February 6, 2021

I’m still working from home every day — for 11 months and counting — with no end in sight and very little face-to-face contact with other people in real life. That’s put my social life on the Internet to an extent I haven’t experienced since I was a high school student in the suburbs without a driver’s license.

Defining “social media” as a plural noun and a “social medium” as any medium used for social communication, I’ve been on social media since I first started using dial-up bulletin board systems (BBSes) and text-based Internet systems in the early 1990s. Bulletin boards, USENET, multi-user dimensions (MUDs), online games, chat rooms, social features of commerce sites, and modern microcontent media all meet the definition. Even e-mail, phone calls, and text messaging could pass for social media, as could the videoconferences that have displaced most in-person meetings I’ve had in the past year.

Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch’s 2019 book Because Internet is a very interesting, highly accessible, minimally judgmental look at the way that the Internet has shaped communications since it ascended to the mainstream around the turn of the millennium. McCulloch is quick to dispel the fear that a generation of digital native children are addicted to the Internet by quoting danah boyd: “Most teens aren’t addicted to social media; if anything, they’re addicted to each other.” McCulloch also points out that, when contrasted with purely online interactions, “Studies consistently show that most teens would rather hang out with their friends in person.” Robert D. Putnam’s more recent book The Upswing, which uses the Progressive Era and the middle of the 20th century as anchor points for social analysis, agrees: he observes that social media have been most effective when they encourage people to come together in real life. That applies to the Meetup group that I use in normal times to assemble Pittsburgh Steelers fans to watch games in Seattle. In the past year, social media have been used to organize many peaceful protests but also to coordinate destructive riots and ignorant COVID-skeptic mobs.

Many observers noted that the Capitol riot, fueled by viral misinformation that spread largely unchecked on mainstream social media, shattered what little belief was left in the notion that Internet culture was distinct from mainstream culture. Timothy Snyder’s 2017 short book On Tyranny puts it concisely and prophetically: “Before you deride the ‘mainstream media,’ note that it is no longer the mainstream. It is derision that is mainstream and easy, and actual journalism that is edgy and difficult.” Only about three weeks after misinformation disrupted American government, mob vigilantism came for the stock market: the GameStop short squeeze turned lingering resentment against hedge fund short-sellers into a viral meme that drove enormous and unsustainable buying activity in a small number of stocks. The mania around Reddit’s Wall Street Bets forum, which doubled in size to over 6 million members in a week’s time, undermines trust in rational long-term investing and is going to cost some easily-amused buyers a lot of money. (It’s also a golden opportunity for criminal market manipulation, and for that reason I hope that Reddit or the SEC steps in to calm things down.)

Despite all the bad things that social media have facilitated in the past year, these media are all I have to keep in touch with friends, family, and coworkers. I continue to use Slack prodigiously for both work-related and social matters at work even though, unlike with conversations in hallways and kitchens, every message I send gets archived forever. Discord remains tremendously useful for group chats; I’m trying to rally friends there. I still use Strava to track my bike rides. I don’t mind that Sony still makes PlayStation Network a mandatory part of my PS4, although I do wish they’d get better at preventing spam messages from getting through. I’m glad that more of the people in my contact list suddenly started using the open source ad-free messaging app Signal, which I beta tested back in 2013 but was a niche tool for journalists and paranoid nerds until recently.

The existence of hate-friendly sites like Gab, 8kun, Nextdoor, and Facebook doesn’t bother me. Creepy advertisements and vapid shock-jock personalities are what make many social media unusable, yet none of these are inherent to socialization. I find it so bizarre how entrepreneurs keep developing new ways to send text messages, photos, and videos, but I’m glad they do. I’m also glad that conversations about data mining and privacy are being used to sell iPhones and, perhaps, to rewrite laws. As long as people want to get together with each other in real life, and I hope that we will soon do so again, we’ll need trustworthy media to help make that happen.