Thoughts on Social Media, Virtue-signalling, and Content Creation
Social media has devolved into an ego-boosting playground. We’ve traded meaningful connections for retweets, likes, and the illusive promise of going viral.
My last (now deleted) post on this site was about how I was heading back to Twitter after initially abandoning my account in the wake of Elon Musk's takeover.
I'll admit I tried, but it's been hard to get excited about posting content to a platform that’s being torn apart by the whims of its extraordinarily rich owner.
Which got me thinking about why I even care about social media in the first place.
I’ve had a social-media-site-formerly-known-as-Twitter account since 2008, and it’s played a crucial part in my growth and development as a product manager and leader over the last decade.
When I became a product manager, I was the first and only PM at the company I worked for and had no one to turn to for support, guidance and mentorship. If I was going to stand any chance of succeeding, I needed to find some people to learn from, and fast.
I tried LinkedIn, but it never really chimed with me. Twitter, on other hand, was perfect. I’d used Twitter in my previous capacity as a music journalist to connect with artists and their PR agencies so using it to connect with product managers and tech people was an easy step.
But what started as a way to build a product management network I could call on for support soon evolved into a personal branding mission.
I think the biggest reason was imposter syndrome. I’d never been a product manager before and had no one to compare myself against to know if I was doing a good job.
But having 20,000 people following me on Twitter made me feel like I knew what I was talking about. The people liking and retweeting my content couldn’t be wrong, could they? I was telling myself I was tweeting to help and teach my fellow product managers, but really I was doing it for self-validation.
In her last blog post before she died, Hachyderm founder Kris Nova made some similar observations:
We have lost our prerogative to enact change. We aren’t using social media to drive action. We are using it to farm a false sense of worth. To cast stones at anyone who foolishly stumbles into the latest virtue-trap. Petty nuance has replaced bold hope.
But using social media to create a sense of self-worth isn't fulfilling. Later on in her post, Nova has these observations:
Broadcasting virtue to the world will never provide internal fulfilment regardless of how true it may be. Virtue signalling is effective in shifting public perception, but remains powerless in shifting an internal self-image.
You can’t tweet your way to self-respect.
Social media has provided a mass platform for extraordinary volumes of external engagement. However it has robbed us of the most critical dialogue, our dialogue with ourselves.
As well as robbing us of our internal dialogue, social media is also impacting our creativity. We might all be calling ourselves content creators, but when we're creating for social media we're really creating for the algorithms that get us our dopamine hits of likes and comments.
YouTuber Casey Neistadt talks about how social media affects creativity in a podcast with Rich Roll:
When influence is valued above creativity, craft is supplanted by self-marketing. Creativity is replaced by serving algorithms. And art is dead.
Maybe it's not all doom and gloom, though.
The disintegration of Twitter (no, Elon; I'm never going to call it X) has kickstarted a social media power shift. People who have no idea what federated content is all about have now heard of Mastodon, and Threads has rocketed to 130m users on the back of its feelgood antithesis to Twitter's hell-scape.
According to Rolling Stone, the Internet is about to get weird again. And one of the places it's already starting to get weird is social media:
A generation ago, we saw early social networks like LiveJournal and Xanga and Black Planet and Friendster and many others come and go, each finding their own specific audience and focus. For those who remember a time in the last century when things were less homogenous, and different geographic regions might have their own distinct music scenes or culinary traditions, it’s easy to understand the appeal of an online equivalent to different, connected neighborhoods that each have their own vibe. While this new, more diffuse set of social networks sometimes requires a little more tinkering to get started, they epitomize the complexity and multiplicity of the weirder and more open web that’s flourishing today.
The idea of global social networks where everyone can “build a brand” is starting to feel a bit outdated. This isn't about broadcasting your own voice to millions of people, it's about finding a community of like-minded weirdos you can have fun with online.
If you can let go of your ego, stop virtue-signalling, and forget about trying to be influencer, social media still has an incredible power to bring people together. It doesn't matter how niche your interests are, you can connect with people all over the world who share the same.
It feels like early Internet-style communities are coming back in a big way across platforms like Discord and Slack.
What do you think?
Is the age of personal branding and audience building over? What does the future look like for our online personas?