The decline of Social Media

You've got to admit this has been coming for a long time. If you are surprised by this it is time to take away your blindfold.

When Facebook and Twitter started out it was about connecting people (Nokia, no pun intended!). The value of using these platforms was in their functionality for you to see what your friends, family and other like minded people were talking about. Your timeline was filled with what you wanted to follow and you felt more connected to those you also met in real life.

But for the last few years the emphasis has more and more turned to how these platforms could be leveraged for user data harvesting and marketing.

It started with the photos. Photos have value for the marketing industry as in many cases they display human emotion. Genuine human emotion sells better than Barbie or Ken acting human emotion so the marketing people looked at social media as a great source for material. And since the platforms were still in growth phase they were more than eager to get more funding. So we started seeing average people's photos leak to media companies “unintendedly”.

Next came engagement. As these companies measured their data they deduced that the best way to engage users was to provide interactivity to the media. The content was no longer the primary goal of social media posts but the engagement. People posted for likes and comments rather than for the content. There are a lot of research put in to this, especially the part of the addictivity of Social Media due to the dopamine effect. Look them up, there are plenty on Netflix for example if you are not a reading type of person.

Changing the timeline to an algorithm based version allowed the platforms to manage what users see. Users actually did not want this change, but this requirement came straight from the advertisers. Their ads were scrolling by too quickly and they wanted a way to get noticed more. To solve it the platforms revamped the timelines to show what they wanted not what the users wanted to see. The algorithms that determine how posts are prioritized are to this day a closely guarded secret by these companies, not because they themselves have any intrinsic value, but they would reveal the marketing point of view which would not please everyone.

As the platforms became more popular, political movements started to take interest. Because by now, the timelines could be manipulated thanks to the engagement features and the algorithmic timeline, political movements could manipulate s.k Trending posts with the helps of bot campaigns. Fringe ideas that normally would get unnoticed by most now got splashed on the top feeds of these platforms with help of bots liking these posts. This led to many users thinking that these ideas were credible as so many people were agreeing with them. This directly tapped into the tendency we humans have to accept the consensus without any independent thought.

As the fringe movements grew stronger on the platforms more moderation was needed. But moderation cannot solve the inherit problems of the algorithmic timeline as content moderators can only moderate what already has been posted. The damage in most cases had already been done once the moderator saw the post.

These are the reasons why social media is mostly broken today. And it can be solved by regressing the changes done to the platform. But since advertising revenue still is the dominant driver for many of these companies I don't see this happening.

So is there an out to this?

I believe that the Fediverse movement is such a solution. I call it a movement because it is not only about the technology. Federated servers that only allow a chronological timeline and discourages the engagement factors are the solution to return to media where content is king.

Many a CEO and marketing person will disagree with this, as they see social media as something to be monetized, either by using the platform as a promotion platform for their products, or as data platform for trend research. With servers like Mastodon this is impossible as the users are in control of their timelines and content.

I am happy the recent Elon event with Twitter has allowed users to open their eyes and see that there are other alternatives for social media than the corporate ones. Software using the Fediverse like Mastodon, Pixelfed, Write.freely and many more are all the solution to connect the users in a more open and transparent way, without sacrificing our freedom and right for privacy and manipulation.