In times of stress, I get monolithic. Shades of grey skitter to the edges of my mind like iron filings, exposing a chilly monochrome cave. As adrenaline dissolves ambiguity, decisions get stuck. I don’t want one thing or another, I want one thing: one definitively right thing, because then I know what I’m dealing with. Then, I might be able to control it - and control myself.
Collectively, we’ve been stressed about social media ever since it stopped being the amorphous, happily contradictory diaspora where you could publish fan fiction and chat with strangers, and became Social Media, the slick city where couture-clad teenagers forge careers and brands hang out in the bus stop, proffering bags of sweets.
Early on, we succeeded in turning the plural noun into a singular concept, but still we vacillated about the nature of the beast. Should we file it under personal or professional? Celebrate it as empowering or despise it as soul-sucking? Palm it off on the techies or condemn it to the marketing team or force it upon the CEO?
As the scrappy self-made GeoCities pages of 1994 gave way to the identity-by-tick-box homogeneity of Facebook 2014, we began to grope for the ‘what’ of social media, rather than the ‘what if.’
The social media industry has reflected this stress - and pandered to our craving for singularity - in several ways.
One involves the proliferation of aggregation tools such as HootSuite, Flavors.me and RebelMouse, which offer both organisations and individuals a hub where they can view, manage and share their content across multiple networks in one place. Another involves the expansion of established platforms, which continually develop new features (the now-defunct , LinkedIn’s recent ) and incorporate disruptive upstarts (Facebook , YouTube’s ) in an attempt to keep their users snug in their sandpit.
Both of these approaches, like most human beings under pressure, have an inherent element of weird.
Undoubtedly, aggregation tools can benefit busy community managers when used with sensitivity and context, but on the whole they have become inefficient and irritating content-creation machines. We have a dispersed long-tail of social networks precisely because each one offers a unique experience, fulfils a unique need and adheres to a unique style of communication and content. If you don’t have the time, budget or inclination to dive into each of them on their own terms, would it not be better to focus on participating brilliantly on the one or two that you truly understand, value and enjoy?
But the shortcomings of social automation are nothing compared to the dystopian dream of the “one platform to rule them all”. A couple of years ago, it looked like our eclectic early pantheon of networks had indeed boiled down to five big deities: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Then, as VCs turned fairy godmother and the app economy discovered fire, the likes of Vine, Instagram and Snapchat pushed forward; but were, all too quickly, swallowed up.
In his flawed but brilliant manifesto , Jaron Lanier asserts that “first-order expression is when someone presents a whole, a work that integrates its own worldview and aesthetic. It is something genuinely new in the world. Second-order expression is made of fragmentary reactions to first-order expression.”
The individual, not the network, is the first-order expression. Social tools are there to serve our granular needs, ideas and whims rather than force them into the homogenous, pre-ordained structure of one grand ur-platform.
And there are promising signs that we’re fighting our instincts to align. Take , the minimalist mobile image-sharing community that has quietly reached cult status over the past fifteen months. In the Grid, you can’t leave comments on photos; you can’t even ‘like’ them. You can follow other users, but recommendations get served by the VSCO team themselves, not an algorithm. The emphasis is on curating quality content, not playing status games; there are no trashy memes or wobbly selfies, and founders Joel Flory and Greg Lutze claim that the platform will never focus on numbers or adopt the bolt-ons of a traditional social network. VSCO Grid feels like a return to the authentic spirit of early social networks, with all that we’ve learned since about user experience and mobile design layered on top.
Of course, we all have to make a living, but I sincerely hope that more startups continue to carve out their own, independent piece of quirky social real estate. And I hope that we, as users, continue to search for and embrace them.
Multiplicity is scary. So is change. If only social tools would stop emerging and imploding, fracturing and fragmenting, brands could devise immutable, eternally effective strategies, and the rest of us could settle into SauronBook, safe from content overload and FOMO. But when it works best, social is like nature, bewildering, absorbing and beautiful; not art, not science, but a mixture of both, with the inherent mutability of life thrown in.
Sure, I’m as stressed as the next first-world worrier, but I’m going to try to stay curious; to move away from certainty and back towards nascent communities and exciting outliers.
Assuming, that is, I can remember all my bloody passwords.
This article originally appeared in Tech City News