messing around on Twitter is in spare moments when I’m waiting for the kids to get ready for bed, or between sets at the gym, and I have rationalized it by saying that this is time when I can’t get sustained work done, so it’s not really going to waste. But I’m betting that’s not true and that I can fill this time with more productive or more enjoyable things.
3. I’m going to go back to what I used to do: checking out a roster of websites and blogs with good information and getting all of my news directly from those sources, not from people posting them to social media. You should do the same.
4. I’m going to spend more time writing at The Federalist, or posting extra material here on my own site, or working on a couple of other projects I have in mind. If you want to know what I have to say, you know where to find me. I’m willing to bet that all of these projects will do me a lot more good than being “Twitter famous.”
Partly what I’m trying to do here is to go back to the future, back to the golden age of blogs. There may be another, better technological solution, and I’m open to hearing about it. But I’m starting to realize that whatever the answer eventually turns out to be, social media was probably a mistake.