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How to Fix Social Media by Injecting A Chunk of the Blogosphere

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 18, 2019

Not all hour-long podcasts are worthwhile, but I found this one by The Atlantic’s Matt Thompson and Alexis Madrigal to be pretty compelling. The subject: how to fix social media, or rather, how to create a variation on social media that allows you to properly pose the question as to whether or not it can be fixed.

For both Matt and Alexis, social media (and in particular, Twitter) is not especially usable or desirable in the form in which it presents itself. Both Matt and Alexis have shaped and truncated their Twitter experience. In Alexis’s case, this means going read-only, not posting tweets any more, and just using Twitter as an algorithmic feed reader by way of Nuzzel, catching the links his friends are discussing, and in some cases, the tweets they’re posting about those links. Matt is doing something slightly different: calling on his friends not to like to retweet his ordinary Twitter posts, but to reply to his tweets in an attempt to start a conversation.

Both Matt and Alexis are, in their own way, trying to inject something of the old spirit of the blogosphere into their social media use. In Alexis’s case, it’s the socially mediated newsreader function. In Matt’s, it’s the comment thread, the great discussions we used to have on blogs like Snarkmarket.

(Full disclosure: I was a longtime commenter on Matt and Robin Sloan’s blog Snarkmarket from 2003 to 2008, until I was elevated into a full third member of the site, where I posted pretty regularly until about 2013, when our blog, like so many others, began to wind down, replaced by both social media and professional news sites. I was also one of the early contributors to Alexis’s Tech section at The Atlantic starting in 2010, which is also held aloft as a blog standard during this podcast. So I have some skin in this game.)

Also worth reading into this discussion: Anil Dash’s 20th anniversary roundtable at Function with Bruce Ableson, Lisa Phillips, and Andrew Smales, which pretty explicitly (and usefully!) constructs the early blogosphere as the precursor to contemporary social media.

It’s easy to look at Twitter and look at Facebook, and look at the things that are happening, and how awful people are to each other, and say: the world would be better off without the internet. And I don’t believe that. I think that there’s still space where people can be good to each other.

So here’s the thing:

  1. The blogosphere was not always better than the contemporary social web;
  2. The blogosphere felt like it was getting better in a way that the contemporary social web does not.

And that turns out to make a huge difference! I mean, in general, the world was sort of a crummy place in the early 2000s. (The late 1990s were actually good.) But on the web side, especially, things in the early 2000s felt like they were getting better. Services were improving, more information was coming online, storage and computing power (both locally and in the cloud) were improving in a way that felt tangible, people were getting more connected, those connections felt more powerful and meaningful. It was the heroic phase of the web, even as it was also the time that decisions were being made that were going to foreclose on a lot of those heroic possibilities.

A lot of the efforts to reshape social media, or to walk away from it in favor of RSS feeds or something else, are really attempts to recapture those utopian elements that were active in the zeitgeist ten, fifteen, and twenty years ago. They still exercise a powerful hold over our collective imagination about what the internet is, and could be, even when they take the form of dashed hopes and stifled dreams.

I feel like I can speak to this quite personally. Ten years ago, I was just another graduate student in a humanities program stuck with a shitty job market, layered atop what were already difficult career prospects to begin with. The only thing I had going for me that the average literary modernist didn’t was that I was writing for a popular blog with two very talented young journalists who liked to think about the future of media. That pulled me in a definite direction in terms of the kinds of things I wrote about (yes, Walter Benjamin, but also Google Books), and the places where I ended up writing them (Kottke.org, The Atlantic, and eventually Wired). So instead of being an unemployable humanist, I became an underemployed journalist.

At the same time, the blogosphere, while crucial, has only offered so much velocity and so much gravity. By which I mean: it’s only propelled my career so far, and the blogs I’ve written for (Kottke notwithstanding) have only had so much ability to retain me before they’ve changed their business model, changed management, gone out of business, or been quietly abandoned. They’re little asteroids, not planets. Most of the proper publications I’ve written for, even the net-native ones, have been dense enough to hold an atmosphere.

And guess what? So have Twitter and Facebook. Just by enduring, those places have become places for lasting connections and friendships and career opportunities, in a way the blogosphere never was, at least for me. (Maybe this is partly a function of timing, but look: I was there.) And this means that, despite their toxicity, despite their shortcomings, despite all the promises that have gone unfulfilled, Twitter and Facebook have continued to matter in a way that blogs don’t.

For good or for ill, Twitter lets you take the roof off and contact people you’d otherwise never reach. The question, I think, is whether you have to tack that roof back on again in order to get the valuable newsgathering and conversation elements that people once found so compelling about the blogosphere, or whether there’s some other form of modification that can be made to build in proper protections.

The other question is whether there can be anything like a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of social media. I suspect there isn’t, just because people are at different points on their career trajectories, which shapes their needs and wants vis-a-vis social media accordingly. Some of us are still trying to blow up, or (in some cases) remind the world what they liked about us to begin with. Others of us are just trying to do our jobs and get through the day. Many more still have little capital to trade on to begin with, and are just looking for some kind of meaningful interaction to give us a reason why we logged in in the first place. The fact that this is the largest group, for whom the tools are the least well-suited, and who were promised the most by social media’s ascendancy, is the great tragedy of the form.

Maybe we need to ask ourselves, what was it that we wanted from the blogosphere in the first place? Was it a career? Was it just a place to write and be read by somebody, anybody? Was it a community? Maybe it began as one thing and turned into another. That’s OK! But I don’t think we can treat the blogosphere as a settled thing, when it was in fact never settled at all. Just as social media remains unsettled. Its fate has not been written yet. We’re the ones who’ll have to write it.