The very first social media profile I ever created was on Friendster. A simple website that allowed you to connect with friends, encouraged you to share personal information about yourself, and did not have any advertisements.
The most recent social media profile I created was on TikTok. A wildly complex app that almost exclusively shows me content from people I don’t know, warns me against sharing too much personal information, and is actually just a machine built to serve me advertisements.
Social media used to be a place where we went to connect with people we know, now it is a place to be entertained (and often enraged) by people we do not know.
What the hell happened?
Friendster launched 20 years ago and became the first social media platform to boast one million users within its first month and quickly grew to 115 million users. Today there are nearly 40 Instagram accounts that have more than 100 million followers. Kylie Jenner’s Instagram account alone is about as big as four Friendsters. Let that sink in.
While Kylie does have a robust social life, she certainly doesn’t have 400 million personal friends. So who is following her and why? Somewhere along the way, social media platforms realized that serving people content from people they actually knew didn’t yield the same level of engagement as creating the illusion of access to celebrity.
Of course, this is just one “small” example. In essence, these platforms began to experiment with our attention with the simple goal of taking up as much of it as they could. As it turns out, it’s true what they say about car crashes—both figurative, and literal—we cannot look away, and for that reason they began showing us a lot of them.
How did the new public sphere we were promised turn into the Black Mirror episode we are living through today?
Let’s get into it.
Given that social media sites have existed for more than 20 years it’s really hard to imagine these apps as anything other than attention mines for advertisers. But they were.
Friendster was launched as a free alternative to premium dating sites allowing users to connect with people platonically. MySpace (later Myspace) was launched to do all of that but much cooler. Twitter (ok, X or whatever) was originally intended to be a short form messaging service to a small group of friends. And of course, we all know Facebook’s (now Meta’s) origin story.
These sites strengthened the bonds we had with people we actually knew in real life, maybe even reconnected us, or brought us closer together with old friends and family.
So what changed?
In April of 2006 Facebook secured its series B funding to the tune of $27.5 million, providing the social media site with the resources to roll out three powerful and existential changes to their platform. Changes that would change how we think of social media forever.
- The feed First they introduced “The News Feed”—a digital ticker tape of posts made by people you follow. Before the News Feed, Facebook was a profile-centric site like its predecessors. You would log on, check your messages, update your status (which would only be visible on your profile), and perhaps check in on the profiles of people you were friends with. There was a small but significant friction to interacting with people. You had to seek it out.
The feed, however, was an infinitely scrollable status update of your social circle. It brought to the surface people you hadn’t thought of since you accepted their friend request months or years prior. And as a result, invited interactions that you likely wouldn’t have otherwise had—particularly in the comments section.
- The ads While Facebook always had an interest in keeping you engaged, the introduction of advertising on the site fundamentally changed whose interest Facebook had at heart while mining your attention. The advertisers were the actual customers now and our attention was the product. This shift meant that they were not just using engagement metrics in PowerPoints to secure more funding. Rather they were packaging and selling users’ time on their site to advertisers with the intention of converting them to buy stuff.
This has proven to be a sustainable and successful business model that has been replicated by many social media platforms since. However there is an inherent, and underlying danger here: this business model favors engagement over quality of engagement. It doesn’t not matter if the comments are filled with vindication or vitriol, the more time on page, the better.
- The algorithm As this model gained traction, another set of pixelated butterfly wings began to flap across the digital ocean – the move from a chronological feed to an algorithmic feed. No longer would posts show up as they were published, rather, they would be ranked by a hidden criteria—an algorithm—and be served to you based on what you were most likely to engage with.
This meant that posts that generated the most engagement—good or bad—gained traction and got seen by more people. This could be a hilarious debate over whether a dress is blue or gold, but also could be a deeply problematic debate over whether Barack Obama was a United States citizen. Say goodbye to seeing pictures from your old college roommate’s weekend in the Finger Lakes.
What was the impact?
These three changes became the industry standard for what we expect to experience when we log on, like content that elicits maximum engagement to keep us around long enough to sell us things based. And it’s all based on the massive amount of information that’s been collected about us on the internet.
The pandemic was almost the perfect catalyst for this final shift. We were isolated to such a profound extent and every sad substitute±Zoom happy hours, FaceTime first dates, Lunchclub meetups— left us craving something more. We opened TikTok and found magically (algorithmically) curated content that required nothing from us but the swipe of our thumb. In exchange it consistently delivered hits of our favorite brain chemicals. Usership on TikTok skyrocketed from 381 million users in 2019 to more than one billion dopamined-up people in 2022.
Of course, other big players recognized this and launched competitive products. Think Meta with its Reels and YouTube with its shorts (in an attempt to replicate TikTok’s success). These platforms were so eager to draw in more short-video creators that they created big incentives: YouTube started paying creators nearly a dollar-per-thousand views on Shorts and Instagram openly stated that it was officially deprioritizing in-feed pictures (the primary feature of the app) to promote Reels.
Where are we now?
When the goal is engagement over connection, the content that gains traction naturally appeals to the most extreme human emotions: love, lust, hate, shock, rage, etc. Creators can and do build platforms (and careers) off of appealing to the absolute worst in us. Of course there are the obvious examples: Logan Paul’s filming of a suicide victim in the Aokigahara forest in Japan or David Dobrik’s excavator stunt that nearly took the life of another YouTuber. But you can also look at the top comments on nearly any viral video to see the way discourse has become hostile by default. Kindness is the exception.
Virality leaves little room for nuance. Instead of making us feel connected, it actually tends to make us feel even more alienated. Researchers found that people turn to social media more when they’re feeling lonely. But, surprisingly, people felt worse after spending time on social media. It didn’t help them feel less isolated. It actually made them feel lonelier.
But it’s not ALL bad. There are a lot of people making incredible social media content that truly makes the world a better place. Educators like Hank Green (who recently documented his journey through chemotherapy) and storytellers like Timm Chiusano (who shows the lighter side of “adult” life) are just a few examples of how the attention machine can be pointed toward the light from time to time.
And there is something to be said about how the power of overnight viral success has in some ways democratized the notoriously nepotistic and exclusionary entertainment industry. Now anyone with a phone and a clever idea can build a monetizable platform. Your 17-year-old niece posting videos about her makeup routine can literally become a global brand.
However, what we do on social media has fundamentally, and irreversibly changed. What we do on social media is no longer social. But it is most certainly media.