The day Social Media died
We’re interviewing Dr. Marvin Wankman, a Ph.D specialist in media history at Harvard University, about the demise of social media and why all the predictions about its rise were wrong. Welcome Dr. Wankman.
Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Let me start by reading you a few things that were written in the media about social media in the year 2009. From TIME Magazine: “Social media takes over the world.” From The New York Times: “Soon, we’ll all be tweeting 24/7/365.” From The Economist: “It’s a social media world and we all just live in it.” From Wired Magazine: “There is no doubt that social media will revolutionize the way humans communicate with each other.” Now here we are in the year 2017 and the social media landscape is a shambles. What happened?
Well, it was just another case of media hype. After Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were in great uncertainty. Couple that with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession, the election of Barack Obama, and the difficulties of traditional media, and people were in an apocalyptic state of mind. It seemed that the world as we had always known it was changing fast. So with the boom of social media, it was natural for people to think it represented some major new paradigm in human development. But, of course, it didn’t. It was just another bubble.
Didn’t anybody at the time point out that social media was not as revolutionary as everyone said it was?
A few people, here and there. But by and large, their viewpoints were swept away by the avalanche of media coverage that insisted social media was the wave of the future.
What was the turning point for social media, the point at which things began falling apart?
There were many and they were incremental. One of the first was in mid-2009, when reports surfaced that people were leaving Twitter faster than they were joining it. Another early warning was when Baby Boomers took over Facebook, which drove the Millennials away from it, toward a chaotic mix of bizarre alternatives that splintered the community and further confused it. And certainly, in 2010, when Nabisco bought Facebook, that generated a lot of hostility. And it didn’t help when, that same year, Gary Vaynerchuk announced he was quitting all web activity on being hired as the new host of American Idol, after Ryan Seacrest was killed in that freak balloon accident. But I think the real turning point was more subtle. It was when people starting realizing that spending all their free time on social media was boring and non-productive.
There was also a psychological aspect. Remember that case in 2011, when a woman in Omaha sought coverage from her HMO for addiction to Twitter? Saturday Night Live had that Tina Fey parody where she was “twaddicted to twack.” Twitter became a laughingstock. Suddenly, it wasn’t cool to be pecking away on your iPhone all day and night, it was seen as a form of deviancy. Human beings realized that actual speaking — talking to the person next to you — is better than obsessively sending off vapid messages into the ether. Young people began re-engaging with one another. As more and more people distanced themselves from social media, the only ones still using it were the elderly. (It was no coincidence when the AARP declared 2011 “The Year of Social Media.”) The crowning point — the coup de grace — was that episode of The Simpsons in 2012, where Grandpa Simpson was trying to text message, and Bart and Lisa were gagging because it was so uncool.
In retrospect, what lessons can be learned from the demise of social media?
Well, in view of the fact that Twitter went bankrupt in 2013 and wiped out $40 billion in stock value, one lesson would be to be careful where you invest your money! Another is to be wary of anything you hear in the media — especially when it’s the media talking about itself to itself. But probably the ultimate lesson is an optimistic one: when all is said and done, humans are social creatures who like to associate with each other. Social media was too divisive. Rather than allowing us to come together, it pushed us apart. It was an ersatz community, a Potemkin Village of virtual, not real, relationships. A reaction was bound to set in.
Thank you very much, Dr. Wankman. It’s been fun.
Yes, it was. Thank you.