Is Culture Rejecting Social Media?

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

While it’s still far too early to say that Twitter and Facebook are about to collapse and disappear, people are moving away from these platforms. The topic of discussion today is increasingly, where to go? I have written on the fragmentation of social media, which is a result of these two social media mega platforms going into decline. But what does this mean for our networked global culture? Could it be a good thing? Could it be culture that is the reason for this shift?

A number of social media channels have gone before Twitter and Facebook. MySpace, Friendster, Bebo and many forgotten ones. In today’s notification driven, attention seeking, hyper-fast information driven world, building a sustainable social media platform with long term value is virtually impossible. For now.

This is largely due to the very nature of culture. When I say culture, I mean the knowledge we use to navigate our daily lives. Culture is not just music, literature and the arts as a whole. The arts are but one part of culture. We must also include systems of reciprocity (economics), kinship, the division of labour, how we organise our societies.

Humans combine culture with genetics in order to survive. Culture is Homo Sapiens main means of survival. We use culture to tell one another how to survive. From building fires to cook meat many thousands of years ago, to informing one another how to use social media and digital technologies to survive in this current digital age.

Social media at a global scale is still very young. About two decades old. If you count in early social media such as bulletin boards and early news groups from the late 1970’s then perhaps forty plus years. But at a truly global scale? A mere blink or less in the history of Homo Sapiens. A couple of decades may seem long to us in a world of rapid-fire communication.

We’ve been taught, wrongly, that major societal events happen very quickly. Like one day we woke up, invented the rake and shovel and started growing things. Agriculture. That happened over thousands of years. The French Revolution and the shift from feudal systems to capitalism? Over the span of a century.

For the past two decades, we piled into social media because it was largely free, easy to access and because we are first and foremost, social animals. At a macro, sociocultural level, we’ve been figuring out what role social media plays in our personal and societal lives.

Culture and societies have always been fluid and always will be. This fluidity is critical to how humans figure out how to survive, both in our physical environment and in our social structures. Humans have survived so well because we are extremely good at niche exploitation and moving across many niches, unlike other animals. We use culture to tell each other how to exploit niches and thrive.

Social media have played a role, enabled through the creation of the internet. Some call it “network effects”, which it is, since we’ve always built networks in social groups. Remember telephone trees? Today’s social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, have been unable to keep up with social and cultural change.

They have failed to adapt. In large part because they stopped innovating. Instead of going with the changes in culture, they stuck with relying on advertising for revenues and serving the shareholder rather than the customer. TikTok has succeeded by seeing the cultural shifts, but it too, is more likely to fail as it falls back on advertising and no longer innovates.

What is the cultural cost of a failing social media platform? Are we rejecting it?

Cultural history and a lot of knowledge. A prime example is MySpace. A core cultural feature of MySpace was the arts, specifically music. Katie Perry, Nicki Minaj, Kim Kardashian, can all credit MySpace for their rise. Today MySpace is a mere shell of its former self. What has been lost is much of that content from decades ago. Social media platforms are under no obligation to preserve peoples content. There’s no regulatory requirement.

When social media platforms go bankrupt, get acquired and shift direction or slowly fade to something other than what they were through lack of innovation, we lose important cultural elements. Or are they important? Humans, through culture, are good at cutting out that which we do not consider valuable.

But inevitably, we do lose something. Perhaps it is impossible to know what is or was of value, but something is lost. What we haven’t done well with regard to much of this digital content, is to figure out ways to preserve the content we have created. In some ways, we erase history as hard drives are turned off, or the content is not transferred to a long-term storage medium.

We also may lose the cultural lessons we’ve been teaching one another, or, viewed another way, perhaps collectively, like the invisible hand of economics, we’ve decided that social media in its current form, is not delivering the cultural values and benefits we want. Perhaps we are beginning to reject the current form?

As consumers, we are tired of the increasing bombardment and intrusiveness of advertising. In some cases it has become so intrusive and constant that it is hard to even have a good experience in these channels. The platforms, rather than innovate, instead doubled-down on a lazy business model. They also failed to be effective in dealing with disinformation, bullies, trolls and handling personal data to protect privacy. Culturally, these violate common values.

Social media platforms today are failing to deliver cultural value. The metaverse, really just enhanced MMOGs, is rejected by the market because the general public sees it for what it is. A digital land-grab by business that will inevitably be just like todays social media; another place to sell people things. What a complete and utter failure of imagination and innovation by tech companies.

The only certainty with regard to social media is that no current platform has figured out long-term viability. Whether that’s even possible, is impossible to say.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious