#4: Where Are Your Friends Tonight?
Surprise! I know that last week, I said I was releasing the next newsletter on Sunday, but then my horoscope said this, lol:
So, consider this a test, once and for all, of whether astrology is real. I honestly don't know which outcome I’d prefer. Would I rather be right or would I rather be famous? These days, it's a question we should all ask ourselves.
Happy Shut the Fuck Up Friday! Today we're talking about the extremely cursed topic of social media.
When Facebook and Instagram disappeared from the map for a few hours on Monday, utopian visions of a world permanently freed from our social media overlords cropped up everywhere on the social media networks that remained unharmed.
It immediately reminded me of this scene from the Simpsons, in which Itchy and Scratchy is censored, and the kids turn off their TVs and go outside.
Thirty years ago it was T.V. that was destroying the youths. Video games were making kids violent, MTV was making them rebels, and cartoons were making them dumb. Now it's social media, the very thing that has absorbed our old vices.
Even during my college years, when Facebook was still ascendant, people were already discussing the dangers of social media: isolation, overexposure, addiction. Long before the like button, we couldn't get enough.
I would call this era the proto-social media era. The blogosphere had created a new kind of internet celebrity. Rich girls who “modeled” and also claimed to be “DJs” started their own photoblogs documenting their clothes, parties, and carefree lifestyles and offering more intimate glances at celebrity nightlife than the paparazzi ever could.
These “Internet It Girls” arrived in the liminal space between the age of institutional celebrity and the Internet 2.0. This was the age of the struggle rapper, the indie band, Tumblr, alt-lit. They racked up spreads in glossy magazines, earned front row seats at fashion week, and were paid menial sums to make appearances with established Hollywood “It” girls who were in search of a fresh appeal. Yet, they had no follower count and no brand deals. They did it all for the clout.
And they turned the tide. You no longer needed to know how to code to become an internet millionaire. You no longer needed connections and an agent to become famous. All you needed was something to say, and a cool, catchy way to say it. Social media became, at least for a brief while, media perfected, democratized, and free at the point of use.
Then came the like button and the newsfeed—virality. Blogs became Instagram pages, YouTube channels, and Twitter feeds; total strangers could happen upon your profile. With the right post and enough luck (though social media brand agencies will tell you it's actually a science), you could earn yourself a full-time salary hawking products to your legions of followers.
“On the internet, we’re all famous,” as Chris Hayes says in his recent New Yorker essay, because even if our posts never go viral, we post as if they might— even if only amongst our private set of followers—and we curate ourselves accordingly. “[T]he combination of mass fame and mass surveillance increasingly channels our most basic impulses—toward loving and being loved, caring for and being cared for, getting the people we know to laugh at our jokes—into the project of impressing strangers, a project that cannot, by definition, sate our desires but feels close enough to real human connection that we cannot but pursue it in ever more compulsive ways."
It is this compulsion, engineered by social media companies, that has turned Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tik Tok into their own little factory towns. We all post and livestream and comment and engage in the hopes of maybe, someday, being seen or heard in a more public way. Even those who only lurk, or limit their social media circles to those they know IRL, are still performing a service. In his book The Twittering Machine, Richard Seymour calls this the "Social Media Industry" one in which all of us are workers though few of us ever get paid. In exchange for our data, we get connectivity, validation (maybe), and recognition (maybe). It doesn't matter what we do as long as we're on the platform because everything we do creates another data point that the platform can sell: watch a story, skip a story, rewatch a story, like, comment, unfollow. All of this is work, and social media platforms have optimized their algorithms to keep us online doing as much free labor as possible.
We've been complaining about social media for over a decade now. But what’s surprising, to me at least, is just how not new this information is. When I started thinking about this newsletter, a friend pointed me to "We Live in Public,” a 2009 documentary about 90s internet mogul Josh Harris, whose Internet TV company and subsequent art projects—including a Y2K bunker where every occupant was filmed 24/7 and a Twitch-like streaming website where he and his partner chatted with hundreds of people each day—predicted every social media ill we are struggling with today.
In a 1992 interview, he said this: "At first everyone's going to like [the internet]. But there will be a fundamental change in the human condition. As time goes by you’re more constrained in virtual boxes. Our every action will be counted. One day we're going to wake up and realize we're all servants. It has captured us."
Even if most of us are resistant to the worst impulses of social media, even if we consciously limit our presence on it or even avoid it completely, we can't escape it. I don't know anyone who is not compelled by self-interest or professional obligation to maintain at least one social media profile. Social media has fundamentally reshaped the way we relate to one another, to our world, and to ourselves, and the pandemic has only exacerbated its hold.
I spoke with a middle-school teacher who mentioned that after a year of using their phones as a social lifeline, kids are now completely inseparable from them (if they weren't before). Social media was a lifeline for many of us during the pandemic. Perhaps that's why despite knowing how addictive social media can be, and just how utterly miserable most platforms are these days, we just can't leave.
Facebook and Twitter call their platforms ecosystems, implying interdependence while obscuring dependence. In the hours that Facebook was down, businesses that rely on Facebook and Instagram to sell goods collectively lost millions of dollars, people were unable to contact loved ones on WhatsApp, and everyone went to Twitter to buzz about what just happened and fantasize about a blissful post-social media future. Irony is truly lost on the internet. The number of tweets I saw asking whether Twitter was down as well was enough in and of itself to convince me that we're doomed. Rather than logging off, we're all seeking one last dopamine hit.
So much has been written about how social media has changed society and politics, but my focus is on how it has changed us, the afflicted, especially those of us who don't spend an inordinate amount of time at the “factory,” who have an insignificant or familiar following, and who still remember a time before social media existed?
What I'm most interested in is how many of the changes in how we think, act, and commune were already being fundamentally reshaped by technology before the social media era. I want to understand how these proto-social media forms contributed to our willingness to become no-wage workers for giant tech companies and what insights these forms may give us for how to excise ourselves from social media's grasp.
Social media is the closest we’ve come to the Borg Collective, a Star Trek the Next Generation civilization composed of billions of cyborgs, created by “assimilating” species from all across the galaxy and turning them into nodes in the hive mind. Every Borg drone’s memories are absorbed into the collective, their identities are erased, and their bodies are augmented to serve the Borg mission: assimilate every sentient being in the universe.
There’s just so much I have to say, and the more I researched this newsletter, the more I found to explore. I also realized that the subject crosses paths with many of the topics I've considered for future newsletters, including performative activism, the "creator" economy, and identity politics. All of which is too much to cram into a 1,500-2,000 word essay, or even two. So, I've organized the remainder of this essay into three parts, to be released as the next three newsletters:
Part I: Why no one looks good in pictures anymore, featuring my grandmother, who looks great in photos :) (Wednesday, Oct. 20th)
Part II: How soundbites, incompetent allies, and grifters fuel white supremacist ideology, featuring Bad Art Friend and David Lat. (Sunday, Oct. 24th)
Part III: On astrology, data science, and other mythical creatures. (features TBD, there's a reason why this one is last, lol). (Sunday, Nov. 1st)
*Update (11/7): I did not follow this at all, lol.
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This Week’s Top Five:
Saeed Jones’s reflection on Dave Chappelle’s special:
“That’s the gag, Dave. I thought when you got free, if you decided to come back to us, you’d find a way to help us feel more free too. I believe that’s what laughter does. It loosens us up, helps us shake ourselves free. But watching you spew bullshit just as hurtful as the words those men hurled at us last weekend, I didn’t feel like I was being set free. I felt like I’d just been stabbed by someone I once admired and now he was demanding that I stop bleeding.”
This Gawker story about making charisma a thing again:
“Charisma is beautiful because it does not scale. It evades formula. It is random and irreplicable, and it feels good to be around, even when it’s destroying your life. Charisma at least gives you a good reason to drink the Kool-Aid; somehow, today’s pied pipers have managed to bypass any authentic appeal and get us to chug it all down anyway. Without charisma, the Kool-Aid turns to ashes in my mouth.”
5. The best argument against heterosexuality I’ve ever seen.