I’ve been using social media since 2005. I’ve been part of online tools to connect with other individuals for much longer, but those were classified more as instant messengers than a social media network. For the relevancy of this story, that’s about 14 years. I started out with Orkut, then progressed to Facebook in 2007. I signed up for Twitter around the same time but didn’t take on to tweeting regularly until our world turned volatile. And not tweeting caused anxious pangs of missing out. Thoughts and clashes of ideas became prominent in a significantly louder internet. Whether that’s good or bad is subjective. And I leave that to you. I’m not writing this because of an epiphany. But it’s summing up how I’ve observed the evolution of social media up close.
Over the years, I’ve seen ‘scraps’ on a wall turning to nuggets of information. Anonymous mumbo jumbo of a profile name has turned to credible full real names. Today we’re in a world of verified profiles. We’ve come full circle from amateur profile names to having your real identity. This doesn’t mean fake bots don’t exist, or they aren’t rampant enough to influence the electorate. We’ve seen that happen in our age. They are around, and pretty much will continue to be there, unless the industry comes together putting competition aside to pluck this digital weed out of its roots.
Stories: Quick, short scraps
When I first signed up for Twitter, I found it ridiculous. Why would anyone put out information the length of a text message? And that would have enough appeal to cause millions to ride on it? Why use SMS lingo for expressing your views? Why have the pain of handles and hashtags. It felt like we were altering our ability to communicate. And it could just reduce our capability to discern or tell stories over time. But then, whether it did or didn’t is entirely subjective. What stands out for me is the trend. Both Twitter and Facebook somehow preferred real world personalities. People you knew. But weren’t able to connect with in the real world.
There’s an element of real-ness, but there’s a certain thrill in anonymity. There were exciting Twitter handles who trolled people, who got us to split in laughter or drove us to the roof in anger. But it was an identity you associated with. On Facebook, there were circles of friends you connected with, based on your real world network. It also presented you with the opportunity to network with people who shared the same kind of interests and passions as you. Thanks to Groups, you could meet and discuss topics of your preference with individuals interested in exactly the topics that have your attention.
What’s changed over the past couple of years is the emergence of Stories. Snapchat may have brought about this culture over the last five odd years. The unique feature? Disappearing messages. As a civilization, do we want real people, or do we want anonymity? The secret lies in the middle. To explain this with an analogy, most of us have grown up in classrooms with real world people, but have still passed on chits with mischievous ideas that get shredded. No wonder, that 1990-born Evan Spiegel founded Snapchat in 2012. At the age of 22. The idea likely came to him as a sophomore.
The new social media
Networks such as Facebook and Twitter were established by then. But this fundamental idea of disappearing messages presented itself as unique and personal. The excitement is in waiting for the next nugget from someone you know. It’s coupled with gratification by knowing who’s seen your message. Irrespective of whether you get a reply or not, you know there are people who respond to you with their thoughts. And that kicks off a conversation that stands out as genuine. Isn’t that the fundamental reality of how we form human relationships? Discovering a new side to someone that’s probably not known to the world. And not everyone wants to post every aspect of their life for the world to see. And the reason is who wants to leave breadcrumbs that you’ll be embarrassed about years later.
The new learning about social media
Over the 15 years that I’ve used these kind of tools and services, I’ve used it fundamentally to build equations and know people. I’ve used Facebook to connect with friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Twitter for participating in conversations that are ‘trending’, and WhatsApp for connecting with friends, colleagues and professional connections. WhatsApp is the universal solution to text messaging without paying for text. At least in India and the new world. I’m admittedly late to Instagram as a platform, having spent only a couple of years on it.
But today I find myself discovering a new side to all the three popular means of communication – Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – all owned by Facebook. And I’m talking about Stories. More specifically, it’s WhatsApp Stories that I’ve discovered, and it also has been the most positive reinforcement to build upon positive sides to connecting with your contacts. Stories present the most non intrusive way of conversation you could have.
Whether you realize it or not, posting updates on social media is like pushing a message to everyone’s timelines. There would be some of your friends who wouldn’t prefer your taste in politics, or the fact that you love pineapple on your pizza! But love your thoughts in general. Posting everything as posts risks alienating some of those friends because it’s pushing your message to them. What’s brilliant about Stories across all of these platforms is the fact that your friends pull what you have to say. It’s turning the tables and getting people to see what you have to share.
The thought of quitting social media
Social media as we know it is loud. It rides on a trend. It invites comments, it seeks gratification. But there’s nothing warmer than another individual seeking to hear your thoughts, and one that makes you happy. There’s nothing where someone shares a word of encouragement with you, counsels you or helps you when you feel the world is crumbling down on you. The assurance of being in a closed space with people you know, and not creeps who will intertwine you with fear or vitriol is invigorating and assuring. It’s positive and reinforcing. It’s a source of good vibes, of care and everything positive needed.
Katie-Hawkins Gaar illustrates a very similar example about the positive aspects of reinforcement in a piece published by Vox on the positive reinforcement of social media in moments of loneliness, grief and loss. WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton once interviewed for a position at Twitter in May 2009. He didn’t get the job, but he tweeted about it. And it’s gone on to become an inspirational example of positive reinforcement on social media that failure isn’t the end of the game. There’s more to come. The good and the better is just around the corner.
Watch: Pachinko parlors of Japan
The recent trend of sharing 10-year old images on social media got me excited. Of course I understand possibilities of engineers working on machine learning algorithms would very happily use images to program image recognition models. But there’s only good to come out of it. Evolved machine recognition models could preempt how you’d look years later, or back study how a criminal possibly looked years ago when the crime was committed. The possibilities can be positive and endless. The idea of sharing a side of myself with people can be positive, and in turn I discover a side to precious people who otherwise would just end up being just another name connected to my profile. I’ve connected with some very close people in ways I’ve never done before, and it’s all thanks to Stories.
Social media is here to stay, but change is here too
The immediate concern around addiction, toxicity and time spent are all focused around the visible web, but the merits of a positive environment that rids off the harm, and lends a hand of encouragement, counseling and support cannot be denied in a fragile world.
Social media has certainly peaked, but as we grow out of them, we’d change. The excitement and enthusiasm of discovering long lost friends wanes off as we grow on with the platform. As years pass by, all those who had to get on the platform are here already. There’s no new gratification in discovery of people that we’re encountering. What stays is getting to know the real people we connect with. As years pass by, we’d change. But so will social media property. But the reality of virtual connections isn’t going away anytime soon.