Sometimes it can be hard to step back and look at social media with perspective, when we use it every day. Especially at a time when it seems to have become so manipulative; triggering us emotionally, making us doomscroll until we feel overwhelmed.
How do we take back control of what we do with social media?
I’ll start with some personal testimony. I spend very little time on Facebook, I haven’t for some years. I find it a feed of meaningless drivel and I dislike its endless, obtrusive notifications. More recently I’ve reached the same point with Instagram. I persevere with LinkedIn, despite feeling many of the same frustrations, but I use it far more as a messaging app than an information portal. I’ve ended up with 4 different Twitter accounts to curate by subject. There is a name for the effect I am suffering: Context Collapse
You’ll recognise this collapse next time you scroll a social feed. Why I am seeing that, followed by that? What’s the relationship between these things, if any? And what is the cumulative effect of stuffing all these random things into my brain, one after another?
Happy, Sad, Angry, Hilarious, Bitter, Thoughtful, Nasty, Authentic, Fake… our emotions are yanked in all directions in the time it takes to scroll through the day’s feed. And much of this happens subliminally. We don’t even realise this chaos of feeling until, an hour later, we can’t seem to get to sleep. And wonder why.
People want to escape from all the noise
Social platfoms are starting to cotton on to this discontent and provide ways of helping us curate our social experience accordingly. Twitter has rolled out Communities, moderated small groups away from the main feed. Reddit and Discord are seeing much faster growth than other platforms because they offer “walled gardens” which are subject-specific. Remember the forums and message boards of Web 1.0. They are back in fashion!
Younger generations are increasingly private. They prefer a WhatsApp group to posting and commenting in public spaces. It’s very noticeable that personal public Facebook posts are now increasingly dominated by the 40+ age group who are just continuing the behaviour they learned in the early 2000s.
Just as we can no longer build a website and expect traffic to simply show up, so we can no longer expect our audience to pay attention to us in the maelstrom of contextless social feeds. We have to define our audiences and find spaces where we can have a meaningful conversation with them. That may well mean social media becoming less about “create once, publish everywhere” and more about “creating community space and giving people a reason to join in”.
This quote from a recently-recommended Substack article hit home:
People will hate-read and doom-scroll, but they won’t hate-pay or doom-subscribe. While people pay attention to content that makes them agitated, they’ll only pay money for content they trust and value.
And if you think about it, that’s exactly what we increasingly do. We watch paid-for streaming content over live terrestrial TV to stick to what we value in an ad-free environment. We pay for the quality of content in a publication like The Athletic over the ad-funded, clickbait-driven content of Sky Sports or TalkSport.
The “attention economy” is, in my view, beginning to find the limits of its value. People are realising they don’t have to suffer all the cumulative effects of the ad-driven social model, where they are the product. They are finding their agency and moving to their own spaces. Go with them, or create one for them; or soon you might find the big echo chamber you relied on has become eerily quiet.