The Tearing Down of Social Media Has Begun

People are realizing that posting is a terrible idea. What comes next?

Welcome back to What Went Wrong?, a newsletter about the failures, inefficiencies, and screw-ups that define 21st-century American life, written by Harry Cheadle. Image of a screen print of a design first seen on a wall during a protest in Turkey via Flickr user Ian Brown.

I’m not that old but I feel ancient when I think about social media. In 2005, when I was 18, the web—I think people still called it that without irony—was in an embryonic state. Twitter and Tumblr didn’t exist, Facebook was only for college students, and Friendster and MySpace were hardly poised to devour the world. The internet I encountered as a teenager was like a hedge maze, full of cul-de-sacs and weird turns. You learned about a new site because your friend told you about it or because it was part of a webring or blogroll, terms that were once futuristic but now seem quaint. Even fancy corporate-backed digital publications didn’t know what the internet was for—Slate, in its early days, updated its website once a week and took entire summer weeks off—and most of the people you ran into online seemed to have something seriously wrong with them. One day at high school my friends and I found a website where a guy had written a very involved screed, in yellow type on a blue background, about how he had sex with dolphins. That’s what the internet was like before social media, a mysterious land full of people you were both fascinated by and terrified of. 

It was easier to be an optimist in the early days of the social web. As Facebook and Twitter became popular (this was back when Instagram was for hipsters, when there was such a thing as “hipsters”), they were branded as tools of democratization and revolution that were responsible for the Arab Spring. People posted freely on these platforms, which had a sense of novelty about them. Twitter was an ephemeral, jokey place full of hashtags and sometimes bitter feuds between public figures that were a delight to watch. The internet had become more open; in a metaphor the programmer and activist Aaron Swartz once used, it was like the mall, controlled by private companies but basically a public square where everyone hung out and where you could occasionally yell at a celebrity. 

But it turned out that what social media companies and users had built together was more like a panopticon, a concept from prison architecture where cells surround a tower manned by a single guard; it’s impossible for inmates to know whether the guard is watching them at any individual moment, and so they have to assume they are being monitored constantly. In the social media panopticon, we are voluntarily allowing the entire world—our friends, colleagues, bosses, total strangers—to watch us. This is causing a terrible amount of stress and upheaval in many people’s lives, and it’s becoming more and more obvious that the public-square model of the internet is inherently toxic and unstable. The current age of social media is only about a decade and a half old (Facebook launched its News Feed feature in 2006) and not necessarily permanent. If people decide that posting the way we have become accustomed to is actually a terrible idea, and it definitely is, the world could change again. 

Posting anything is an insane risk

By now we’re all aware that social media comes with horrific downsides. Facebook has become a frequent vector for misinformation and hate speech; in one chilling story, the military in Myanmar used the site to encourage anti-Muslim ethnic cleansing. The accessibility and openness that comes with social media has made possible vicious harassment campaigns, especially against women and people of color

Those are serious, systemic problems that are far beyond the ability of individual users (tech slang for “humans”) to address, though we should avoid acting like assholes online or sharing things that might not be true. From the perspective of the regular people inside the panopticon, all we can do is post or not post, and at this point you should clearly never, ever post. 

“Never tweet” was a popular meme (tech slang for “joke”) a couple of years ago, but when you look at the pros and cons of posting, it’s obvious that the risk just isn’t worth it in a serious, profound way. On one hand, you may get some likes or retweets because people think your quip is funny or your outfit is cute or your dog is the bestest boy in the world. But on the other hand, you could be publicly humiliated, lose your job, and have your life turned upside down. 

Posting goes wrong all the time in all sorts of contexts. Some random examples from the last few months include a vice president of a San Francisco school board losing that gig because of a 2016 thread about how some Asian-Americans were engaged in “white supremacist thinking,” a staffer at a center-left think tank getting fired after tweeting a joke about killing Mike Pence, Starbucks laying off a teen after he made a TikTok about working there, the incoming editor in chief of Teen Vogue resigning in part because of a controversy over racist and homophobic tweets she sent out as a teenager, and a USA Today editor getting fired over a tweet that wrongly assumed the mass shooter in Colorado was a white man. The most prominent posting cautionary tale of 2021 so far came when Center for American Progress head Neera Tanden withdrew her bid to become director of the federal Office of Management and Budget after controversy over her long habit of viciously, pointlessly beefing with her enemies on Twitter

You might think that you’ll never get in trouble for your posts. Your views, unlike other people’s, are correct and inoffensive, or maybe you avoid hot-button issues and stick to the blandest of topics. But we are supremely bad at judging which opinion of ours is going to take on a life of its own, or get resurrected. Many controversial posts date from a time when norms around social media were different and it was common to post edgy jokes, like James Gunn’s old tweets about pedophilia, which got the Marvel director fired from the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise (he was later reinstated). In some cases, a scandal will be the result of misunderstandings, or bad faith, or the whims of a boss who doesn’t understand the internet. When people get cancelled (tech slang for “fired”) over their posts, it’s often unfair. But it happens frequently enough that it could happen to you.

Pundits sometimes describe “cancel culture” in a way that implies that society (or just the political left) is getting more censorious or hostile to free speech. But history is full of examples of people trying to restrict speech they don’t like; everyone has always been hostile to everyone else’s ideas, and many employers have always been hostile to ideas in general. What’s changed is that a random person can now type into a text box and broadcast their thoughts to the world. By now, we should all know that that is a terrible idea. Every post is a time bomb sent into the future.


The retreat back into privacy 

When I first started using the internet, privacy concerns weren’t paramount the way they are today. Most of the sites where you shared your opinions—like forums and comment sections—rarely featured real names, and anonymity was the norm. It’s only post-Facebook that it’s become common for people to post things with all their personal details, and often their photos, out for all the world to see. 

The old version of the internet had its downsides. Any web 1.0 veteran will tell you how quickly forums could turn toxic if they weren’t properly moderated; pseudonymous screen names can be used as a mask to hide behind while you lob hateful invective at your enemies. But making the internet more open hasn’t made humans any less hateful. Now journalists and others who more or less have to post under their real names for professional reasons are advised to use services that remove their personal information from the internet, a necessary step to protect yourself against hostile trolls, who usually hide their own identities.

Social media took over the internet because humans have an almost insatiable craving for attention and validation. Sharing yourself with the internet was an irresistible thrill, and it’s only now that most of us have shared a lot of ourselves that we’ve realized we shared too much and what we need more than attention is a way to get our privacy back. 

Multiple services will delete your old tweets en masse or automatically delete all your tweets after a set period of time, a great option if you know you constantly post dumb bullshit people might hate, but have no plans to stop posting. The younger generation—who caught onto the perils of posting much faster than, say, Neera Tanden—have for years been using “finstas,” Instagram accounts not tied to their real names where they can be more honest than they can on their carefully curated “official” accounts. In Silicon Valley, the cradle of social media, the hottest new app is Clubhouse, the audio-only hangout platform where part of the appeal is that the “rooms” aren’t supposed to be recorded, reducing the risk that you’ll go viral in a bad way for something you say. And in New York, the cool kids are now retreating back to dead tree publishing, actually printing stories about having sex on ketamine and whatnot in a newspaper, which strikes me as a better idea than posting your young-person opinions online for all the world to see. 

It’s clear that a lot of people want something similar to what was promised to us by the internet two decades ago, which is a place where you can experiment and bullshit around, a space set apart from normal life. Social media has largely broken that promise: Treating your accounts as a place of exploration and play is a bad idea whether you’re a teenager who works for Starbucks or the head of the Center for American Progress. 

The solution is to rebuild the privacy that we all lost when we entered the social media panopticon. For average users, this means decoupling your real and online identities, which some existing platforms like Reddit and Discord already do. For people who use social media to build professional brands, like journalists and actors, this is trickier. It would be great if these industries stopped using social media followings as a metric of success—right now there are a whole bunch of creative types who feel pressured to produce content on social media to advance their careers, but are also constantly running the risk of becoming the center of some career-damaging controversy. Putting yourself out there online and exposing yourself to cancellation or harassment shouldn’t be a prerequisite for working in media. 

The thing we can all do right now is be more mindful of what’s out there and begin erecting some walls between the internet and ourselves. Pay to have your information scrubbed from the internet. Start a fake account where you can share your real thoughts. Stop broadcasting to the entire panopticon; instead, create something resembling a personal social media network comprised of private accounts and group chats. Leave the panopticon to the brands and the politicians. Hide yourself from view. Hit the delete button. No good can come from sharing too much of yourself.      

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