If you were to fabricate a hot-take contest topic, Elon Musk offering to buy Twitter would do just fine. Twitter thrives on disagreement, and few people are as divisive as Musk.
In this way, it mirrors Twitter itself – even people who use it religiously spend half their time complaining about how awful it is. (And Twitter reportedly fought off Musk’s proposed takeover with a strategy aptly known as a “poison pill.”)
In another way, the conversation is more important symbolically than specifically. Twitter is to social media what Musk is to capitalism – just a small piece of a much bigger problem.
In fact, it’s not quite fair to Musk. 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 those users don’t tweet very often.
But, like Musk, Twitter gets a disproportionate share of the press because it’s built for provocation. Subtlety has no place on Twitter, where everything is its own title. Unsurprisingly, it has become the preferred platform and source for news media (including this newspaper). So much so that New York Times editor Dean Baquet sent a recently leaked memo to staff advising them to spend less time on the site. “We can rely too heavily on Twitter as a reporting or feedback tool, which is especially harmful to our journalism when our feeds become echo chambers.”
No mention was made of Instagram, TikTok or even Facebook.
Given Musk’s history on Twitter, which he’s used to lie about COVID-19, attack critics and get in trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission, concerns about his handling of the show seem justified. His vow to ease constraints on the platform goes against growing alarm over the role Twitter played in, among other things, manipulating social media during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, the spread of extremist views and hate speech and the January 6 attack. on the Capitol.
But it’s not just Twitter, or even primarily Twitter, that’s the problem. With or without Musk, social media has created a gray area between public and private, between politics and personal, to become the most pervasive and least monitored force in American culture.
It raises all sorts of questions about privacy, free speech, criminality and consequences – which no one, including the people who earn billions on the various social media sites, seem willing or able to answer.
Oh, there’s been a lot of controversy, criticism, whistleblowing, and congressional hearings. Some hate groups have been misrepresented, along with some users, including former President Donald Trump, who have been spreading lies about COVID-19. But the larger question of how to stop people from using a largely unregulated media industry to spread harmful messages remains at pretty much the twist stage.
Good social media does this, we all recognize it: it is a way to connect, to share observations and information quickly and widely, to give a voice to those who are too often excluded from other forms of media. If Darnella Frazier hadn’t posted her gruesome video of Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd on Facebook, Chauvin would still be in the Minneapolis police department instead of in jail.
The bad? Well, who really wants to think about the Mueller report, which proved that Russian operatives used Facebook and Twitter to spread disinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign, or that COVID-19 deaths lie too often broadcast on Facebook, when they share a picture of their really adorable new pup?
Facebook has connected family, friends, and lovers while being a prime gathering place for all manner of terrorists, white supremacists, COVID-19 deniers, and insurgents. Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok have boosted businesses, made careers and entertained and informed visitors, while causing anxiety and depression among many of their users, especially young women.
At each site, for each unit moment, there appear to be two other instances of extreme trolling. On every site, someone forgets that even if they listen from the privacy of their car or bathroom, what they post enters the very public domain with alarming, often deadly consequences.
So while I don’t think Musk is a good fit for Twitter at this point, he’s not social media’s biggest problem.
The biggest problem is that we all know the downsides of social media and we all continue to use it anyway. Of course, we complain about all aspects of it – the food and holiday pornography, the vicious attacks, the manipulation by Russian robots. We nod our heads in regret when doctors tell us that our insomnia/migraines/heartbeat might improve if we stop scrolling the doom at least an hour before bedtime. We cry when we hear of another teenage girl driven to depression, or worse, by all those perfect lives and/or bullies she sees on Insta.
And then we take our phones for one quick look, which lasts an hour.
You can call it a brilliant business model or you can call it an addiction, but social media has made itself so indispensable to millions of Americans that they’re willing to ignore issues that would be considered outrageous in any other industry. .
The second biggest problem is that we still call it “social” media, like it’s a cocktail party, a school dance, or a church gathering during strawberry season. (Dear St. John’s Lutheran Church in Westminster, Maryland: I still miss those sundaes.)
There is nothing “social” about a multi-billion dollar industry. Facebook made $9.2 billion in profits in the first three months of 2021 (making Mark Zuckerberg, like Musk, a pandemic profiteer). YouTube brings in about $15 billion a year to parent company Google, and in 2021 TikTok’s total revenue grew 70% to $58 billion.
Twitter has been losing money in recent years, but that’s certainly not the business plan; no social media platform is a philanthropic endeavor (and Musk certainly understands that). They are free because they are run by advertisers competing for your eyeballs, your personal information, your purchase history. And, increasingly, your ability to help make any site you are a nexus of star-making, news, and/or controversy. Because that’s what gets more people signing up.
I’m not saying that’s a good or a bad thing. News outlets like The Times were once profitable businesses funded largely by advertisers, as were television networks and a million other things. I’m just saying it’s important to remember that social media is not a digital commune; people don’t become tech moguls just by giving you a space to chat with your old high school friends or get an agent by posting a music video.
They become tech moguls by creating a media platform where unpaid users do the work, for hours every day, and they sell ads against it.
There are, of course, content providers who make money from social media, artists who were discovered through a viral video, and a whole new profession of social media managers. But for the most part, it’s an industry run by unpaid freelancers.
Obviously, as a member of the mainstream media, I have my own biases. There aren’t a lot of advertising dollars and most of them don’t go to traditional media anymore. I’m lucky to have a job that pays me to write stuff. And for a journalist, social media has in many ways been an incredible boon. Otherwise, how can you get so many people to speak publicly about so many things — and more candidly than they would with a journalist?
Then again, would people say the same things if asked about them by a journalist, or even by another real human being? The strange public-private space of social media requires abbreviated expressions of complicated emotions and complex events. People come here with very different intentions and varying degrees of sincerity (and sobriety).
Sending thoughts, opinions, or even facts into the ether where they will be greeted with all sorts of responses from strangers always leaves both sender and responder vulnerable. Without any content oversight, that’s what it is – world-changing and glorious or predatory, dangerous and sometimes criminal.
This would normally be the part of the column where I offer concrete solutions, but I’m not sure I have any. Attempts to categorize social media empires as publishers rather than platforms, in which they would have legal responsibility for what they post, have so far failed, in part because it would irrevocably change the nature of the beast. .
Normally, I resist putting the solution to major social problems solely on the shoulders of an already burdened individual, but this one can be on us.
This is not a call to “get off social media” – I will be tweeting and posting this column and, no doubt, photos of my adorable pup in the near future. But let’s be aware of the industry we support, aware of what they do or enable, in places we may not see. Many of us already avoid certain companies because of where they invest or how they treat their employees or what their CEOs say. And unlike every other industry, this new generation of media has no product other than the one we collectively create.
So make them aware of what the term “social media” can mean. Advertisers and their money go where the people are, and that choice is literally in your hands.
Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com