Failures of social media

by Rob Horning

13 March 2009


Danah Boyd, who has recently completed a dissertation about social networking, distills her conclusions in this lecture. Her academically oriented perspective is extremely useful in filtering out the hype about social networking driven by its commercial potential, and looking at it more as a social practice—what needs has it served, what needs has it created, and how thoroughly have we assimilated the technology that makes it possible. Are they more than online friend-management services? Are they altering the category of friendship itself?

Boyd regards social media as being born primarily to provide virtual spaces for young people to interact—places where people can show off and secure recognition, and where friend groups can be defined and police their boundaries. The influx of adults into social media shifts the emphasize toward commercial purposes—self-promotion and networking—and toward nostalgia. Hence the rolling (and unsettling) high-school reunion that Facebook is for people my age. Boyd’s point is that network effects fuel social media’s growth. We join if we think people from our high school are there (whether we are in high school now or were 25 years ago—no wonder it seems so adolescent) and maybe want to contact us. For adults, at least, the momentum of a network’s expansion seems crucial; the experience of being caught up in one as it expands exponentially is a heady experience—as we intuit when some forgotten person from the past contacts us. But this momentum is unsustainable—eventually it levels off. Does that take away the thrill of social networks with it?

It’s not clear whether the network effects of using social media have any durability, whether they are generated not by the experience of using social media but by the hype surrounding it. Users have tended to migrate from site to site as new services become more fashionable and old services become overpopulated with lame late adopters or worse, too many of those people who cause “contexts to collide”: As Boyd explains, “In choosing what to say when, we account for both the audience and the context more generally. Some behaviors are appropriate in one context but not another, in front of one audience but not others. Social media brings all of these contexts crashing into one another and it’s often difficult to figure out what’s appropriate, let alone what can be understood.” When your current friends get to see how you interact with people who knew you decades ago, or when parents can scrutinize profile pages looking for insight into their children’s social life apart from them, it can be problematic. The sites try to come up with ever-more-fine privacy controls, but these make using sites onerous and slip-ups are inevitable. The safest things to do are to move elsewhere or cease sharing—then the network effects that sustain social media can disintegrate.

Boyd isolates some characteristics that make mediated friendship distinctive and which make these sites, in my opinion, inherently unstable:

1. Persistence. What you say sticks around. This is great for asynchronicity, not so great when everything you’ve ever said has gone down on your permanent record. The bits-wise nature of social media means that a great deal of content produced through social media is persistent by default.

2. Replicability. You can copy and paste a conversation from one medium to another, adding to the persistent nature of it. This is great for being able to share information, but it is also at the crux of rumor-spreading. Worse: while you can replicate a conversation, it’s much easier to alter what’s been said than to confirm that it’s an accurate portrayal of the original conversation.

3. Searchability. My mother would’ve loved to scream search into the air and figure out where I’d run off with friends. She couldn’t; I’m quite thankful. But with social media, it’s quite easy to track someone down or to find someone as a result of searching for content. Search changes the landscape, making information available at our fingertips. This is great in some circumstances, but when trying to avoid those who hold power over you, it may be less than ideal.

4. Scalability. Social media scales things in new ways. Conversations that were intended for just a friend or two might spiral out of control and scale to the entire school or, if it is especially embarrassing, the whole world. Of course, just because something can scale doesn’t mean that it will. Politicians and marketers have learned this one the hard way.

5. (de)locatability. With the mobile, you are dislocated from any particular point in space, but at the same time, location-based technologies make location much more relevant. This paradox means that we are simultaneously more and less connected to physical space.

All the characteristics on this list are fleeting advantages that eventually become liabilities, at which point users have incentive to light out for the territories—head for a new, more exclusive site and build up network effects again. And online, there is always more undiscovered territory.

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