THE ROLE OF THE SOCIAL MEDIA USER AS AN INFORMATION PROCESSOR
As a SM (social media) user, your role and purpose are not analogous to that of a “consumer” even if that’s what you seem to be doing most of the time. And as a producer selling your wares on SM, you are only, indirectly, looking out for consumers; you might be looking for willing marketers.
Although I hate to use such ugly neologisms, many SM users are prosumers, that is, a combination of both consumers and producers. That is the greatest liberating force of the digital economy, as well as its main weakness and curse. A user may join a certain network to follow some influential people, but if through his own actions or some other reason he increases his reach and popularity, he is now a producer of content, too. So when people talk about SM attention economy and competition, keep in mind that it’s an economy that sometimes doesn’t have a clear distinction between consumers and producers, where most of the former want to be the latter, and when people do not compete so much for neutral consumers (like different brands compete for your attention at the supermarket) as between each other as producers/influencers, so as to get rid of the competition within a community(civil wars being the worst wars, and all that.) As it is very difficult to gauge the quality of a lot of digital “content” or “products,” it’s not uncommon that this is done not by convincing any hypothetical consumer of the superiority of your product, but by tarring the competition, by destroying them at a moral or ideological level, to make sure people don’t want to be associated with them. Hence the known nastiness of SM, which ironically is sometimes directly proportional to how low the stakes are.
On SM, you consume very little, as the things you actually pay attention to are few, and consumption implies using something, and digesting it, profiting from it in some way to fulfill a need or a desire. You consume food, a movie, or a book, things you cannot make yourself and you probably don’t intend to anyway, but not digital content, or not in the same way; and you can, in fact, easily produce or reproduce most of what you see online. Many of the most popular users and accounts mostly reshare other people’s content, pictures, art, memes, etc. A more apt analogy of social media content would be watching advertising on TV.
So, what do YOU, as a user who spends most of the time filtering other people’s content, actually do on social media? You can, of course, use it just to talk with your friends and family, but SM is not a multibillion-dollar business tied to the deepest power centers of the State just so you can talk with your friends. But to answer the question, well, that’s exactly what you do: you are a filtering and ranking algorithm.
Whether this is a bad or good thing depends up to a point on how you use SM, of course, but for many people, SM can become a chore, almost a job. And if they are heavily invested in it, hoping to get something back, hoping to build their own brand, prestige, or sell a product, it’s even worse, as one usually accomplishes none of those things. But it’s important to understand why.
As mentioned in the previous post, for many people, the real value of your social media presence is more or less proportional to your value and connections outside of it. It works as a multiplier or an extra bonus to whatever real-life influence or prestige you may already have. Yes, there are purely digital native creators, but achieving that is like 1:10,000 odds. People who use it just like a photo album or to amplify real-world achievements they would have accomplished anyway without SM tend to do fairly well on such platforms. However, for digital natives or for those without much real-life support, SM can be Hellish in the Sartrean sense of the word—Hell is other people. It is for these people, especially the younger generations, that I’m writing these posts because I see that many of them are getting sucked into the same kind of scams that were popular fifteen, ten, or five years ago and that never go awawy because they always find fresh blood and those who get conned silently disappear.
Whatever your personal reasons might be for being on social media, the actual role all of us have on the aggregate is that of an unpaid information-processing node in what is fundamentally an open-source, crowdsourced marketing and intelligence program* to get people to do marketing research, brand endorsement, social analysis, and political activism for free or in exchange of social validation or attention (so, pretty much for free). It is one of those amusing historical coincidences that the day the DARPA LifeLog project got canceled was the same day Facebook was born and that many of the stated goals of that project are now accomplished thanks to social media and the commercialization of the Internet. But while having a centralized, massive operation to keep track of everything everybody does would be outrageously expensive (and of dubious morality,) if it’s done by private companies who make money thanks to advertising and selling the information Internet users freely produce, you can eventually get more or less the same information (although with more BS in the mix) and even make a profit. And the point is not that people produce raw data, for that would be useless; it’s that they process and rank it as they create and share it. In fact, that processing and ranking IS the information. That’s what those social media metrics, SEO rankings, and all that data are for—they simplify, organize, and rationalize the trillions of Mb of Data that are produced each year, making it (somewhat) useful and profitable. That you can publish your own weekly webcomic online, share cat memes, or talk about whether the next Marvel superhero should be non-binary is fine and all, but that’s not the reason the Internet exists.
*Already in 2008, the USA Deputy Director of Intelligence claimed 90% of all the information the US needs comes from open sources. It is not odd that there is such a push for everything to be (or have shadow presence) online. It wouldn’t surprise if some intelligence agencies are forgetting how to do information gathering that isn’t online.
Likewise, you can do many more things on SM (from sharing your hobbies to find your future wife) aside from being an unpaid clerk of the information panopticon or training facial recognition AIs thanks to all the selfies you publish, but those things are not the reason social media exists in its current form. In any event, all this data (which, I have to reiterate, people freely produce) is then aggregated and sold and bought by data brokers, a multibillion-dollar business that is tied to everything, from the military and intelligence to insurance companies (the original modern intelligence agencies.) Under the shadow of this massive industry, thanks to the incredible amount of potential consumers (although, in practice, it’s fewer than we think) one can find on social media platforms, all manner of business and creative enterprises, both legit and otherwise, have sprung. Virtually all of them either fail or are just hobbies that run at a loss so the creator doesn’t really care. Unfortuntaly, some work like bubbles, as late adopters try to imitate the success of those who got in there sooner and, naturally, fail, as the digital economy can actually sustain very few people, and once something becomes popular, that’s a sign that the top positions are already taken. Of course, this is not unlike many monopolistic or large businesses; you can’t just go to Nigeria and start digging for oil with a shovel.
As SM user with a modest following, your SM task is not to consume (although it’s expected that your engagement there will lead to an increase in consumption) or even create “content” (most of which is borderline plagiarized anyway) but to rank and filter information/media as a node (neuron) of a larger brain (either the social media platform as a whole or your community.) Of course, this information people freely produce is corrupted by the fact that the disclosure is nudged or even motivated by the imagined reward, but, in practical terms, that information, even if fake, is still useful.
Your SM task is that of a small gatekeeper who has to decide whether to allow passage or stop the flow of whatever piece of information reaches you. Do you say Yes (Like, Reshare, Comment) or do you ignore it? Naturally, platforms with an easy reshare functionality (Twitter) will show these dynamics more clearly. To some extent, you could compare this process to that of an office worker sorting papers from the In to the Out tray (everything else goes into the trash)—the clerks of the information economy. The difference is that while the traditional clerk has some objective rules or procedure for that task (and gets paid,) the SM user seems to be guided by her own fancy, or hype, or for whatever will make him look cooler in the eyes of the other nearby clerks as his IN tray is, in fact, the aggregated OUT of everyone else, and so on, sometimes like in a closed loop. Naturally, the smaller and tighter the loop is, the lower the chances of anything new breaking through and why any closed online community urgently needs new blood, perspective, or sources of information to avoid the curse of becoming a circle jerk. Anyway, multiply this for the hundreds of millions of people doing the same sorting behavior, and the end result is the fragmented Public Opinion of Social Media. Keep in mind, though, that most SM users are bots and lurkers. Influencers are a minority, but they are the minority that matters.
Your success rate at this “job” of self-branding and market/content analysis is objectified, measured in clear metrics like friends or followers (the audience,) likes or reshares, and publicly shown to everybody else. Whether the size of this audience truly matters in the end is debatable, but the point is that it’s public information, so you know your audience and reach, but so does everyone else. This makes everybody of a certain size or clout into a celebrity of sorts, an influencer, and a powerful gatekeeper, too. There’s almost no way to avoid this, and if you are actually good at what you do, it’s natural that you rise to the top even if the eventual distribution of attention is unfair—as all superstar economies tend to be. However, for a lot of online content, artistic or otherwise, the definition of what is good is… imprecise. And here is where, as a result, drama arises.
As mentioned in the previous part, a lot of SM works on the logic of celebrities, although, naturally, there’s a difference between Bob Ross as a celebrity and a Kardashian or one of those annoying Twitch sociopolitical talking heads (a real thing that I was blissfully not aware it existed until recently.) Still, the general dynamic of concentration of attention is still there, inevitably so. And since social media is a microcelebrity industry, where success is tied to attention, it follows that only very few can be successful there, and that this number doesn’t necessarily scale upwards with the number of users in a community or group.
Traditional celebrities have always tried to smooth the barriers that cut them off from their fans, but this was a controlled process. And fans do appreciate celebrities that are approachable, authentic, friendly even. But on SM, fans can easily interact with their celebrities and perhaps even receive direct, seemingly spontaneous and real interactions. Celebrities are not your friends and cannot (and shouldn’t) be your friends, but social media platforms have no barriers or, officially, no socioeconomic classes of any kind. You can troll famous people, the CIA, the Pope, or the most influential user in your network until they answer back or block you, but you can also build strong parasocial links and other noxious entanglements with them. These celebrities can, and usually do, deliberately maintain such parasocial links with their audiences to maintain and increase their brand value and visibility, or worse, to monopolize or gatekeep their economic niche or turf. Yet despite this massive concentration of attention, many social media content creators craft their messages as if it was personally made for YOU, like they are your equals, a friend even. For example, it is common for influencers or similar aspirational users to ask their followers how are they doing, what are they going to do this weekend, what do they think about X, etc. When this is done by an account that receives thousands of replies nobody will read, this cannot be understood as a normal friendly relationship between equals, notwithstanding whatever good intentions the influencer might have had when asking that question. So, microcelebrities develop parasociality to build brands, increase user loyalty, and promote content, products, and social (imitative) consumption, whether of one’s own self-made identity and content or other forms of brand endorsement via hashtags, @s, and other hidden marketing tricks.
Social media doesn’t label people as fans or creators but just users and there are usually zero entry barriers, and so the distinction between the influential and non-influential has to be either performative (you behave like a fan or talk like a creator) or obvious from popularity metrics (you are popular, so you are a content creator because, by virtue of your popularity, what you say becomes shareable content rather than a private diary that happens to be public and sometimes receives a couple of likes.) But as this hierarchy is sometimes linked to economic opportunities, celebrity status is the template for the economic relationship between users and producers when they meet or roleplay on social media, keeping in mind that many of the former would like to be part of the latter and, in theory, they could since they are just the same, two individuals just broadcasting their thoughts, typing on their phone or computer. In other words, two equals. So, as mentioned in an astute recent paper on this issue:
“I assert that celebrity has become more of a professional tool guiding people on how to navigate an increasingly digitized and precarious jobs economy.”
Johnston (2020) Celebrity, Inc.: the self as work in the era of presentational culture online
Your success as a social media celebrity/influencer will affect how others react to you and your “content,” enticing them to follow you and agree with you (or, at least, not argue with you unless they see you as competition or want to troll you for attention,) expecting a sort of trickle-down effect of the attention economy. This naturally drives the distribution of success (and failure) to even greater extremes of inequality, as those who have more, will have even more, and those who have little will keep losing. This economy follows a bandwagon-chasing, rich-get-richer pattern, and usually benefits a certain kind of personality or, even, hustling persona. This will naturally affect not only how things are distributed but what is being talked about and, therefore, produced because, if you are a nobody starting from zero, every phase of your creative process will need to adapt to social media, from finding relatable inspiration to funding the project. Of course, this also means that nastiness and generally bad behavior are common (and will become more common,) as you would expect in any social domain working along those lines.
As a potential artist, unless you have a titanium will and an insane vision driving you (or money and time to spare,) you will be naturally drawn towards subjects already reinforced, popular, or being the focus of attention vortices. I’m not judging you; we all do it, and it’s logical for many amateur artists to engage with such fandoms and communities if they have no following themselves (and if they are fans themselves, even more so.) “Social” means that you will create that which is already being created (refining it, perhaps, if you are good; degrading it otherwise.) Previous succeeds predicts future success (up to a point, of course,) and accumulated popularity (whether your own or one you tie yourself to) encourages future popularity. That, of course, is as old as humanity, but SM has only made the effect much stronger, widespread, immediate, and “objective.” At the same time, if this loop becomes too tight (and this is one of the main arguments I’m making in these posts,) if any outsider voice or vision gets ignored, you will end up in a circle jerk with little or nothing new being created or appearing (the film industry and popular culture are good examples of this.)
If you see everybody joining the conversation, why wouldn’t you do the same? Not jointing the conversation, the hype, or the community might mean losing your chance in an increasingly unequal and somewhat arbitrary social media economy. Or, at least, that’s what many people fear. And if you act on your fears, these become real.
Social media, as well as the current economic precariousness, seems to discourage artistic excursions as potential consumers and critics are all mixed-up and close together in the creative, distribution, and criticism loops, with many of them very worried about their own social capital and the posibility of missing out. Hence, no matter how many times a lot of people swear they will stop talking politics* or entertainment or popular culture or whatever, they go back to it because they need the aggregated pools of attention built around these subjects (and, to be blunt, some don’t have much else of interest to say). Americans and Americanized nations might be uniquely affected by this, I guess, as they are a culture that worships celebrities, attention, and mass media. China is actually a country where SM has had a greater social penetration than even in the West, but I’m not aware of how the Chinese use their own platforms—I suspect it might be less toxic (less “political” for sure,) yet more openly commercial and money-oriented. In any event, it is the same pattern of behavior one finds with traditional celebrities: as a society, we are disgusted by the excess of attention they receive, but many can’t stop talking about them. The difference now is that prospective artists needs to play this celebrity game, too, at least if their entire marketing plan or strategy relies on social media (which it shouldn’t because it’s an awful idea.) Yet, if you look back at the history of Art, how many of those artists are people you believe would have managed to survive or thrive in our current social media?
*Of course, if you are interested in politics, you could always stop following idiots who don’t know what they talk about and keep using politics as a personal brand or self-promotion gimmick.
As a sometimes positive side effect, this aggregation of attention has created many types of business opportunities for smaller agents, but one has to be honest and admit that most of these can be versions of The milkmaid and her Pail tale. Oh, if I manage to get 2,000 Twitter followers, I might get an interview in this or that podcast, if I get an interview, I will get more followers, then I might self-publish a book, then get reviews here and there, then I might… and so on and on.
This domain of amateur or indie creators has usually been (quite literally) sold as an opportunity for small creators and independent voices, which is partially true, but since economic success in this new domain is tied to attention concentration, extreme forms of economic inequality mirroring the distribution of attention should be expected—at least if one relies just on SM.
At the same time, the digital economy in general has only lowered the prices any individual artist can ask for his or her work, which means that much more needs to be produced/sold per capita to earn a significant amount of money, which means that the viable ratio of producers-to-consumers has widened, yet SM does exactly the opposite, blur the distinction between both while promising attainable success to smaller individuals with increasingly smaller real followings (following inflation is a real think, I believe.) Also, success and so on are always relative, and one has to compare SM opportunities and rewards to what existed before (or outside.) There are many people who keep trying to succeed in such platforms when, in fact, they’d be better off trying it outside, as they are fairly competent, and competence is better rewarded in the real world or in face-to-face interactions.
HOW UNEQUAL IS SOCIAL MEDIA?
In an article from 2016, Twitter’s Gini Coefficient for attention concentration was put at 0.9-0.94 (which is a LOT) while that of activity was still high but much lower. As the authors say:
Attention inequality on Twitter is staggering. The vast majority of users do not receive any attention, and the top 1% of users get far more attention than the bottom 99% combined.[…] Although still unequal, user activity is more equally distributed than attention.[…]
When everyone is retweeting a popular celebrity or watching a viral video, it means that other people are not being retweeted, and other videos are not being watched. Thus, inequality diminishes the diversity of content and view points to which people are exposed. But inequality may also have hidden benefits. When every single person had watched the same video, or read the same story, it gives people a common topic for conversation (and tweeting) and a common vocabulary with which to discuss. Thus, inequality reinforces social identity.*L Zhu, K Lerman (2016) Attention inequality in social media
That is the content-neutral way of saying what I stated in my previous post, that “social” increases homogeneity and decreses creativity as it aggregates people into larger vortices of attention.
In fact, whether it was one of its goals or not, one of the effects of recent online Culture Wars has been exporting the American worldview and its dynamics to almost any corner of the world, especially with heavy SM users among the younger (and therefore future) generations, as SM has converged, centralized, crystallized, and shrunk diverse public opinion spheres into a single discursive space. Coherent discourses, even if in reaction to something, construct coherent and manageable identities. The negative side of this (well, or the even more negative side effect of this) is that it’s very easy for conversations to be controlled, distorted, or diverted in a seemingly organic or natural way because conversations are basically a few people (or organizations) at the top talking and everyone else commenting on what these people say as they jump into the “conversation” because they don’t want to miss out.
As said in the previous post, attention concentrates on certain individuals or brands; it’s hard to imagine it not being that way. So that inequality is both descriptive (this is how it is) but also prescriptive (this is how it has to be,) as users become faintly aware of the extremes of inequality and flock towards those that have some kind of success so as not to be left alone, which naturally concentrates attention even more at the expense of alternative, smaller voices. Naturally, you can use SM in a fairly old-fashioned way, just to talk with your friends and without joining any of this competitive nonsense, but for anyone who has to self-promote, you have to be aware of all of this.
Some people could argue that even if such inequality is extreme, it’s still better than that of traditional media, where a few journalists or TV anchors were watched or read by millions who had no voice. True, but a bit disingenuous. I agree that the digital economy and social media offer many possibilities, and I’m NOT telling you to delete everything or go offline, but it would be foolish to ignore their many pitfalls, especially, I believe, if you are or want to be a writer. But, first of all, traditional media was built on a strong distinction between producers and consumers. Second, you had “no voice” when consuming traditional media for the same reason you have no voice when reading a book, you are not supposed to have one, you are a passive consumer. You can see that in how traditional media, like television, is portrayed when someone wants to criticize it. Something like this:
That’s not a “user” but a passive victim. That is not how Social Media works, where the “victim” is also an active participant.
Traditional media’s legitimacy didn’t come from giving you any “voice” but from being, in theory, representational, whether of the “average” citizen or “the best and brightest” of society. Of course, the failure of traditional media to actually represent their viewers led, among many other reasons, to the popularity of the Internet and, later, Social Media.
SM was sold as something else, as you are not being represented, you are the one doing the self-presentation, which sounds great on paper until you realize there are millions doing the same. So it is only natural to check and investigate whether it actually gives attention and a voice to the median user (it does not, and it probably can’t.) And whether this is a marginal improvement compared to how things were before (which is debatable,) you still have the painful fact that people don’t join these SM platforms expecting a level of inequality unknown in any other real-life domain. Imagine what would happen if before you upload a video to YouTube, a book to Amazon, a post to Facebook, and so on, a pop-up message warned you that 99% of users go completely unnoticed and that your following is so small, odds are your actual engagement will be close to zero. Of course, many people are not creators of any kind, they merely read or watch what other people create, but even they need to be somewhat aware of this peculiar ecosystem of microcelebrities since they are watching what those people create.
In some way, SM has changed everything so things can remain the same. In terms of public opinion, there hasn’t been so much an increase in diversity of points of view as in the number of layers (i.e. commentators, influencers, etc.) the information has to go through before it reaches you. But, ultimately, the original source of power, influence, and information remain the same.
In any event, I believe that if social-media-like rankings (e.g., social credit) and businesses become more and more part of the “real” economy, real-life economic inequality will inevitably increase as well. Let’s imagine, for a moment, a nightmarish future where all economic activity is done online. The entire economy would then, therefore, be like Onlyfans. And although I have no data, for this kind of information is harder to find than literal State secrets, I suspect the income distribution in many of these amateur marketplaces resembles their attention distribution fairly well: the top 1% gets almost everything, the others, barely anything.
This extreme form of outcome (attention) inequality is the foundation of social media; it is designed to generate such outcomes as this is the only way (or at least the easiest and laziest) to make the insane amounts of content and data produced every second by the digital ecosystem manageable, trackable, and (somewhat) profitable. I’m sure the algorithms could be fine-tuned to give less extreme outcomes, by relaxing the feedback popularity thresholds and adding more randomization or even hiding many of the popularity metrics, but that would, I suspect, create an Internet that would be (1) less profitable at the top and (2) less manageable, sociopolitically speaking. Just imagine the significant change in online culture that would occur if, suddenly, the number of followers a user has, or the likes, shares, or retweets of some piece of content were hidden by default. A lot of what people believe in or argue about on SM is the result of quite arbitrary, yet public and visible, SM ranking mechanisms or because of the rules and characteristics of the specific platform rather than deeply-held opinions. Which is another reason why you shouldn’t argue online: your beliefs might not even be real and would wither away if you unplugged for a few weeks.
Incidentally, although I believe things could indeed be better on such platforms… they could also be worse (and I’m not going to give any ideas.) The point to keep in mind is that these are not “neutral” spaces as all communicative acts are heavily mediated by metrics and ranking mechanisms that, if used in real life, we would find repulsive. But if you want to succeed as a self-made man or woman in such an environment, you have to understand this is a 1:1000 contest that might not always reward the most competent or knowledgeable.
RANKING THE WORLD
When there are millions of posts, videos, or even books, how do you rank all that to give everybody a fair chance? You don’t. You rank the top and forget about the rest. And this is done not by any single machine or program (that would be cruel and people would be furious) but by the individual behavior of millions of free people each one trying to either maximize their own social capital or not lose the little they have (therefore, it’s just and fair.) Is there wisdom in this crowd? There is, but there’s also extreme folly as this Crowd is not a detached, uninterested observer. Of course, as a lot of this content is ephemeral, it could be argued it doesn’t even matter that much if the ranking is fair.
In our Internet, users might be invested in the success of that which they rate, share, and praise, which can make SM behavior more similar to that of stock markets or meme coins rather than a traditional forum for the exchange of ideas and experiences (or even a normal market.) The perennial question, Why or how has X become suddenly popular or Why is everyone suddenly talking about X here? is usually looking for the wrong type of answer, a rational explanation based on complex thought and causality rather than the more obvious truth: because it’s a bubble/popular. For one reason or another, subject X crossed some popularity threshold and then blew up as more people jumped in to capitalize on that popularity, fueling it until it peters out. In some cases, there might be something to learn from by investigating what prompted the first influencers to start talking about X, as this might be relevant, and an acute social observer might glimpse a hidden process behind X’s popularity, but, usually, it’s just a waste of time and most “explanations” you find are made by ideological spergs (although some people have built their entire careers by being one!) You should care about this as much as you care about why stock X or meme coin Y has suddenly blown up. The answer might be “inside trading” for both of them anyway.
The trick here is that this awesome amount of content is produced thanks to the sometimes implicit, other times very explicit, online promises of fame, success, or relevance (i.e., find an audience) for normal people— people who are not well-connected, don’t have a lot of money or time to spare, aren’t managed by a talent agency (like many influencers, especially in fashion, actually are), or are moderately talented but not geniuses. That promise and its failure are in my view the cruelest aspects of SM and the digital economy.
Don’t take this as an injunction to drop off the Net and stop doing whatever you like, more like a recommendation to adopt something like a hobbyist mindset, because that’s what the digital economy is for 99% of creators, a hobby. After all, the Internet was much better when there were only weirdos showcasing their hobbies on their blogs and nobody made any money out of all this.
SELLING YOUR SELF
But wait, if these people sell little or even nothing, and you argue that’s the majority, wouldn’t these people be the equivalent of dead weight? What’s the point of keeping them around? Well, first of all, the costs of hosting whatever these people create (like a self-published book or a Youtube video) is almost nothing, although I suspect eventually even Amazon might start purging books that don’t sell. But, really, it’s also because, as I said, these are prosumers. They are not just aspirational producers isolated from the rest of the economy, they are also consumers and occasional marketing agents for those at the top of their respective pyramids.
These people who sell almost nothing are a significant pillar of any amateur/indie economy as they are also consumers and some might be heavily invested in whatever group or community they are part of. These are prospective artists who might have spent more money in how-to books, tutorials, self-help, Patreons, and self-improvement seminars and courses than what they will get back producing their own stuff. That’s not a bad thing (well, the self-help thing is) if you are doing it as a hobby or you just want to learn a craft or skill for yourself, but one of the traits of SM microcelebrities is that their success is presented as replicable, which in some cases is mathematically impossible. There are influencers who are influential because they have hordes of aspirational influencers propping them up.
On social media, what you, the influencer, microcelebrity, or the Brand is selling is rarely just products, not when everybody can be a producer. In fact, even most Big Companies don’t see their SM presence as a money-maker, more like a loss leader or an extension of their marketing strategies (with budgets in the hundreds of millions anyway.) What sellers, at least the digital natives, have to offer cannot be just a product (e.g., a book, or a movie) as traditionally conceived, not when there are thousands of other people doing the same. You can do that in places with barriers of entry, like Steam for videogames, but not where there are none. It has to be something more, like an opportunity for buyers to enhance their own social capital, feel good about their buying decisions, increase their sense of belonging, their cultural or intellectual narcissism, etc.
On SM, people don’t buy things just because they have to “consume” them (i.e., use them in the privacy of their homes to fulfill some private need or desire) but also to showcase virtues, lifestyles, in-group loyalty, brand loyalty, and hype. The typical example is to post a selfie of the thing you just bought to attract engagement among like-minded members of a community. That’s marketing, both for the Brand and for yourself, and trying to deny it is silly. Don’t get me wrong, the excitement might be real, but it would be foolish to believe that the possibility of engagement hasn’t nudged the user to post that picture, or that if the engagement were for whatever reason zero, they would keep posting consumption selfies. There are many people who use SM as a kind of personal diary even when interactions are close to zero, but I don’t know anybody who posts consumption selfies with 0 engagement. In fact, the product might not even be used after the real goal (social engagement) has been achieved, and if the engagement dropped, they might even stop buying (and companies obviously don’t want that.)
In this economy, whether you are trying to actually sell a tangible product or just your “takes,” your job is to guess what will attract people’s attention so they can increase (or believe they can) their own reach or engagement, or join in the excitement, movement, and whatnot. Hence the known feeling that replies to high-follower accounts or users can feel like auditions, not unlike at a Hollywood party where hordes of minor celebrities are trying to get noticed by the big names… who visibly cringe at this.
As a nexus of attention, that’s the function of such accounts: they implicitly promise greater success, attention, opportunities, and engagement for their followers/friends. As this is a highly layered process from which the vast majority will be unable to profit (for it depends on the number of attention-seeking users expanding indefinitely,) or at least they will not profit as much as the ones above them, if “attention” in this economy is understood as money, the pattern, in some circumstances, can resemble a multi-level marketing scheme. If this attention is translated into selling some product or service, then the resemblance is even stronger.
THE WRITING COMMUNITY
POP: 100.000 (writers) and 12 (readers)
Although you can see this in many places, in my environment, the #writingcommunity is the most obvious example, as the top of the pyramid is made not so much of successful writers that are popular with readers (Rowling, King, or already popular writers are not part of the #writingcommunity) but successful guru writers, influencers, people who write books about writing, throngs of aspiring writers, booktubers, and writers who are followed by every other writer and by zero readers. Occasionally, the hashtag might be used to debate the finer points of the writing craft, not unlike one can occasionally find the most amazing conversations in the comments to a porn video, but that’s not the reason the community exists and you are only going to get your post ignored if you use it for that.
From time to time, on Twitter, I see something called #writerslift, where a writer encourages other writers to put a link to their books in the replies. But nobody reads those replies (and why would they?); the only person who clearly profits from this is the initiator of the #writerslift, who most likely has won many new followers for being so “helpful.” In fact, some of the shadiest users start a #writerslift claiming they will follow back anyone who follows them, giving the illusion of an equal exchange, but the initiator has won hundreds or thousands of new followers while these have only won one (who will mute or ignore them,) one who thanks to the #writerslift boost is now at a higher echelon in the attention pecking order within the community. Even if such an increase in followers doesn’t translate into higher direct sales (and it probably does not) it still increases your visibility and, therefore, voice, with all the future opportunities that this implies.
You can go check it yourself if you don’t believe me. It seems a #writerslift is some kind of milestone ritual some users invoke when they reach a certain number of followers, like 1,000. In theory, it’s a way of saying, “Thanks for the following! Now I will repay the community with this hashtag! Much love for the Community!” It might have started that way, but that’s not what is actually achieved. In any event, that means you can check how much their account has grown since the #writerslift (and sometimes it’s a lot, by 30%, 50%, or even 100%) but obviously the people who have started following the lifter have not grown by the same amount. The only one who is actually lifted by these things is the one who starts the lifting. The problem here is that the #writingcommunity is basically a closed system of producers+consumers (amateur writers) with no true consumers (readers,) yet it’s also used as a marketplace and self-branding arena to get noticed by professionals in the industry and by other influencers rather than just a community to learn or improve the craft. The only way to win at this popularity game in such a closed system is by increasing the level of attention concentration for you or keep increasing the user base at the bottom of the pyramid since those new users will naturally follow those at the top. It goes without saying that if you are trapped in such a place, you should leave or diversify your communities. Very few people can succeed in the SM marketing arena, so if you don’t have the personality, chutzpah, or luck to do so, you’d be much better off trying your luck in the real world or with more traditional (can be small ones) publishers.
Wow, fighting word there, buddy, implying it’s all a scam. Well, thank you. But, in any event, if all I have said above doesn’t convince you, I actually have data that strengthens my point.
In 2017, an article about a subset of the Twitter writing community (with or without the famous hashtag) was published on the journal Celebrity Studies*.
*David C. Giles (2017): How do fan and celebrity identities become established on Twitter? A study of ‘social media natives’ and their followers, Celebrity Studies
This paper is ideal because it focuses on digital natives, and one of the studied people is a self-published author. Of course, whatever background or real-life deals or networking they might have done to get ahead cannot be known. It’s good to keep in mind that a lot of the Social Media Success Stories are people being early (though not the first) adopters or doing traditional networking and enrolling their friends and RL contacts while pretending it’s all organic thanks to social media. That means Social Media increases the benefits of being an extrovert and actively punishes lonely people, and not just for their online behavior but for their lack of real-life background support, too. I know of a writer who got almost 40 Amazon reviews for her book by enrolling her children and her children’s friends to write one, while another got 0 (although she had been a finalist for a literary award) because she had trusted online organic growth.
Anyway, the paper studied the interactions of seven moderately influential young writers of crime fiction, with followers ranging from 800 to 13,000. The authors:
were selected because they had each published their first novel since 2010, at which point Twitter had been in existence for four years and had become established as an essential promotional tool for aspiring authors (and artists and entertainers in general). Six of the seven authors have published at least two books with a well-known mainstream publishing company. The other has self-published electronically, but with considerable success, one title receiving over
It analized their followers and classified them, and it discovered this interesting bit:
“Of the remaining categories [of followers], the highest percentage for all authors was ‘other authors’ (12-22%)”
A note here. There was a category for “aspiring authors,” which went from 4% to 12%, as well as one for other “Crime authors” (3-12%) I’m not, however, convinced by this classification, which seems to have been made manually and it necessarily relied on what people were willing to share, and as someone who follows these communities, I can tell you self-deception runs rampant. For example, the category “aspiring authors” included people who “were clearly full-time writers but still seeking that elusive publishing contract,” yet I’m sure “full-time writers” might for some mean being full of shit. “Other authors,” on the other hand, is people who didn’t showcase their aspiring nature, but (I suspect) many probably were.
In any case, what we have here is that, if you combine the three categories, you get that from 22% (Author F) to 38% (Author G) of these writers’ followers are other writers, aspiring or otherwise, famous or not (most likely not.) Author B (13,000 followers) is the self-published author (most likely on Amazon) with 16% followers listed as “other authors”, 3% as “Crime authors,” and 4% as “aspiring authors.” That’s, in total, 2,990 writers and aspiring writers following a successful self-published writer.
That from 1/3 to 1/2 of an artist’s followers are other artists, aspiring or otherwise, should already tell you this is unsustainable. It also casts doubts, or at least demands a redefinition, on the assumed purpose of an artist’s social media presence. As mentioned in the article: “[Twitter] had become established as an essential promotional tool for aspiring authors (and artists and entertainers in general).” If almost half of your followers are other artists, and a third of the other half is made of industry professionals and marketers, to who exactly are you promoting your stuff? Certainly not to readers, at least not directly. The industry professionals might be one of your targets, but if so, that means you are using your fellow writers basically as marketing drones.
The practice of social media following is one of upward mobility. Users, on average, follow those more popular than themselves as they expect to benefit in one way or another from this larger pool of attention and content. That is reasonable because more popular means more interactions, larger conversations (in terms of audience,) as well as (perhaps) a greater chance to increase one’s own self-brand by being close to someone who is already popular. Of course, being constantly surrounded by people more popular than you are (and, for amateur artists, these might mean more competent or talented) can cause some self-esteem issues for the people at the bottom of the pyramid and impostors’ syndrome for those at the top, especially those whose skill or success cannot be clearly measured or their success easily justified. In any event, it’s reasonable to assume pretty much all those followers will have smaller pools of followers compared to the popular Author they follow.
Author B (the 13,000-followers guy) unless he or she is one of those who follow back everybody, most likely follows back some of his or her own followers (especially other writers,) but probably only those who are close to him in status (i.e., not any random writer but someone already important or who shows promise.) This pattern will be repeated for those individuals too, and so on and on until you reach the bottom layer and find people who have almost nobody (as in, other artists) below them and cannot, therefore, be an inspiring role model or guru for anybody.
As that author is self-published and digital marketing follows attention concentration, you can translate that pyramid of attention into one of (potential) monetary gain. Keep in mind, though, that SM metrics can be deceiving or completely useless, especially in a community with widespread follow-backs. I mean, Author B is said to have sold (“downloaded”?) 280,000 books, something that most likely does not come from hustling on Twitter, a platform that he or she probably doesn’t need as the success most likely comes from being at the top of Amazon’s Most Popular for a long time. The SM metrics can translate into actual community influence, though, and that can be a fairly powerful thing, especially when the roles of writer/reviewer/promoter/user/consumer/producer get blurred. After all, if some publisher is looking for a potential influencer or a writer with an already strong following, or a blog an author to interview, who will they pick, the one with thousands of followers or some dude with 200?
Now, many of those writers who follow more popular writers have probably bought their books to discover, among other things, why they are successful, which increases the earnings, Amazon rankings (if self-published,) and visibility of the successful writer, which attracts more followers (authors or otherwise,) who will most likely do the same.
In this situation, I’ll call the writer at the top α Writer, someone with a significant but smaller following would be β Writer, and those with even smaller clout (in the few hundreds) γ-Writers. Now, again, social media metrics can be bullshit, as it’s possible to have millions of followers but very few interactions (like some Hollywood celebrities.) However, for social media natives who have to self-promote (or believe they have to,) metrics are useful not because they imply objective popularity in selling a product to consumers (although it probably correlates) but popularity within their community, from which a good chunk of their attention income comes from. Such communities are, in fact, a nest of overlapping communities, so the higher in one of them you are, the more access to your followers’ pools of followers you will have, and this opens all kinds of opportunities.
So, if an α Writer is followed by 2,000 writers and a β Writer by 400, it seems reasonable to assume many of those 400, γ-tier writers already follow α, as the following patterns tend to be upwardly transitive. In other words, if they are aspiring authors, it’s logical to assume they follow the gold medalists, not just the silver winners.
However, it’s unlikely that α follows many of those γ (although there are benefits in following smaller accounts back, for they can be very loyal and their attention filters might less overburdened.) If γ shares β’s and α’s content, β shares α’s, and α mostly his own or that of other α, the ones who profit the most from this arrangement is α Writer. If β & γ were to increase their popularity, odds are it would be within that community, so those new followers have to come from people who already follow α or someone close to him (most likely, fellow writers.) Meaning, α-tier Writers dictate the maximum influence anyone can expect to achieve, but most likely it’s just a fraction of α’s.
Remember, these are social media natives. They need to self-brand, self-promote, and compete in an attention economy so unequal there are not even third-world dictatorships with such levels of inequality. The key data missing here is precise selling numbers in self-publishing platforms like Amazon, but this kind of information is more or less impossible to find (as it is probably not looking good and would confirm what I have been saying here.)
Someone with outside, real-world influence, contacts, or friends could get a literary award, a contract, or something else, and that could make their social media following increase (not that it would matter, as it’s not needed,) but I’m assuming these people expect to succeed as individuals thanks to constant social media grinding since they follow people who have succeeded thanks to social media (or so they claim.) If so, their potential pool of customers is limited to a fraction of the most popular influencer within their community, and the most likely way to get access to that pool is by ingratiating themselves to an α Writer so he “shares” his followers and marketing clout with you. Surely, you have seen this behavior in many Communities, where the top dogs cross-promote each other and occasionally lift someone below them, while the people at the bottom have to build their brand by commenting (positively or negatively) on what those above them do or say. Once crystallized, this hierarchy seems hard to break unless one user starts creating something very unique or uses marketing black arts, such as cancel the overshadowing figure. It’s not a coincidence cancelation and drama routinely happens in communities with a superstar economy and extreme inequality between different tiers of content producers or between aspirants and masters while barriers of entry are very low and objective tests of competence nonexistent: some segments of academia, YA writers, fandoms, writers in general, “designer/ideas guy,” journalists, indie/amateur communities, nerd content creators, and, of course, certain political circles and celebrities.
The thing to remember is that usually all this competition is not aimed at direct sales but establishing a hierarchy, and not just for narcissistic reasons but because that hierarchy is what will, later, translate into hypothetical, real-life economic opportunities.
Imagine what would happen if an α, β, and γ from the same community were to release a book each and each one relied on their SM weight to get sales (an awful idea, but that’s what many people do because they don’t know better.) Although probably all of them will benefit somewhat from being part of the same group, it’s obvious the one who benefits the most is α and, for the γs, it all hinges on whether someone with more prestige and clout boosts them, but since there might be dozens or hundreds of them, not even the most generous alpha will be able to boost them all.
Is this such an arrangement acceptable for a writer with low influence? Maybe, but I suspect it really isn’t for most people, and that some would rather give their stuff away for free than to get involved in something like this even if they make a few bucks on the side. Of course, it’s sometimes difficult to tell apart a simple group of amateur or small producers who support each other (something quite necessary when one is small) from a scheme like the one described above, especially when there are no clear roles. It is more obvious if everyone at the top of your community is a Writing Guru or Influencer, though. If that’s the case, run away. An exceedingly politicized top brass can also be a bad sign.
This is not how a normal arrangement between producers in a normal industry works. If a small shoemaking business decides to leave that industry, that doesn’t affect Nike. If anything, that’s a good thing. People don’t buy Nike shoes so they can feel like they can become shoemakers either, nor does Nike’s profits depend on their small-sized competitors buying their stuff. The relationship between producers in these amateur communities resembles, in some cases, that between employer and employee, but without any formal declaration that it is so. Ideally, you get a good salary when you work for someone, but it’s obvious a lot of people are on SM (and many other communities) working as marketers, and not an insignificant amount of time, for free (or for “exposure.) Again, if it’s just a hobby, then that’s fine, but clearly many people have higher expectations than that and consequently are, to put it bluntly, being scammed.
Naturally, a γ could try reaching out to people outside their small community, but since his entire network is made of people from a tight network, he might feel like he is stuck and unable to grow.
If you feel like that, that your number of followers seem unable to cross a certain barrier, you might not be crazy. I have no way of proving this since I don’t have the tools required for this kind of analysis (and I’m not going to this manually,) but I suspect many online communities work as I have explained. I suspect the limit to how much you can grow in such a closed, endogamic environment is limited by the size of those above you and around you—and that this number could actually be predicted to some extent. Only by dragging people from other communities or forcing lurkers to engage you could, perhaps, grow beyond your limits. Hence how profitable politicization (and other marketing black arts that rely on drama) can be because political narratives can cut across distinct communities and force people from all those separate communities to stand behind the one who starts the politicization (usually, although not always, presented as being under attack,) who can now grow in influence well beyond his or her small niche. Look around you and count the people who have succeeded in building a SM brand, whether as “content creators,” influencers, writers, or generic YouTubers (specialists are a different thing, of course.) How many of them achieved popularity by either (a) riding some controversy or (b) becoming gurus of some kind?
I have to reiterate that: it is profitable for the one who starts it. For those at the bottom, it’s a soul-sucking experience; and those who want you engaged all the time are psychic vampires who are asking you to work for free so they can get noticed.
All that applies to digital natives, of course. If you get a publishing contract or are published through more traditional means, or you have thousands of IRL fans, you can avoid some of that stuff. But if you are one of the many small artists out there who expect that social media will help them, you will directly or indirectly be affected by those things. So, before you get too involved with movements and communities that will suck you dry, a quick eyeball estimation to see your growth and influence potential is what I have said above: check the clout of the people above you and around you. Be objective in evaluating your own status and leverage (it might be close to 0.) Those people above and around you? That’s your maximum unless some miracle happens (those rarely happen) or you break through the walls of your ghetto (which is difficult.) And remember that popularity feedback loops only kick in after a certain threshold. On Twitter, it probably starts around 3,000 – 5,000 followers but it really kicks in when you reach 10,000. Alternatively, a few viral tweets in a row that cross the 100-200 RTs mark can help. From the same study mentioned above:
If looking around you, you notice odds are you are going to get stuck at the few hundreds, then you can forget about any organic social media influence unless you pull off some massive stunt. And if your followers are all follow-backs and people from within the same aspirational community, you might be part of a support group (which can be OK and nothing wrong with that,) but also of a bubble (which is not OK.)
Not that this means you should completely disengage, after all, having a SM account and using it from time to time costs almost nothing, but there’s no reason for you to invest ridiculous amounts of time, energy, and emotion in something that will give you little in return, or in tying your product to another product/community/brand/movement/whatever whose best seats have already been taken. Does anyone honestly believe that the 3,000 aspiring writers who follow a single successful writer will get a chance?
I recently saw someone complaining about the little exposure and recognition musicians get in the “Furry Community.” Like, uh, what? How many musicians can that online community sustain anyway (apparently a lot of porn artists, though)? Why would you self-brand as that in the first place, rather than just as a “musician” anyway? I think people really need to get through their thick skulls that when you see someone succeed at the attention economy, that’s a sign that your chances are now lower, not higher, because now the top position is already taken. Yet people keep finding increasingly smaller niches to try to succeed or get noticed. It won’t work.
And remember, even if it’s not about money but attention (which, in the long run, can indeed translate into economic opportunities,) the pyramid is still very steep and few can fit at the top, especially with an online Gini Coefficient that makes South Africa look like an egalitarian paradise. The only real reason to engage in a community like that when your influence is so small is to make real-life contacts, ideally, people within the industry or “who know someone who knows…” Perhaps make friends or find people to work together (which is what small fish should do, work together rather than trying to self-brand like some self-help scammer told them.) But spending hours on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on just so you get (at best) followed by every other aspirant at the bottom of the crab bucket is a waste of time. Worse, all that activity, engagement, and effort might be useful only for those above you.
Do not forget that SM is a place for marketing and self-promotion, not objective artistic appraisal or evaluation (although, of course, this can be done, too.) And the best thing to sell and market is, in fact, marketing. That’s why there are so many online self-help gurus, teachers, and mentors. Writing books is for suckers, but writing books about how to be a successful writer can be profitable. And even for those who are not that malicious, there’s still a strong temptation to go down that route for there is a lot of money to be made becoming a teacher. Look around your artistic communities and notice how many of the top artists are also teachers, have Patreons to teach amateurs, or even sell marketing seminars. That is unsustainable and is a model that will eventually collapse because you can’t have a single artist teaching hundreds or thousands of prospective artists.
Yesterday, J. Sanilac (@EvilVizier on Twitter) pointed me to this:
It’s a screenshot from a post by a SM marketer/SEO guy who switched to making children’s books and saw his Twitter impressions collapse. Of course, that is natural because if you follow someone because he is a marketing expert, you might not be interested in his wife’s books. Still, the point is that when he went back to marketing marketing and posting promotional content, his interactions and engagement increased a lot. That is the lesson here: the most profitable product to succeed online is advice on how to succeed online.
If you add everything I have been saying up to this point:
1.SM works on the logic of celebrities and microcelebrities.
2.SM and information technologies create information and reinforcement loops. Known content is heavily reinforced.
3.Online popularity and success usually need you to be already popular or tying yourself to something that is.
4.Many users work for free on SM as marketers and information processors while trying to build their own brand for themselves.
5.SM, and also the digital market in general, has an extremely unequal Gini Coefficient. The top 1% gets almost all the attention. Most things being produced sell either zero or so little it might as well be zero. All these people keep their failing a secret, so people believe otherwise and might end up believing they are the only ones who are failing.
5b.The large social media platforms, as well as Internet giants, will do everything they can to not release concrete data on how attention is distributed or how much the average and median user sells.
6.These people who sell almost nothing still buy a lot, though, and they might actually be the ones sustaining some of the few successful ones.
7.The most profitable product on SM is marketing (or selling shovels during a Gold Rush, as the saying goes.)
8.Most communities can only support very few, if any, producers. Everyone else is a hobbyist (and that’s probably the best thing to be.) Some hobbyists or fan creators (especially the very good ones) end up getting hired, though, so that’s not an unreasonable path for talented people.
8b.The healthiest communities are made of hobbysts and usually predate SM or have ties to the real world. Purely SM-driven Communities are highly cancerous. The more a Community shifts from those origins to the new one dominated by digital native influencers, the more it will rot. This rotting process will usually be misdiagnosed or might even be blamed on the original community.
9. Drama is inevitable. Politicization, probably, too.
What picture do you get? Not a good one. So, post memes, jokes, troll journalists, chat up e-girls, or whatever won’t drive you insane. If you have contacts, acquaintances, or even friends there, work with them. In the coming years, many social media communities will implode anyway, so online drama is only going to get worse (or better, depending on how you look at these things.)
A warning: if you believe what I’m saying here might be true, don’t expect many people to welcome this thesis. If your creative community is very saturated or an attention bubble, any wavering or flinching will be interpreted as a justification for kicking you out or giving you the cold shoulder.
2 thoughts on “Everything is social Part II”
This is the best bit:
“Don’t take this as an injunction to drop off the Net and stop doing whatever you like, more like a recommendation to adopt something like a hobbyist mindset, because that’s what the digital economy is for 99% of creators, a hobby. After all, the Internet was much better when there were only weirdos showcasing their hobbies on their blogs and nobody made any money out of all this.”
I miss the old weird Internet that wasn’t monetized. I’ve thought of myself as a hobbyist, which has kept me relatively sane in my use of social media, but you’ve really identified some striking trends in how all this works.
There is an interesting connection to D&D. What I’m thinking of here far predates social media, but as you noted SM just accelerated and accentuated tendencies that already existed. For D&D as a game and E. Gary Gygax as a person, the worst thing that happened was becoming a business. The game as a hobby was something magical. Once it needed to meet quarterly and annual sales goals and build the brand, the whole thing started to change into something else. The best thing that ever happened to Gygax was getting booted out of his own company. It freed him to be a hobbyist again.
I know more about SF&F cons than gaming cons, but I have to assume that some of the craziness and drama that attached to these fannish gatherings is much like what you are speaking of with social media, except that social media blurs the distinctions and cranks the feedback loops to eleven. Cons were always full of people trying to sell stuff in the dealer’s room, get the attention of the guests of honor, or sell their book/script/game idea. The germ of what happens in SM now was present then, but it was all limited by who you could actually talk to/see in person.
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Yeah, and if something becomes a cold business, at least that business part should be separated from the fandom as much as possible, but now the fandom is a necessary part of the “nerd industry,” so to speak. That’s one of the focus of Part 3.
Although I suspect there might be a pushback against this because people, even if they can express it well, feel they want to go back to hobbies and are tired of “Communities,” which are aggregations of those people you mention trying to sell you something.