In regular intervals, a certain type of Twitter post goes viral. Typically, the post will contain a fragment of a sentence, and readers are encouraged to add their own words to it once they “re-tweet” it. Twitter being Twitter, more often than not the overall idea is to say something that might or might not be popular, thus potentially triggering the kinds of exchanges the platform appears to attract: people arguing with each other in an increasingly angry fashion until someone is compared to Hitler.
I’m really only on Twitter out of a sense of obligation. Ever since RSS was made to die, I have felt obliged to somehow telegraph the articles that I write (RSS isn’t really dead, but much like, say, mechanical typewriters it’s a technology that is of very little actual use). I’m not on Facebook, so Twitter is the one social network I use to that effect.
Years ago, I was on Facebook, but I quickly left because I saw too many problems with it, including the company’s atrocious attitude towards its users’ privacy. I have been told many times by a number of people who clearly meant well that being on Facebook would help me to spread the word of what I’m doing, but that’s simply not something I want to or will do, given the company’s overall behaviour.
I’m really only on Instagram out of a sense of obligation as well. It’s a great way to see how people use photography, and I feel that as someone writing about photography I have to experience it. But it comes at a fairly steep price: neither Twitter nor Instagram are good for my own mental well being (research appears to be increasingly showing that social media in general are not good for anyone’s mental well being). Oh, and it’s owned by Facebook, so they’re able to syphon parts of my privacy. Great. On top of that, Instagram’s “community guidelines” are deeply discriminatory for all kinds of reasons (see my piece on censorship on that platform).
The reality is that I would have easily and happily quit both Twitter and Instagram already if I had been able to find suitable replacements. Over the course of the past few weeks, a few events conspired to have me think about this again. For example, Lewis Bush used one of those aforementioned add-your-own-words Twitter posts to suggest: “Lets [sic!] all get off Twitter.” This sounded like a good idea to me.
If you’ve grown up with social media or if your experience of the internet has been mostly shaped by them, you might not be aware of the world of photography online before them. I realize I’m going to sound exactly like one of those old people who are telling the young how everything was so much better in the past. While that’s the last thing I want to do — there’s nothing more annoying than having to listen to some often misguided nostalgia, I’m very happy to argue that the world of blogging as it existed around 2007 or 2008 was a lot more vibrant than whatever we’re witnessing now.
Mind you, I’m not talking about what people were or are writing. In fact, there is as much — if not more — high-quality writing online now as then. However, the sense of community and excitement that existed back in the day is completely gone. In a nutshell, social media have essentially atomized a vibrant community, to turn them into a group of loners that might engage politely with each other but that each just take care of their own domain. And that’s it.
The reason I see for this development is simple: on social media, users operate on the company’s terms, not on their own. In contrast, during the time of blogging, there were no companies dictating the terms. It was a bit of a pain to set up a blog, but with a little work (and possibly a little help by some tech savvy person) you’d be ready to go. It would be you defining the terms of what was going on. And people would read what you produced simply because they could subscribe to your feed (that’s what RSS did). There were no algorithms that would restrict things or suggest things or filter things.
As a consequence, there was a general sense of excitement, of producing something new, something that would bring value to the world of photography. That’s all completely gone.
It will be impossible to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube. I also know that many readers will react to what I just wrote just how I tend to react to old people telling me about the good old days. The thing is, though, that I’m noticing a growing chorus of people uttering the very same sentiments.
Like I said, social media’s mental toxicity is becoming an increasing concern for a lot of people. One doesn’t have to be overly pessimistic to predict that given the US presidential election, in 2020 Twitter is going to become an even more toxic cesspool than it already is (I think the platform is going to implode once Trump is out of office, whenever that might be).
But maybe there is a way to squeeze some of the toothpaste back after all. For a while now, I have been thinking about re-creating the one-to-one relationship I used to have with readers in the past. I’m old enough to remember that way back in the day, emails formed the basis for what would become blogs later. Message groups were not without any of the problems that, vastly inflated, we now see on social media. But as a reader, you’d simply sign up (or off).
Due to a lack of time, I haven’t had the opportunity to set up a mailing list as a way to distribute my work and to possibly add back many of the things that over the past few years have fallen by the wayside on this site. But it’s something I want to, in fact need to do this year — to ultimately phase out my use of Twitter. Alec Soth just set up one — you can sign up here. A bit earlier, Bryan Formhals set up his (sign up here), as did Noah Kalina (sign up here) or Fette Sans (sign up here).
I’ll announce mine once it’s ready.
I don’t know if such things are going to bring back the sense of online community that has now been reduced to an algorithmic segment on Facebook etc. But I’ve seen enough platforms come and go that I’m hopeful that social media have crested.
Realistically speaking, photoland is too small a niche to be able to influence what else might come. After all, photoland blogging was a tiny part of the overall blogging landscape. But if enough people within photoland attempt to circumvent social media and to re-build more meaningful one-to-one relationships between its members, then something might actually arise that could rival the richness those of us experienced who were around during and/or participated in the world of blogging more than ten years ago.