If you had to craft a hot contest topic, Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter would be fine. Twitter thrives on discord, and few people are as divisive as Musk.
In this way, Twitter mirrors itself – even people who use it religiously spend half their time complaining about how awful it is. (Twitter reportedly fights Musk’s proposed acquisition with a strategy known, aptly enough, as a “poison pill.”)
In another way, the conversation is more important symbolically than specifically. Twitter is what the mask of capitalism is on social media — just a small part of a much bigger issue.
In fact, that’s not entirely fair to Mask. He is, in fact, the richest person on the planet, while Twitter is one of the least used social media platforms. Only 22% of Americans have Twitter accounts (fewer than LinkedIn!), and most of these users don’t tweet much.
But, like Musk, Twitter gets a disproportionate share of the press because it is designed to provoke. Accuracy has no place on Twitter, where everything is its headline. Not surprisingly, it has become the platform and source of choice for news media (including this newspaper). So much so that New York Times executive editor Dean Paquet sent a recently leaked memo to employees advising them to spend less time on the site. “We can rely too much on Twitter as a tool for reporting or commenting – which is particularly detrimental to our journalism when our feeds become echo chambers.”
Instagram, TikTok, or even Facebook is not mentioned.
Given Musk’s Twitter history, which he has used to lie about COVID-19, attack critics and get into trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission, concerns about his management of the show seem justified. His pledge to ease restrictions on the platform contrasts with growing concern about the role Twitter played, among other things, in the manipulation of social media during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, the spread of extremist views and hate speech, and January 3. 6 The attack on the Capitol building.
But it’s not just Twitter, or even Twitter primarily, that is the concern. With or without Mask, social media has created a gray area between the public and the private, between the political and the personal, becoming the most pervasive and least monitored force in American culture.
This raises all kinds of questions about privacy, free speech, crime, and the consequences – no one seems to want to answer it, including the people who make billions from different social media sites.
Oh, there’s been a lot of controversy, criticism, whistleblowing, and congressional hearings. Certain hate groups have been removed, as have some users, including former President Donald Trump, who spread lies about COVID-19. But the larger issue of how to prevent people from using a largely unregulated media industry to spread harmful messages remains largely at a difficult stage.
Good social media does, and we are all willing to admit: It is a way to communicate, to share feedback and information quickly and widely, to give a voice to those often excluded from other forms of media. If Darnella Frazier hadn’t posted her horrific video of George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin on Facebook, Chauvin would still have been in the Minneapolis police force instead of jail.
bad? Well, who really wants to think about the Mueller Report, which proves that Russian agents used Facebook and Twitter to spread disinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign, or oftentimes spread COVID-19 deaths on Facebook, when they share a photo of their really adorable new puppy ?
Facebook connected family, friends, and lovers while also being a favorite gathering place for all kinds of terrorists, white supremacists, COVID-19 deniers, and insurgents. Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok have boosted businesses, made jobs, and kept visitors entertained and informed, while also causing anxiety and depression among many users, especially young women.
On every site, and for every single moment, there seem to be two more instances of over-phishing. On each site, someone forgets that while they might take advantage of the privacy of their car or bathroom, what they post is moving into the very public domain with alarming consequences, often ending their career.
So while I don’t think Musk would be a good choice for Twitter, at this point it’s not the biggest problem with social media.
The biggest problem is that we all know all the negative aspects of social media and we all continue to use it anyway. Sure, we complain about every aspect of it – food and vacation pornography, vicious attacks, and manipulation by Russian bots. We nod two heads when doctors tell us that insomnia/migraines/rapid heartbeats may improve if we stop controlling death at least an hour before bedtime. We’re torn when we hear about another teen who’s driven by depression, or worse, by all those idealists and/or bullies you see on Insta.
Then we pick up our phones for one quick peek, which takes an hour.
You can call it a great business model or you can call it an addiction, but social media has made itself so indispensable to millions of Americans that they are willing to ignore problems that would be seen as outrageous in any other industry.
The second biggest problem is that we still call it “social” media, like a cocktail party, school dance or church gathering during strawberry season. (Dear St. John Lutheran Church in Westminster, Maryland: I still miss those ice creams.)
There is nothing “social” in a multibillion dollar industry. Facebook made $9.2 billion in profit during the first three months of 2021 (making Mark Zuckerberg, like Musk, profitable for the pandemic). YouTube brings in about $15 billion annually to parent company Google and in 2021, total TikTok revenue grew 70% to $58 billion.
Twitter has been losing money in recent years, but that’s definitely not the business plan; No social media platform is a charity (and Musk certainly understands that). It’s free because it’s paid for by advertisers who compete for your eyeballs, your personal information, and your purchase history. And increasingly, your ability to help create any site where you’re relevant to the star industry, news, and/or controversy. Because that’s what gets more people to sign up.
I am not saying that this is a good or bad thing. News media like The Times were once profitable enterprises financed largely by advertisers, as were broadcast television networks and a million other things. I’m just saying that it’s important to remember that social media is not a digital society; People don’t become tech tycoons just by giving you a space to chat with your old high school friends or getting an agent by posting a music video.
They have become tech tycoons by creating a media platform where unpaid users work hours every day, selling ads against it.
There are of course content providers making money from social media, artists discovered with a viral video, and a whole new career for social media managers. But mostly, it is an industry led by unpaid freelancers.
Obviously, as a member of the old media, I have my own biases. There is only so much advertising dollars and most of it no longer goes to the old media. I’m lucky to have a job that pays me to write stuff. For the journalist, social media has been an incredible blessing in many ways. Otherwise, how can you get so many people to talk more formally about so many things – and more frankly than they would with any reporter?
Then again, would people say the same things if a reporter, or indeed a real person, was asked about it? The peculiar public and private space of social media requires brief expressions of complex emotions and complex events. People come to it with completely different intentions and with varying degrees of sincerity (and sobriety).
Sending ideas, opinions or even facts to the ether where they will be confronted with all kinds of response from strangers always makes the sender and respondent vulnerable. Without any censorship of the content, it is what it is – changing the world and glory or predatory, dangerous and sometimes criminal.
This will usually be part of the column where I provide concrete solutions, but I’m not sure I have any. Attempts to classify social media empires as publishers rather than platforms, where they will have legal responsibility for what they publish, have so far been unsuccessful, in part, because it would irreversibly alter the nature of the beast.
Normally, I would resist putting the solution to the big social issues on the shoulders of the already overburdened individual, but that may be upon us.
This is not a call to “stay off social media” — I will be tweeting and posting this column and, without a doubt, pictures of my adorable puppy in the near future. But let’s be mindful of the industry we support, and realize what they’re doing, or allowing to happen, in places we might not see. Many of us actually avoid certain companies because of where they invest, the way they treat their workers, or statements made by CEOs. And unlike every other industry, this new kind of media has no product except the one we make collectively.
So make them aware of what the term “social media” can mean. Advertisers and their money go where people are, and that choice is literally in your hands.
Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com