Steven Savage just posted about experimenting with using Facebook and Twitter less. I think it's a laudable experiment, and it seems he encountered several of the big takeaways I've been clear about for a couple of years now: that depending on these things is a bad idea (not least of all because you don't and can't own them), and that they can become self-perpetuating, self-justifying timesinks.
Most of the folks I know who use social media as some kind of outreach system seem to think we'd be unable to find an audience for anything if this stuff disappeared tomorrow. I don't believe it. I think current proprietary social media would be, in time, replaced with mechanisms that are more decentralized but far more within our control, and thus on balance either just as efficient or better. But right now we're stuck with this crap, so the least I can do is minimize my dependency on it.
Before there was all this stuff, we had blogrolls and RSS feed discovery systems, and they worked. They were technologically sound. And, again, they accomplished their goals of allowing people with something to say to discover each other. I found out about a whole slew of good things that way, and I felt like the discussion was uniformly of better quality because you had to exert a certain amount of work to say something. The only reason they stopped working was because services like LiveJournal, and later the modern plague of proprietary social media services, edged them out.
What FaceTwit brought to the table was ease of use. In theory, they democratized blogging, because you didn't have to think about a single technical aspect of any of it. I think that is at least as much about the failure of "vanilla" blogging as it is about the success of those systems. If Movable Type hadn't been such a stodgy pain in the ass to work with, and WordPress wasn't such a leaky boat of fractally bad software design, and all the other competitors such nonentities, we might not have had that problem. (Likewise, the fact that WordPress runs some major fraction of the world's websites is less a metric of its success than a sign of how poorly everyone else has done, and how web technologies as a whole remain hopelessly arcane shibboleths for the initiated only.)
When Facebook and Twitter started achieving critical mass, I made a pledge to myself that I wasn't going to end up in a position where I would be dependent on either one of them. I could use them to promote what I was doing, but the substance of what I did would always be as far within my control as was possible. I was very conscious of how the act of using these things could incrementally transform the nature of the work.
But I found myself myself succumbing all the same — posting one-liners and sharing dumb junk I know full well was not reflective of my true interests. I knew I wasn't interested in attention-bait, but I was doing it anyway, out of the forlorn sense that I could maybe make good on the audience I'd thus attracted. It was sobering and depressing, and I think that was a key trigger for my big step-back from all this stuff as of the middle of last year or so.
The problem is not just that these systems were built to turn us into generators for data-mining engines. It's that we say yes to all of it, again and again, because a) the alternatives are just too complicated or unrewarding to deal with, or b) because the payoffs seem worth it (even when they come at severe and often invisible costs), or c) we have a) reinforcing b). But as long as such things are built by someone else, for someone else's benefit, with us as the product and not as the users, we'll always end up losing. Even the most successful use of social media is still about ending up as someone else's product.
I remembered the words of the great sage Lily Tomlin: "The problem with the rat race is, even if you win, you're still a rat." And I also remembered that Stan Freberg routine, also about a rat, where the rat complains about how he ran that giant-ass maze and what did he get for all his trouble? A lousy chlorophyll gumball.
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Other Lives Of The Mind