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S1E9: Social Media's Content Waterfall
(The following is the manuscript for episode nine of season one of the Breaking the Digital Spell podcast, which premiered on October 16th, 2018. Available wherever you get your podcasts, or you can listen online here.)
When I originally set out to do this podcast back in May of this year, my initial vision of it was to focus specifically on social media. I wanted to do a podcast on how social media and theology intersect, and so I invested in some research material to help me get this podcast started. By the time I finished the first book in that stack – Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death” – I realized that focusing solely on social media, while not a bad idea in and of itself, wouldn’t be enough. Social media did not arise in a vacuum – it is the culmination of several difference strands of technology and media that collide into one of the most powerful – and most destructive – mediums ever created. Neil Postman passed away in October of 2003; two months before that, a collective of former employees from a digital marketing firm would take a risk on the creation of a brand new website called MySpace. Nobody, not even Postman himself, could conceive of how the humble beginnings of MySpace would soon give way to the most significant revolution of media since the Internet itself, and how drastically the world would change 15 years later because of it.
Before we keep going, I want to say that the rest of this season will not be like the first half of the season when it comes to keeping things in chronological perspective. We started with words, then went to television, then went to the early Internet, and now he we are at the modern Internet. The point was to show the effects of change on society over time, and with regard to everything up to this point, the changes were slow moving and easier to process in hindsight. We cannot reasonably do this with social media. The Facebook we know and use today is not the same Facebook we knew when we signed up and began using it. In fact, the Facebook we know and use today is not even the same Facebook that we knew and were using not even a full year ago! Where television and the pre-social media Internet stayed relatively stable in how they worked and what their effects as mediums, social media is defined by its instability. The things we discuss in this episode about how social media changes the way we think about God and our neighbor have a somewhat limited shelf life – by this time next year, the social media field will have changed and there will be new issues to consider. However, I think there are some aspects of social media that will always be true regardless of what future changes might bring, and that’s what we are going to focus on in this episode. In thinking about how social media has changed the way we think about God and the way we love our neighbor, these will always be consistent issues to deal with. Also, for the record, I will be mainly focusing on four social media networks in this episode: Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and the greatest social media platform of all time, Twitter. Other platforms will get mentioned when relevant, but otherwise I’ll keep the scope to those four platforms.
What even is social media? Its a term that everyone knows and is familiar with, but what does it actually mean? That’s a good question, because depending on who you ask, you will get totally different answers, and if you ask the same person one day, you might get a different answer a few years later. Merriam Webster defines “social media” as “forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos).” Wikipedia’s definition has changed several times over the years, but their current one is “social media are interactive computer-mediated technologies that facilitate the creation and sharing of information, ideas, career interests and forms of expression via virtual communities and networks.” One of the best definitions I’ve heard comes from Marta Kagan, creator of the the business presentation program Ace the Pitch, and her definition is “social media is an umbrella term that defines the various activities that integrate technology, social interaction, and the construction of words, pictures, videos and audio.” It’s this definition of social media that I want to work with, because it captures everything that we might think of when we think of social media. Social media is technology and social interaction and lengthy Facebook text bombs and dank memes and family photos and videos from talented content creators and videos of violence and terror and collective celebration or mourning after a football game and debates about religion, politics, and fan theories and so much more. Part of the reason why defining social media is so hard is because it’s so massive and always evolving, and thinking about “social media” as an umbrella term is a very useful and pragmatic approach to such a vague and nebulous concept.
But even though “social media” itself is a hard term to define, we can make better sense of it if we break it down into its various parts. Social media combines all of the major themes we’ve looked at so far in this season in one single medium, and I think its safe to say that, in a sense, the path of technological development in human history has all led to this point. If the printing press revolutionized the written word and further technological developments made printing even more powerful, social media has created the possibility of a Tweet from an ordinary person going viral and being seen by hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of minutes. This can’t be said of any book, magazine, tract, pamphlet, even really of any online blog or news article – anyone has the possibility of writing something that could potentially explode beyond their wildest dreams. If television upended a world that makes sense of itself through the spoken and written world and turns it into a world where our discourse is now based in images, social media capitalizes on this by empowering anybody to upload videos ranging from smartphone recordings to studio produced shows – to mention the untold number of cat, baby, and food photos. Not only do we have the behemoth known as YouTube, and the millions of channels within it, we also have Facebook Watch and, as of a few weeks ago, Instagram TV, and all of these are designed to be the successor of the television Neil Postman knew and understood when he wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death. If the Internet upended our sense of “community” by giving individuals the possibility of having a community free from any geographic or physical constraint, social media fills in the gaps by giving us profile pictures, full names, job titles, family photos, and other information designed to make us feel like we truly “know” the person we are talking to online. Even though social media is technically a byproduct of the internet – once might even call it a sub-medium of the Internet, or a “medium within a medium” – it incorporates all of the technology and media we use and consume in one place. We used this quote from Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains” in the previous episode, but I think this quote is still true even if change the wording to focus specifically on social media and not just “The internet” in general:
“Traditional media, even electronic ones, are being refashioned and re-positioned as they go through the shift to online distribution. When [social media] absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image. It not only dissolves the medium’s physical form: it injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, breaks up the content into searchable chunks, and surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. All these changes in the form of the content also change the way we use, experience, and even understand the content.” - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains
At the risk of sounding overdramatic, social media is a black hole. When MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter first appeared, they weren’t any more than these fun, trendy websites that people used but didn’t take all that seriously. Now, its impossible to not take social media seriously, and there is no place you can go where you do not see or feel its effects. Even if you close down your personal social media accounts, you’ll still hear about that stupid and idiotic thing some celebrity tweeted out, or someone will show you this hilarious meme that you found on Facebook. You’ll be regularly asked “why aren’t you on social media”, and while people will think that its noble and admirable that you’re willing to buck the trend and not be on social media, they’ll have zero desire to join you. Social media occupies the same cultural significance that television did when Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death, with everyone implicitly assuming that you’re participating in social media in some way, just as everyone implicitly assumed you watched something on television. The idea of not watching television at all or not using social media at all is very culturally unpopular, and if you’ve ever contemplated the idea of staying off social media, you know there are a million reasons that come up in your mind as to why you can’t leave.
But why can’t we leave? We do we all seem to struggle to mitigate or control social media’s influence on our lives? Earlier in the season we asked “how do you read a book?” and “how do you watch television?” to reflect on what these mediums demand of us. Remember: mediums are not value neutral, and they ask us to do certain things in order to use them, and we can discern what those things are when we look at what it means to actually “use” social media. So – how do you use social media? Even asking this question poses some difficulty because, unlike reading a book and television, there’s not one truly uniform way to interact with social media. Some people use social media as their writing and creative outlet. Some people post status updates about anything and everything, and some people simply like and share what other people post as their main contribution. Some people use it as a networking tool. Some of us are just here for the dank memes, and some of us use social media because it’s our job to manage social media accounts professionally. Whatever your specific use of social media looks like, there’s one thing we all share in common: we all use timelines. So let’s narrow it down: how do you use a timeline on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram? First, you have to create an account (obvious, I know), and then you need to “friend” or “follow” people, brands, companies, or subjects in order to populate your timeline with content – photos, videos, text updates, articles, GIFs, polls, livestreams, and more. The content that is shown to you in your timeline is selected based on a variety of factors, which are mysteriously (and often annoyingly) mediated through a background process known as the “algorithm” of whatever platform you’re using. Once your timeline is served to you, you have two options. You can start going down on the timeline, and the content will become less and less “relevant” to you the further down you go, or you can refresh your timeline, and the algorithm will serve up a brand new batch of content for you, and after a while you’ll start seeing the same content you’ve already seen. At any point, you can post content of your own in the form of text, image, and videos, and you can like, comment, share, and retweet the content of others, and all of this not only impacts your timeline but the timelines of others. The more a post or content gets interacted with – the technical term for it is the “engagement rate” – the more the algorithm will promote that content in the timelines of people, even people who aren’t your friends. The less interaction the content gets, or if the content is not content the algorithm wants to promote (for example, a post with a million hyperlinks to various websites), then the algorithm will suppress that content and refuse to serve it to as many people as it would for “good” content. At the time of this recording, “good” content is video, and specifically short video or live-streaming video through Facebook Live, Periscope, and Instagram’s live streaming. Text still performs just fine on Twitter, but is getting more difficult on Facebook, and while Instagram is just now beginning to promote the ability to include outbound links via their paid Story promotions, Facebook still largely frowns upon posts that contain outbound URLs. And even though video is “in” right now, horizontal video’s time in the sun might be running out as – and consider this a free professional social media tip on the house – Facebook and Instagram are doing everything in their power to make vertical video the next big thing, and given the unbelievable, brutal destruction of Snapchat at the hands of Facebook and Instagram stories, their ability to make vertical video stick seems more likely than not. But what’s “good” content right now wasn’t necessarily “good” content a year ago, and by this time next year “good” content might be something totally new and different.
And speaking of content and timelines- how much content are we talking about here? Every minute, 510 thousand comments are posted to Facebook, and 293 thousand statuses are updated and 136 thousand photos are uploaded by 1.47 billion daily active users – for comparison’s sake, there are 7.7 billion people that live on the entire planet. There’s an average of 6,000 new tweets every second, which results in 5 hundred million tweets per day. 80% of Instagram’s 1 billion users are outside of the U.S., and of those 1 billion total Instagram users, 500 million people use Instagram every day and like 4.2 billion posts per day – and post 95 million posts and 400 million stories a day. YouTube has 1.9 billion total users, and while their active daily user base is comparatively smaller at 30 million people, those 30 million people watch 5 billion videos a day, 500 million of those coming from mobile views. Every minute, 300 hours of new video is uploaded to YouTube, which translates 432 thousand hours of new YouTube footage per day. We haven’t even touched LinkedIn, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, Pintrest, WhatsApp, and some of the other social media platforms that still boast insane figures of their own, even if they aren’t a part of the Big 4 of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
If all this talk of “content” seems overwhelming, that’s because it is overwhelming. Simply put, if mediums are not value neutral, and how we use a medium reveals what that medium values, then social media values content, and has made it possible to value content to the point it can house and feed you obscenely high amounts of new content every second and get that content to you through your social media timelines. And your interaction with this content is not framed in plainly obvious terms like “consuming content”, but on “conversations”, “engagement”, “building community”, “interacting with your audience”, “updating your friends and family on what’s new”, and a whole slew of other language to re-frame this content production and consumption on good and desirable terms. And to be clear – it is perfectly legitimate to use social media to have conversations with people, and to build community, and to interact and engage with others. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to use social media to just do that. You can use social media for those things, but you will be asked to stand underneath a waterfall and drink the downpour of content our social media feeds serve to us and to our neighbor in our timelines.
So, to go back to the question of timelines, how do we consume what is in those timelines. Recall from several episodes ago the contrast between reading a book and watching a 60 minute evening newscast on television. Reading a book requires you to give a considerable amount of attention and focus for a prolonged period of time, and you need to be able to parse the vocabulary and grammar of the text in each sentence, and then you need to be able to understand each sentence in relation to each sentence, each paragraph in relation to each paragraph, and each chapter to each chapter, as well as link ideas, concepts arguments, and illustrations together if you want to understand what the author is saying. By contrast, to watch your standard 60 minute evening news broadcast, you still need to give some degree of attention to it in order to understand it, but the attention required is only relevant to the length and subject matter of each story, so only a few minutes at most. With each new story, you mentally hit “reset” and begin paying attention to something completely new to what you were paying attention to seconds ago, and after a few cycles of this, you’ll get interrupted with a commercial break that you can pay attention to or totally ignore. By the time the news is over, you’ve been processing information for 60 minutes, but that information has been compartmentalized, disjointed, and detached because of the format you consumed it in, and even though you might have covered a diverse range of subjects, you’ve only done so in a way that barely skims the surface. This holds true for even other types of programming as well – even if the internal subject matter is consistent, such as an episode of a TV show, you’re still only asked to give a few minutes of your attention to the show at a time (Netflix is obviously exempt from this). Social media builds upon the precedent built by television and serves us content that is more compartmentalized, more disjointed, more disorganized, more diverse, and it only requires seconds to consumer instead of minutes, and because it usually only requires seconds to consume instead of minutes. Even if we are watching a video or reading a lengthy Facebook text wall, we can disengage at any second and resume going back to a habit of consuming content by the second. Because the algorithm does the heavy lifting for us in filtering the type, quality, and source of the content it serves us, we are able to consume more of it – we are able to drink the waterfall of content.
Or, at least, we falsely believe we are able to drink it. One of the promises of social media is that, through algorithms and timelines, we can juggle and process all of these conversations and topics and show an interest in as many subjects as we can tailor our profiles to tune in to. What social media doesn’t tell you is that, as an individual, that you have a finite attention span. God did not create us as omniscient beings, omnipotent in our ability to continually process and take in new information. We cannot possible equally care about, or give equal attention to, all of the topics and conversations social media throws at us. At the best, all we can give is a like, share, or retweet, which only requires slightly more effort than just scrolling on by that post or tweet. We cannot give our attention fully to the physical world and the digital world at the same time – at best, we can give 50% of our time, attention, and focus to both, but to be on social media on a regular basis is to divide your attention to the world that you actually live in and the world your social media timeline creates for you. You cannot be engaged with loving your neighbor if you’re busy refreshing your timeline to get new information about people and businesses that might not be anywhere nearby. You think about God if your mind is being reshaped to think like a social media timeline, with attention spans that function in spans of seconds and there are no parameters governing the amount and type of subject matter your mind is juggling in any given moment. In short – you cannot drink from the waterfall without consequence, but we live in a world that has been convinced that it can and will continue to drink from the waterfall despite the growing amount of evidence that the consequences to your mind, to your body, to your community, to your friends, and to your family are not insignificant.
And yet, I don’t think anyone would deny that there are plenty of legitimately good uses of social media. Yes, social media allows you to drown in a waterfall of content, but sometimes that content can be good. It can make you laugh. It can make you think. It can make you aware of something you can or should do. It can, in many legitimate ways, make your life better. Yes, social media allows you to waste countless hours refreshing a timeline and distract yourself from your work or other people, but it also allows you to connect with friends, family, coworkers, and professionals within your industry. You can more easily connect with people who share your interests and hobbies, and sometimes that leads to people actually going out and doing things together in the real world. Yes, social media does lead to anxiety, and envy, and depression, and jealousy, and outrage, but it also allows you the chance to express yourself, to be creative, to encourage and uplift others. In order to say that social media is solely a “good” thing or a “bad” thing requires you to downplay all the legitimate and illegitimate uses social media offers, and to ignore all the positive and negative impacts it can bring. This is where the responses of technological optimism, technological pessimism, and technological ambiguity come into play – do the good things about social media outweigh the bad? Does the bad outweigh the good? Does the use of social media determines whether or not it’s good or bad? In asking questions about how technology and media affect us, we must consider the whole scope of effects of technology and media, both good and bad. Social media is here to stay, and its pervasiveness will only get more and more significant, and there will be no shortage of content for us to consume. How we consume that content is just as important as what we consume. How we produce content is just as important as what we produce. And in order to know how and what we should consume and produce – how we should use social media – we must understand the positives and negatives, the upsides and the downsides, the good, the bad, and the ugly – and go from there.
We are going to pump the breaks on this point because, at this point in time, it’s impossible to cleanly separate social media from the machines that make it so pervasive. Earlier we asked the question: why is it so hard to break away from social media? Why can’t we leave it? In next week’s episode, we take a look at the technology that fueled the social media revolution and ensures the saturation that social media has in our lives – which, ironically, is most likely the same technology that’s playing this podcast episode for you right now.