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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Is Social Media in Retreat?

Social Media
Social Media
Like most Netizens, I have a love/hate relationship with social media. It can be a tempestuous place and, depending on the climate, either a fantastic tool or a devastating weapon (often of self-defeat). In recent years, a Gestapo of the Moral Majority has made a habit of trolling social media, looking for victims to "police." A few years back, the mainstream media was constantly sounding the alarm, relating posting on Twitter to programming the ticker on Times Square - which may be true for, say, Ashton Kutcher, but is specifically untrue for the rest of us. We sat through several stories regarding hapless loudmouths who lost their jobs over political differences voiced online or, most often, a profound lack of common sense and education made apparent online. More often than not, the flaps brought up the sensitive issue of Freedom of Speech and First Amendment rights in America and the victim culture mantra regarding a "right to be offended" which strongly implied a "right to retaliation."

We have also been told for years now that everything on this very immediate and overloaded Internet is "permanent" and "forever!" If this sounds suspiciously like the old, "This will go down on your permanent record!" routine that's because it is. Most of the Internet is fleeting and largely abandoned. Even if archived by search engines or other sites, the overwhelming majority of Netizens - much less the common user - do not know how to access it. Again, if you plan on running for office, hold a high-power position, or are Ashton Kutcher, this may be a concern; otherwise, if you delete something online, it is likely to be entirely inaccessible after a year or so without some serious researching skills. And within that time, you can count on a slew of similarly devastating and similar news stories occurring, most of which will quickly overshadow that of your own.

Specific websites have specific guidelines but, by and large, nothing on the Internet is "permanent" and most of it is forgotten or overlooked the moment it is published. Content that goes "viral" is obviously the exception but, several years later, derivative works will be far more ubiquitous than the original, viral sensation which largely devalues it. And viral content was a widespread thing long before the advent of current social media.

Another issue I have with social media is the school of fish effect, wherein a mob mentality can, and too-often does, take over. The reasons for this are usually banal, such as endlessly over-hyping the latest TV show or sensationalizing the color of a dress, but they sometimes take on far darker tones - literally angry, frothing mobs armed with virtual pitchforks demanding someone's loss of livelihood, imprisonment, or worse. Some think the most frightening aspect of this particular phenomenon is how quickly and easily it can be started and how vicious it gets once underway - but more disturbing is the chilling effect it has on the facilitation of the free exchange of ideas and information. More and more often, otherwise intelligent, informed individuals who actually have some knowledge and insight to bring to any number of conversations resort to self-censorship to protect the security of their employment and even personal safety. At the very least, it may save them the pain of aggressively and often verbally violent rejection on a level to which they've never been exposed.

Still, I enjoy social media and wish it were a more welcoming place. I can perceive the many upsides of it and would love to  be able to better take advantage of those things, and not just for professional purposes. But, as we here at The Cyberculturalist have reminded you often, there's always some new fad in social media, just as there is online. A year or two ago, it was Tumblr; today, it is Instagram. Today it is Facebook, yesterday it was Twitter, and five years ago, it was MySpace - yet few posters seem to truly grasp this concept, continuing to flit from more robust models (Facebook) to ever more contrived and specific services shortly before abandoning those accounts and gradually returning to the earlier, more established, networks. After all, isn't Instagram just another blogging platform which allows for longer posts but encourages shorter ones? Now that Twitter includes images and videos, isn't it directly taking aim at Instagram and its own Vine video network? And weren't all of these features available on AOL 15 years ago?

Social media status updates were derisively called "microblogging" by some and while that may be a dismissive term, the underlying premise is not incorrect. It's very easy for your tone to be lost online and the thrust of your comments to be misconstrued, doubly-so if you are limited to 140 character "soundbytes." The limitations of many of these specialized services are becoming apparent to early adopters and flagging fanatics who lose interest after a short while - the very way they did when blogging was The Big Thing and everyone just had to have one or "be left behind." For the majority of us, relatively few people ever saw any of our social networking updates, and, if you ever want what you've shared to "disappear," simply deleting the offending content or the entire account will likely suffice.

Everyone is trying so hard to monetize social media and cash-in on it and it's greatly strained the community, decimating it amongst dozens of heavily-branded sites offering variations of roughly the same services. People who truly have something to say are gravitating back toward blogging, newsletters, and more established online formatting and those who truly want to foster and develop relationships are opting more for social media "portals" than severely limited, commodified services.

Internet trends are no newer a development than Internet arguments and social media, like blogging and content portals before them, has proven itself to be more than just a fad but its future remains uncertain even as more competitors regularly enter the market.
To be sure, the social media trend has forever changed the Internet, forcing us to realize just how much of a community it really is despite the generalized anonymity it provides. For online marketers, it cemented the power of word-of-mouth advertising with the caveat of the sometimes unjust fallout from vociferous, dissatisfied customers. Even search engines have started placing more weight on "friendly recommendations" for returns than actual information provided or specificity of terms included on the pages.

It has as much potential for good as it does for wrong and now that the dark side of collecting "Fans" and "Followers" has been beaten to death, fewer Netizens are willing to engage in social media with the fervor and freewheeling spirit they did a few years ago. This has trickled down to sites and blogs, which seem to have lost some credibility unless they are regularly shared on social media - a feat most accomplish only by bowing to the pressures of the ever-vigilant PC police now regularly patrolling social media just looking for the opportunity to dispense invariably one-sided and overly harsh "social justice" as they deem best fit.

On the upside, sites and blogs now seem more highly regarded by regular, mainstream Internet users (not necessarily Netizens) who are far more likely to troll and argue with social media accounts than post thoughtful comments on sites that clearly involve more thought, time, and work than simply choosing a username. Given the wide range of comment posting options available on blogs and forums, I don't know that being averse to signing-up is the leading impediment - most allow you to comment using your existing social media identities, in fact.

This outlook, and the fact that people are becoming more reticent to fly off the handle at every possible opportunity, reminds me of the Internet and BBS networks of the 1990s, where some knowledge of home computing and the software necessary to engage in such pursuits as FidoNet and Newsgroups served as a sort of firewall against just any old asshole with a phone or library card ready to unleash a tirade of threats against a commenter whose opinion "triggered" her being able to do so with little or no consideration for her remarks or behavior.

This behavior need not be completely eradicated; it all has its place. But some very negative aspects have arisen on social media and more frank, less apocalyptic, ideas and efforts toward changing those is necessary as many aspects we already knew were here to stay have been indelibly changed by the advent of social networking.

© Copyright 2015, The Cyberculturalist

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