In the 70’s, most kids I knew wanted to be astronauts when they grew up. The romance of walking on the moon sparkled with a Hollywood sheen. Space travel was our great aspiration to break the chains of gravity on our beautiful, blue pearl of a planet. Most kids embraced the romance.
Now, most kids would rather be YouTubers. Rather than ascend to the Heavens, children deep dive into the rich, dangerous landscapes of the Internet. It’s a different adventure entirely amongst the plump zeroes and emaciated ones that comprise the unreal estate of the Web. The romance is changing from aspirational to commercial. Kids are replacing the freezing vacuum of space with real-time social burnout viewed by a worldwide community that’s not quite communal and a bit less worldly. Don’t believe me? Just review the comments section.
Online communities propelled by social media platforms offer an unprecedented form connectivity. They are catalyzed by entrepreneurship wrapped in capitalism. It rewards prolific posting rather than profound publishing. I don’t believe this is explicitly bad or good, just business as usual. All things being equal, quantity trumps quality.
Quantity is rooted in the attention economy: retinas are revenue. Attention is retention. Popularity breeds income culminating in a bizarre, digital welfare state exploiting our culture’s fascination with celebrity status. The more often you post, the more often you reap the rewards of that communication, either social or financial (or both). Quality be damned, I must publish: if the world doesn’t see me, if I don’t stay ‘out there’, I’m lost in the noise — a dinosaur in a world of mammals.
But which mammals own the world? This dynamic is reflected, funhouse-like, in the fact that social networks own their communities. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Medium, Pinterest, all preen bizarre caricatures of real world community as though words, however thoughtful, can replace presence. They partner with both paid and unpaid creators. Social media networks subsidize publishing with community advertising.
These platforms clearly recognize the power and privilege of community. They do not permit users with large follower counts to export those followers and pursue other distribution channels. There are no nomads on the Internet, just surfers walking the same beaches, capitalizing on the same tasty waves. The community, free to enter individually at anytime, is trapped in that beach. You can check in, but you can’t check out if it costs us ‘likes’. In the larger digital landscape, social is not just status—it is leverage.
Social is the new gravity, chains and all.