Twitter is a dumpster fire. Meta lays off 11,000 people while their ad product struggles and their metaverse product seems to be boring at best. Instagram continues to roll out TikTok feature clones. And TikTok continues to be owned by a Chinese corporation, raising legitimate questions about state interference and security.
Some say social media is dying. Some say it’s aging. And others say it never really existed at all.
It seems the low-grade panic I’ve witnessed among small business owners and independent workers over the last few years is spilling out into the mainstream. How will we connect with customers? How will we grow an audience? When will things be okay again?
I am empathetic to the fear behind these questions. There are days when I also start to worry about losing my introvert-friendly global chat room. Will I be able to pursue this strange line of work—part business expert, part journalist, part theorist, part anthropologist—without the tools I’ve used thus far?
But then I remind myself that social media isn’t confined to platforms.
Social media creation depends on forms of social behavior that are platform agnostic, no matter how many people try to sell us “5 steps to growing your LinkedIn audience” or “10 Reels ideas to grow your audience on Instagram.”
There are 3 core behavior patterns that I observe on platforms today: building, transferring, and posturing.
“Building” is the behavior pattern central to our conception of how social media is supposed to work. It’s the value proposition platforms sold us on. And it’s how media that is social developed long before MySpace, Friendster, or Facebook existed.
Building is, as Edward Onswego put it for Vice, a “rhizomatic structure of polydirectional conversation.” Or, to put it simply, a network of people talking to each other and building off of what has been said or created before. Building is collaborative, creative, and generative.
This is social media at its best at scale: the Arab Spring, Me Too, communication and resource-sharing in a crisis. And it’s also, in my opinion, social media at its best on an individual level. For me, nothing beats the feeling of building something—even a small idea—with others in real time.
But it can also be social media at its worst: Covid conspiracies, QAnon, Gamergate. It’s hard to deny that these malevolent channels for building behavior are creative, generative, and collaborative, too. Just not in a good way.
“Transferring” behavior looks like a traditional classroom dynamic. Someone has knowledge, an opinion, a system, a joke, a meme, etc. that they convey to others who lack that thing. Ideally, those receiving the transfer are better for having received it.
Much of YouTube is structured around transferring behavior. TikTok is also home to transferring behavior.
Onswego describes this as part of the “broadcast model,” calling this form of media unidirectional. There is a social purpose to transferring behavior, but the value of it only goes one way.
Some people use social media to redirect attention back on themselves—this is the behavior pattern I’m calling “posturing.”
At first blush, transferring and posturing look similar. They’re both part of the broadcast model; they both assume a hierarchical structure. But while transferring has a social purpose, posturing has a self-interest purpose. Posturing is barely social—it merely leverages social technologies for individualist gain.
Much of what passes for social media marketing best practices today is posturing behavior. There is a thin veil of sociality (i.e., “I have some wisdom to share with you”) but the trajectory of value bends around the receiver and centers the one posturing. It’s a way of scooping up followers rather than engaging in truly social behavior.
Posturing is extractive, performative, and often derivative. Its purpose is not to edify or entertainment the recipient (although that can be a byproduct). Its purpose is to garner attention for the creator.
This isn’t a strategy recommendation.
In describing building, transferring, and posturing behaviors, I don’t mean to make a strategy recommendation. Each of these behavioral patterns can serve a critical function—even posturing.
The problem is less that “posturing is bad,” for instance, and more that lots have people have learned that posturing is just how you do social media. I don’t begrudge anyone saying “look at me” from time to time! But when I log on a platform to find most people in my feed saying “look at me,” I immediately want to log off.
I do think we could make media social again if we spent more time on building behaviors—but I also understand that building is a long game and sometimes we just don’t have that kind of runway.
Make media social outside of legacy platforms.
As I mentioned earlier, we were producing social forms of media long before we had totalizing platforms. We linked generously. We created together. We called and responded.
I am all too aware that when I start writing about social media it almost always has a backward-looking quality to it. “Back in my day…” and all that. But the precedent of social media past can tell us quite a bit about what’s next.
My hope is that we can reclaim more of the collaborative, creative, and generative aspects of decentralized media creation but do so away from centralized platforms. (Please know that I am in no way referencing “web3” here.)
What would a more social approach to writing a newsletter look like? What does a social blog look like? How would our social ties evolve if we worked with people to create new ideas and entertainment?
I’d truly love to know what you think.