Misery and Social Media

Let’s all admit it:  we are miserable. Let’s also admit that we blame social media for our misery.  But Why? What is the connection between misery and social media? Does social media cause our misery?


I can only speak for myself, but I do not think my case is entirely unique either, social media does not cause my misery; I have always been miserable.  In order for social media to have caused my misery there has to have been a time when everything was great and wonderful and then because of social media it is not.  But I will say that social media has made me sadder. It has done this in numerous ways but the main way is that it has extinguished hope.


This is a hard concept for anyone younger than 40 years old to grasp.  I was a teenager before there was an internet. In college it was just becoming a thing but no one really had any idea what its purpose was; it was yet to be this 24 hour / always on thing.  The best way to explain the internet in those days was some kind of giant experiment. Our great hope for the future was not the internet but hardware and software.  


When we thought of the future of technology it was still deeply rooted in our fantasies of the 1950s.  Future technology was going to be super intelligent computers where we input our problems and solutions were outputted.  Hardware was the future.


People forget that in 2001 a laptop was a new invention.  Our future was a future of hardware.


I think the second thing people forget was how much better economic life was for everybody in the 90s.   


When I was in college, no one worried about getting a job.  If you could turn on a computer, you could be employed. If you made 15 dollars an hour you could actually live a decent life.  You could buy a house for under 200,000 dollars.


Finally, what people forget is how short the time between boom and boost was for the early internet.  I had no idea what the internet was in 1997. I only happened to discover it because I went to college and we had an ethernet connection.  But outside of email and napster I really do not remember what we used it for. We had an inclining that websites were going to be a thing, but in a very rudimentary sense of presenting information. And then it all came crashing down in 2000.  3 years. Let me repeat that from the height of the dot com boom to its crash was only 3 years. Let me also add that the speed of discovery was a lot slower back then as well, something 3 years old was a brand new technology. So for people my age the whole internet thing was a fad.  


So really for most people my age, we never thought the internet would play a major role in our future.  We were never educated for an always on internet world. Our brains were not wired to think in a solely digital space.  We learned how to communicate in the real world using telephones. We just assumed the internet would be used to supplant the real world in someway, not replace it.  Oh how wrong we turned out to be.  


So what happened?  How did we get here?


The Black Hole

I think the best description of the internet is that of a black hole.  This is an apt description for a few reasons. First, as previously stated it was more or less invisible and thus no one paid much attention to it.  Second, it has a voracious appetite and tends to swallow things whole.


Before we knew it, it had swallowed up entire industries- publishing and music are two prominent examples.  But even scarier than this it turned out to be a cannibal. It started eating aspects of itself until it was the monolithic entity we have today.  


The internet we have today is not the way the internet was intended to be.  

“consumers in the modern economy are increasingly shifting away from a smaller number of popular “hit” products (these make up the head of the curve). Instead, more and more people are buying individualized niche products (located in the long tail).”


This is what Chris Andrson meant by the long tail theory and this is how he envisioned the future of the internet.  A key part of this is diversity. In this internet there would be numerous small, niche sites catering to all kinds of interest, products, etc.  This is how we envisioned the internet- a place where everybody could make a few dollars and no one was going to be a millionaire.  


In part this prediction was correct- the best example being Amazon.  But where it was incorrect was in predicting that google would be an altruistic company and not a billion dollar profit making enterprise:  


“Google and other search engines have realized that many internet users are hoping to find online businesses and websites that are tuned in to their particular searches. Therefore, rather than prioritizing the most popular, general sites, Google can show search results that more precisely match an individual search.”


Yeah that isn’t how Google works today; it’s a popularity contest.  If you look at the first few results all of them are paid for. If you have a tiny website you are lost.   In hindsight we should have known that Google was going to turn out like it did.


The Google Conundrum


As the internet grew Google was faced with a major problem- how do you rank websites?  The answer: rank by the most popular; the websites that get the most traffic, the ones that have the most inbound links.  But there are a few issues with this. First, there is no real way to judge quality. This approach is just assuming people can make their own quality judgments.  But in order to really do this you would need to visit numerous websites, compare them, and then judge which is best. But no one really does this. The second problem is what about newer sites?  If you are a small website how would you ever be seen? The biggest problem, however, is this approach leads to people gaming the system. When people first learned the value of being first in Google they came up with all kinds of ingenious ways to game the system.  So rather quickly the internet went from a bunch of small, unique, websites to a few very popular sites- the exact opposite of what we hoped for. This problem of trying to be found online and people gaming the system will be a reoccuring theme.


As an artist this was a major setback, but all hope was not lost.      


Facebook

My theory is that Facebook was created as a solution to the google problem.  In the real world, how do we decide what to do, what to buy? We ask our friends.  So why not apply the same logic to the internet. Thus, Facebook was born. Knowing what we know now it is kind of funny to think of Facebook as a solution and not a problem.  But in many ways it was rather convenient: you no longer needed to build a website, and thus the internet cannibalizes itself once again; you did not need to visit a bunch of different websites, they where all conveniently on the same site.  But once again we underestimated ourselves.


Pretty quickly someone figured out how to game the system.  Some genius figured out that if I randomly follow people they will follow me back and the more followers I have on Facebook the more important I will be.  And thus an arms race of following as many random people as possible began and our feeds became meaningless and once again it became impossible for the little guy to be found.


So if you are keeping track now it is impossible for a new website to be discovered and no one cares anymore on Facebook.


Ah but there is still hope instagram.


Third Strike

I think most people took a similar path.  Create a website, try to get that off the ground without much success.  Move on to Facebook, try and figure that out, once again without much success.  Then stumble upon Instagram.  

What I find most interesting is that most people did not just try and game instagram right off the bat.  I do not know if at our core level we are fair and just people or we just do not learn lessons very well.  A few smart and enterprising people did game Instagram from the start and create entire companies and an industry from it.  A few us finally figure this out as well but by the time we did so did Instagram and once again it became impossible to be discovered online.  But this time it was different because there was no next thing. Why?


Walled off garden

One of the most important questions no one asks is why are we still using Google and Facebook and Instagram when clearly they are terrible and not being used for their intended purposes?  The answer is because Facebook and Instagram (which it now owns) is a walled off garden. What this means is that there is no way to export your friends and followers off of either platform.  So even if someone managed to create a better Facebook, it would be a major hassle getting your friends to follow you there. Furthermore, they would probably have to use Facebook to advertise it; now that’s what I call irony. I mean Google failed at creating a new social media platform, if Google cannot do it no one can. So we are stuck with what we have and there is no next thing.


We are desperate!


Another, very important, question that no one asks is why do we care?  Why are so many people trying to be famous on instagram and facebook? Why are people so desperate?


People have always wanted to be famous but I think they also have always been somewhat realistic.  But I think what has changed the most is that people have become desperate.  


Those easy to get tech jobs of the 90’s and early 2000’s are gone because the advance of hardware died.  I am currently typing this on a computer built in 2011. There is almost no major difference between this 8 year old computer and a new one; in fact I can argue in some ways it is better.  Think about that. When I was growing up computers where becoming obsolete every year it seemed; in eight years we went from a commodore 64 to a 486- an enormous leap. But with the internet become king who needed a powerful computer?  I mean who even has a desktop anymore? Most people use their cellphones for everything.


The economy crashed.  In 2008 the economy crashed and along with it went the notion that a non online economy could succeed.  We no longer create real world companies that build things instead we have online companies that sell convenience in one shape or another.  If you look at all of these new companies, like Uber, all they are are marketing companies. Most small businesses buy something for dirt cheap from China and upsell it to people.  This is our new economy.  


Finally, as previously stated, the internet swallowed up all of our offline artistic institutions.  Magazines shifted online because it was easier and cheaper, they would figure out how to make money later, but they never did.  Music went from giant record labels to people recording in their bedrooms and getting ripped off by Spotify.


Today


So here you are an artist in the year 2019.  The real world and the economy died and you cannot even sell out if you tried.  The great hope of technology died out and was replaced by the internet. The great hope of the internet was corrupted by not only big business but our own greed.  No wonder everyone is so miserable. They have run out of options and have no idea what to do.





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