In our online lives, we’ve lost the ability to say “no.” This isn’t about the 2.5 hours people spend per day on social media. But rather on the ways social media companies dictate what media we see and how we see it.
For example, on Instagram, the default setting presents the user with content from people they don’t follow into their feed. If you try to turn it off, you can only snooze the setting for 30 days.
On Twitter, users have increasingly voiced their objection to the fact that the app now app automatically opens to its recommended For You feed, which is filled with posts from paying users. Unprompted, TikTok is constantly requesting that you share your contacts to suggest new accounts to follow.
Even Tumblr, which saw a slight resurgence in users once Elon Musk took over Twitter, is trying to convince people to use its new livestreaming function by placing the tab next to the traditional, following-driven feed. Users who want to see the search tab instead can only snooze the Tumblr Live feed for seven days
As I’ve noted previously, these are changes that have been ushered in by the success of TikTok. Since the app exploded in 2020, its competitors have lost users who prefer the video-sharing platform’s captivating algorithm. Other social media sites, desperate to keep up with the tech trends, then directed their attention to revamping their interfaces: Instagram began testing suggested posts in 2021 and Twitter launched its For You feed early this year. According to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the change was meant to increase engagement and revenue.
Which is why Instagram won’t let you turn off the suggested post permanently. In July of last year, Zuckerberg said that 30% of a user's feed would be recommended content by the end of 2023. It might seem like an ambitious goal until you realize that the feature is being pushed as the default setting. At this point, it's just a matter of wearing users down.
But even if users are annoyed by their lack of agency, they have few options if they want to maintain an online presence. While someone might prefer one app over the other, there are still only a handful of major players in the social media game. Occasionally, an underdog, like photo-sharing app BeReal garners enough attention to be deemed a potentially disruptive platform but the hype never lasts.
Which is to say that although complaints about Musk’s Twitter or Instagram’s finicky algorithm are abound, the vast majority of us are clinging to this new normal because there is nowhere else to go. (I don’t know anyone on Mastodon or the decentralized social network BlueSky.)
For years we’ve been promised a new internet with a greater focus on community. But instead what we’ve been left with is a binary choice between sticking around and putting up with the whims of a tech CEO. Or, going outside and touching grass, permantly.
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