Why do social media platforms devolve into a talent show?
I started a substack a little over a year ago thinking it would be this "middle scale" as you call it. Then substack released checkmarks and Notes and a flurry of features that mirror other social media platforms, and I want to blame them for making me veer off course and write unpalatable posts while thinking hard how to be useful on here, but I think it's just me. Me, immersed for over a decade of lurking and occasionally jumping on The Stage.
I blogged when I was in uni on a WordPress site. I assumed it would be anonymous and read only be a handful of weird nerds and friends who actually cared. And when I look back at the posts there and the intimate, regular connections I've had with 3 people over a year or two of posting, I feel sad and hopeful. Sad that I'm still struggling to find my way back to that (it's hard because I need to resist the allure of The Stage). Hopeful because I can see Substack working like that WordPress site, maybe even better, and the intimate connections can return. I just need to write like I used to; that is, for the few, not the lurking masses.
Thank you for writing this piece, Dean!
Just to answer a few of your question:
Do you remember life on the Internet before the feed?
As an experiment, I cut nearly all social media use this month. The first few days were bad. I felt like an addict trying to quit. I never realised I had (or maybe I should say “have”) an instant reaction to pull out my phone whenever I was even half bored.
I realised by the fourth day, the new void meant I was starting to ask myself difficult questions. Pulling out my phone was a way to keep me distracted and avoid answering them.
Do you feel the stage effect when posting?
Yes on Twitter but no on Substack. I suspect it’s because I personally know most of my subscribers to my newsletter so there’s less pressure to perform. But my audience is starting to grow so that might change.
It would be interesting to know if people who have large following, started to feel the stage effect once their followers expanded beyond people they knew personally.
Aside from your Internet friends, are the people in your life active on social media?
No. Useless they have a business or service they are selling. It might only be my feeds but social media just feels like people trying desperately to get approval from other people or people try selling some shit to me.
Brilliant piece, well researched and gave me a lot to think about, thank you. The theme of being on stage from American idol to Threads really struck me and the stat that only 1% are creators in this economy?! I’m incredulous. What struck me too is your comparison to giving a wedding speech. Inevitably we give only a 1-2 of those in life, more if you have more siblings or friends. As a stay at home mom, when I gave my brother’s speech it was like a moment of clarity. There was no one to pass the mic to and I spent weeks writing and rewriting that speech. It felt natural to be on stage talking to 400 people about my brother’s good qualities, even though secretly we mostly hate each other. I write fiction and so I pretended I was writing a character. Who knew I could be such an actor? There’s an element of performance in all these stages, and it’s pretending to be something until you believe it.
Fantastic piece, Michael. I'm sharing it with friends who'd enjoy reading this.
It reminded of this essay about Tiktok's enshittifcation: https://pluralistic.net/2023/01/21/potemkin-ai/
Riffing: I feel pressured to only take the stage when I have something aesthetically pleasing, interesting, or exciting to share. This is unsettling because it categorizes one's life into post-worthy vs not. Companies catering to female consumers tap into this insecurity. The other day I saw a blog post titled "Instagram-worthy Vacation Destinations."
I don't want an algo to design my life; I don't want to follow the Idols. So I ask myself, "If I'm not an Idol, does that automatically make me a Lurker?" As a result, I post and ghost. I avoid the platforms in an effort to avoid becoming a Lurker. Yet, I crave to be a part of the intimate circles you describe. But given the current state of social media, it seems this isn't possible without having to slog through the deluge of for-lurkers content.
Active posters is all we measure @ plexus.substack.com
Great essay with some very good writing and thinking going on here. Thank you!
Glad to have landed here via Freddie deBoer's subscriber writing. The good thing about stages is that you can always walk out of the room.
I remember being glued to my screen to see the American Idol winners, year after year, despite watching it about 12 hours later in Indonesia (the internet wasn't fast back then, so I wasn't really spoiled). From the auditions to the judge's banter, to shouting at the TV with my mom and aunt, all of it was mesmerizing.
I've always had mixed feelings about social media. I mostly hate it and don't put a lot of myself on it (there's very little photos of me on there), but I share a lot of my thoughts via Substack, Instagram stories with text bubbles on them, or just my interests. I've oddly been able to reconnect with friends I least suspect (because we fell out of touch) just because we happen to share the same interest in a certain activity (journaling, therapy, cooking). So algorithms and teen depression and social media addiction are a minus for me (let's burn it down), but the few connections (including WOP internet friends!) have so far made staying on worth it.