When Media Was Social

I really haven’t followed much of what happens in mainstream social media land for a while now, but I heard news lately about Instagram users pushing back against a controversial redesign that more or less would have turned Instagram into a TikTok clone.

Instagram, to their credit, responded and stopped the redesign rollout (for now). But if you ask me, the writing’s on the wall and has been for a couple years now. Pushing endless random content from strangers is more profitable and keeps users on the platform for longer, which you can obviously tell from the success of platforms like TikTok.

There was a time when social media was still social and not just media.

Instagram wasn’t half bad

It wasn’t that long ago that Instagram was still pretty decent. I used it up through sometime in 2019. I remember it notifying me after I had scrolled through all my friends’ new posts with a big green checkmark and a message saying “All caught up!”, giving me a good opportunity to close the app and get on with my day. The feed was still chronological, or close to it. I had plenty of friends on it too, probably the most out of any of the popular social platforms. It was genuinely a great way to feel somewhat involved in the lives of casual friends who I maybe didn’t talk to all the time but still liked to keep around.

Really the only core thing majorly wrong with Instagram was the toxic focus on likes, and from conversations I’ve had I think both the platform and users have caught on to that and have made adjustments by now. The main things that slowly drove me away were the increase in ads and the emphasis on the ephemeral posts called stories. The idea of stories always seemed toxic to me with the way they played into FOMO (fear of missing out), and in retrospect the stories format probably helped pave the way for pushing TikTok-esque short videos from strangers.

Facebook had its moments too

Even early Facebook had things going for it. I first got on it around 2008 and looking back it was nice and simple. The feed, again, started out as more or less chronological. Social media was still a fresh idea for most people so a lot of interactions were fun, silly, but genuine. People would often just post quick status updates no matter how exciting or mundane. Photo sharing was made easier than ever before, so a lot of people experiencing it for the first time were just being real with it. Smartphones weren’t widespread so you weren’t online 24/7. Things would eventually change, but for a bit Facebook felt more like a tool and less like an advertising platform.

Early Facebook had its pitfalls too, most of them stemming from just how new social media was. Plenty of oversharing (like that one time a classmate posted an apology for sharing a gross photo by describing said photo in great detail). It was too early for privacy to be much of a concern, so data-collecting apps and games ran amok and spammed the feed pretty often. But the important thing is that, for a while, interactions on Facebook felt genuine and focused on friends instead of algorithmically controlled and from strangers.

What about now?

I’d love a way to recapture the feeling of early social media but I don’t think it’s terribly realistic. The fediverse comes pretty close to including the best parts of social media, but good luck getting a sizable group of friends to sign up and stick around.

Would going back to more social social media even be a good idea or are there better, smarter ways to use tech to keep in touch with friends? These days the only way I keep in touch with people is through chat. The conversations I have are way higher quality than what you can get on social media, but the downside is that if I’m not chatting with you regularly I have no idea what you’re up to.

I do have a few more ideas. If anything worthwhile comes from them I may write up another post, but in the meantime I’m curious what ideas other people have for making tech social.