Social Media Syndrome

by: The Dust Council

Last Updated: 2020-Jan-06

Twitter is Internet road rage.

So much has been written on the subject of social media and its problems. While I have social media accounts, they are essentially unused. Every so often I am tempted to try to use Twitter as a sort of RSS equivalent to keep up with people whose projects I am interested in, but inevitably I grow so disgusted with the medium that I find myself dreading opening the app or web page. Fortunately I've reached a point where I recognize the fact that the minute I feel dread doing something online: responding to a discussion thread or personal e-mail, I simply stop doing it. I suppose I am fortunate to have gotten to a place where I don't feel any compulsion to keep up with the deluge of information on the Internet. I don't take my phone to bed with me, and I don't have any online profiles to check.

All media in which people interact is by a clinical definition "social media." Reddit is technically "social media" but it is different from what we normally mean by that term, which are sites like Facebook. Reddit is not about personal branding, but subject matter. It is about ideas and arguments — well — most of the time, anyway.

Reddit has problems but most of them are not the same as the ones Facebook and Twitter have. The subreddit (or topic) is the primary form of organization, whereas subscribing to people forms the basis of Twitter and Facebook.

What seems to ruin things is when any form of social media becomes about "brand me." When an online community is defined by a non-personal subject (for example, "computers"), those communities, provided they are moderated properly, have a good chance of being healthy, information-rich environments.

The problem seems to arise where individuals and their personalities are the center of attention. When that happens, self-censorship, branding, and overcooked signalling occurs: the focus is not providing information or insight or an opinion, but pandering to an audience whose opinions matter because they are about the poster, rather than the subject. I suspect this is largely connected to the same problems famous musicians and movie stars face.

Bill Murray was quoted as saying, "When you become famous, you've got like a year or two when you act like a real asshole...You can't help yourself. It happens to everybody. You've got like two years to pull it together — or it's permanent."

On the Internet, so-called "influencers" (wince) are frequently young, unsupervised, and subjected to similar psychological phenomena as actors or musicians. In the case of most social media, followers or subscribers are enumerated precisely. Fame — or social approval — is a fairly precise metric. In time, chasing those numbers to maintain the personal brand become more important than whatever subject matter the "influencer" is known for.

This seems to have two effects, especially on younger "influencers":

We need more social media is which is topic-based, and which make cults of personality unlikely. It took me some time to understand why Redditors were so opposed to the idea of creating rich personal profiles on the system, but I think those who were, were wise to resist it. So far, these profiles are limited enough in capability that it hasn't been an issue. They should avoid expanding profile functionality accordingly.

Twitter is Internet road rage.

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