Social Media Lessons

Women consistently express more interest than men in stories about weather, health and safety, natural disasters and tabloid news. Men are more interested than women in stories about international affairs, Washington news and sports. (more)

Tabloid newspapers … tend to be simply and sensationally written and to give more prominence than broadsheets to celebrities, sports, crime stories, and even hoaxes. They also take political positions on news stories: ridiculing politicians, demanding resignations, and predicting election results. (more

Two decades ago, we knew nearly as much about computers, the internet, and the human and social sciences as we do today. In principle, this should have let us foresee broad trends in computer/internet applications to our social lives. Yet we seem to have been surprised by many aspects of today’s “social media”. We should take this as a chance to learn; what additional knowledge or insight would one have to add to our views from two decades ago to make recent social media developments not so surprising?

I asked this question Monday night on twitter and no one pointed me to existing essays on the topic; the topic seems neglected. So I’ve been pondering this for the last day. Here is what I’ve come up with.

Some people did use computers/internet for socializing twenty years ago, and those applications do have some similarities to applications today. But we also see noteworthy differences. Back then, a small passionate minority of mostly young nerdy status-aspiring men sat at desks in rare off hours to send each other text, via email and topic-organized discussion groups, as on Usenet. They tended to talk about grand big topics, like science and international politics, and were often combative and rude to each other. They avoided centralized systems to participate in many decentralized versions, using separate identities; it was hard to see how popular was any one person across all these contexts.

In today’s social media, in contrast, most everyone is involved, text is more often displaced by audio, pictures, and video, and we typically use our phones, everywhere and at all times of day. We more often forward what others have said rather than saying things ourselves, the things we forward are more opinionated and less well vetted, and are more about politics, conflict, culture, and personalities. Our social media talk is also more in these directions, is more noticeably self-promotion, and is more organized around our personal connections in more centralized systems. We have more publicly visible measures of our personal popularity and attention, and we frequently get personal affirmations of our value and connection to specific others. As we talk directly more via text than voice, and date more via apps than asking associates in person, our social interactions are more documented and separable, and thus protect us more from certain kinds of social embarrassment.

Some of these changes should have been predictable from lower costs of computing and communication. Another way to understand these changes is that the pool of participants changed, from nerdy young men to everyone. But the best organizing principle I can offer is: social media today is more lowbrow than the highbrow versions once envisioned. While over the 1800s culture separated more into low versus high brow, over the last century this has reversed, with low has been displacing high, such as in more informal clothes, pop music displacing classical, and movies displacing plays and opera. Social media is part of this trend, a trend that tech advocates, who sought higher social status for themselves and their tech, didn’t want to see.

TV news and tabloids have long been lower status than newspapers. Text has long been higher status than pictures, audio, and video. More carefully vetted news is higher status, and neutral news is higher status than opinionated rants. News about science and politics and the world is higher status that news about local culture and celebrities, which is higher status than personal gossip. Classic human norms against bragging and self-promotion reduce the status of those activities and of visible indicators of popularity and attention.

The mostly young male nerds who filled social media two decades ago and who tried to look forward envisioned high brow versions made for people like themselves. Such people like to achieve status by sparring in debates on the topics that fill high status traditional media. As they don’t like to admit they do this for status, they didn’t imagine much self-promotion or detailed tracking of individual popularity and status. And as they resented loss of privacy and strong concentrations of corporate power, and they imagined decentralized system with effectively anonymous participants.

But in fact ordinary people don’t care as much about privacy and corporate concentration, they don’t as much mind self-promotion and status tracking, they are more interested in gossip and tabloid news than high status news, they care more about loyalty than neutrality, and they care more about gaining status via personal connections than via grand-topic debate sparring. They like wrestling-like bravado and conflict, are less interested in accurate vetting of news sources, like to see frequent personal affirmations of their value and connection to specific others, and fear being seen as lower status if such things do not continue at a sufficient rate.

This high to lowbrow account suggests a key question for the future of social media: how low can we go? That is, what new low status but commonly desired social activities and features can new social media offer? One candidate that occurs to me is: salacious gossip on friends and associates. I’m not exactly sure how it can be implemented, but most people would like to share salacious rumors about associates, perhaps documented via surveillance data, in a way that allows them to gain relevant social credit from it while still protecting them from being sued for libel/slander when rumors are false (which they will often be), and at least modestly protecting them from being verifiably discovered by their rumor’s target. That is, even if a target suspects them as the source, they usually aren’t sure and can’t prove it to others. I tentatively predict that eventually someone will make a lot of money by providing such a service.

Another solid if less dramatic prediction is that as social media spreads out across the world, it will move toward the features desired by typical world citizens, relative to features desired by current social media users.

Added 17 Nov: I wish I had seen this good Arnold Kling analysis before I wrote the above.

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