Back in 2016, I was five years into building Plastiq, and the company had grown large enough to afford me a burgeoning work-life balance. I took up pottery and rock climbing, and filled the cracks of my days with books and podcasts. It felt great to get healthy again, both physically and mentally.
One day I happened to catch a This American Life podcast about social media.
Act One was a free-form conversation between Ira Glass and three teen girls, in which they gave Ira a “crash course” on using Instagram as a high schooler. They picked apart a complex web of social dynamics, woven into the context of surface-level interactions in the app. For example, when a “like” isn’t just a “like” or how quickly you have to comment on a friend’s selfie, lest they think you’re purposely snubbing them. (it’s 10 minutes, for the record)
At one point Ira Glass exclaimed, “I have to say.. Like oh my god, this is such a job!” All three girls replied with a pensive, “Yeah…” and one followed up with:
“It’s like I’m a brand… I’m the director, and I’m the product…. To stay relevant, you have to work hard.”Julia, a 13-year-old Freshman, on using Instagram
I don’t think I even made it to Act Two of that podcast, because I needed a moment to unpack everything I had just heard.
My first takeaway was that I felt SO grateful to have gone to high school in the days before social media. Life seemed so much simpler when social standing was basically defined by your extracurriculars and your table at lunch, neither of which changed all that frequently or felt terribly “high stakes”.
My second takeaway was that social media had at some point become merely another source of social obligations. And even though the girls presented an almost caricatured version of reality, I was troubled that the world they described wasn’t altogether foreign to me. In fact, I could recognize the broad strokes in my own usage of Instagram.
Finally, one observation I carried forward was how our engagement with content on social media was colored by so many exogenous factors. Liking a post wasn’t just a matter of asking “do I like this photo?”, but “what does it say if I like this photo?”. I couldn’t help but wonder: What sort of content would we actually like if we weren’t being watched?
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There’s a growing set of literature on the negative impacts of social media on society and individuals, including fear of missing out (FOMO), jealousy, depression, superficiality, etc. Despite the way in which social media has helped forge positive connections between us, there’s clearly something deeply sinister in our use of it. Where did we go wrong?
I pondered this question for a couple years, and eventually arrived at what I felt was the core issue. Most social media apps teach us only one way to “win”: to create content and amass likes and followers. And they give us tools that make content creation as simple as microwaving a TV dinner – turn on your phone camera and apply a filter or add a backing track. So we find things to capture and share: our food, our travel, our activities, and if we truly run out of ideas… well, there’s always the selfie. (eat your heart out, narcissism)
I get it. I, too, have taken a photo of a special meal and posted it to my IG. And maybe I even got a couple hundred likes from my friends. And that felt good for a while, but over time it started to feel less good, while I continued to crave the initial highs of getting likes and follows. Those who have struggled with more overt addictions may recognize the desperate, downward cycle that starts innocently enough. But why does social media cause this?
Here’s my hypothesis. Creating something that is appreciated and acknowledged, not because we were explicitly instructed or commissioned to, is a uniquely fulfilling experience: something approaching self-actualization. But that feeling of achievement is defined by the exertion of the creator and the deepness of the appreciation of the viewer. By cheapening the creative process and relying on our personal, offline relationships to acknowledge our “reheated TV dinners”, we end up with quantifiable and saccharine – but ultimately meaningless – “likes”.
It’s created attention monsters of us all.
If at one point we had created a post that drew great engagement from our friends, it might have validated us and made us feel good. And that good feeling might grow into a craving for validation. And that craving might be normalized (and even encouraged) by an environment in which everyone else was doing the exact same thing. And we might see some other people find even more validation through likes and follows, which – because these platforms give all users pretty much the same tools – might prompt us to wonder why we couldn’t spin gold the way others had. Why couldn’t I become an influencer? What makes me not worthy?
And furthermore, because our lives are often the subjects of our own posts, any lack of engagement might reflect not only on our abilities as content creators, but on ourselves as humans. As Ira Glass commented, “you’re the product.” Professional artists consciously accept the fact that their work may undergo grueling (and sometimes unfair) critiques, but the average person simply isn’t equipped for the kind of rejection that the world can sometimes throw at creative pursuits. Especially when it may not feel like the response depends on the post, but on who we are as people and the strength of our relationships.
Of course, there are many people who have recognized this unhealthy spiral and maybe have even found healthy usage patterns on Instagram. Social media can provide great utility when used responsibly. It can help us stay in touch with friends, or up-to-date on news or our favorite interests, or just help us catalog our lives. But it’s also a potent vector for the transposition of social obligations to a platform which is more immediate, more public, and less forgiving.
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Over the following years, I spent some time considering what a next-gen social media platform might do differently.
Eventually, I isolated two core ideas which might help.
- Leave content creation to the creators who’ve dedicated their lives to it. It’s not like the world is hurting for content; 95 million new photos and videos are uploaded to Instagram every single day – more than one could view in a lifetime.
- Give users a new “win condition” that doesn’t require them to create content. Find a way for users to feel validated without having to put themselves on display.
Incidentally, this thinking is what drove a buddy and I to build Choice, a social media app that emphasizes curation over creation. Instead of users having to take photos of their food or think of creative tweets, they can explore the world of art, fashion, and design and learn more about their tastes and explore and get inspired. The idea is that a core interaction built around curation will encourage users to take their attention away from themselves, and onto the amazing art being created around the world.
We have a long way to go, but early feedback on the experience shows that we may be touching on the right mechanics. We don’t see ourselves as a replacement for the great apps that are already out there, but perhaps a refreshing addition to the landscape. One that speaks to the human desire for connection and validation, but doesn’t rely on users to turn the cameras on themselves.