As we enter the final stretch of the quarter (thank god), I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking beyond finals to what comes after: that American institution, spring break. A time for relaxation at home, or tanning on the beach or drunken bacchanals on yachts in Cabo — and, whatever the speed, a flood of Snapchat stories and Instagram posts detailing all the fun we’re having.
Some of us will spend hours picking out the perfect shot, editing it until it matches our #aesthetic. Some, because we’re “brand ambassadors” for some Fun Clothing Label, will pose in cute swimsuits by that label in pictures that aren’t ads per se, just #sponsored. Some will do neither — we’ll just scroll through our feeds, probably judging everyone else for their vacation destinations or outfit choices.
All this is part of a shift in recent years from what used to be “social networks” (remember that movie?) to “social media.” Aren’t those the same thing, you ask? Well, yeah, effectively, but there is a kind of distinction in mindset and purpose, if not the actual services involved.
Social networks are connecting with old friends you haven’t seen in a while, making plans to hit up cool events, discovering cool people with common interests and hanging out — all the same things you’d do without a computer but easier and faster. Social media is your “aesthetic,” your #sponsored posts, your “quality content” — a thousand words replaced by a single photo, released to the masses to be (mostly) passively consumed. It’s the Color Factory, the millennial pink cafes, the rainbow bagels that look cool on Instagram but taste like cardboard.
Networks are about connections with other people. Media is your content and your brand — it’s all about you.
Having an online brand or aesthetic isn’t in itself a bad thing — in many ways, our online aesthetics are extensions of the visual aesthetics we already build up in our everyday style choices. We’re fundamentally visual creatures, and the ease of transmitting visuals on the internet has accelerated some really cool developments in fashion and other kinds of art. It’s unsurprising that out of five social media services analyzed in a 2017 report, the two most visually-oriented — YouTube and Instagram — ranked highest for positive impacts on “self-expression” and “self-identity.”
Just because we’re wired to love visual content, though, doesn’t mean we should be bombarded with just visuals all the time. We also crave fat and sugar, but nobody’s saying we should eat McDonald’s all day. In the same report, Instagram and Snapchat — another mostly visual platform — ranked least positively for “community building” and most negatively for “FOMO.”
But these problems — the links to depression, the addictive gamification — are all well documented. The real issue is that nobody knows how to fix it. Focusing on content, not interactions, is the only proven way to generate revenue, and visual content is the most effective. Instagram (by which I mean Facebook) has figured this out, as have all the brands paying us (and “Bachelor” runner-ups) to shill swimsuits, shimmer highlighter and subscription snack boxes. And yeah, making money off a product you already enjoy is kind of cool, but the idea of a city of human billboards has always been a dystopian one for a reason.
The problem of monetization is one that the internet has struggled with for a while now. Newspapers and new-media sites know it well, and they’ve discovered that paywalls are the only way to support an online service without overloading it with ads, especially since Facebook and Google eat up all the ad revenue on their platforms. Internet advertising is a broken model, and everyone knows it.
The big tech companies understand this, too. Facebook announced recently the not-at-all-shocking discovery that passive social content consumption is awful for your mental health while active interactions with friends are good. Notwithstanding the underlying message that the solution is to use Facebook even more, it’s telling that two of Facebook’s only remaining useful functions — Groups and Messenger — are the two where the content is generated by people, where the draw is interactions with people, where there are no ads (but not for long!).
Likewise, Snapchat recently tried to separate friends’ content from paid media content in its UI — which was the right move, just executed with the ugliest, most unfortunate design choices of all time. (PSA @evanspiegel: You can’t jam that many features into a single app without some kind of easy-to-use menu bar-ish thing. Also, you’re not a “camera company,” but I digress.)
Maybe I’m just refusing to catch up to reality. I miss the stream of stupid Facebook posts from early high school (“hey i’m behind you in class,” “hello poop”), but that kind of public-private conversation is untenable now at the scale of most people’s friend networks. But I think it’s significant that today we have finstagrams and private groups and that the way we communicate is still primarily through old-school texting and basic messaging apps.
One day, someone might come up with a way to do it — a free social network that’s fun to use and encourages real connections with friends. I think Snapchat was close for a bit. The brilliant thing about disappearing photos had nothing to do with nudes; it was the fact that you could share stupid shit and silly moments in your daily life with your friends and laugh about it without worrying about your “brand” or “profile.” But unfortunately, that alone doesn’t make money.
I guess nobody’s figured out how to monetize human connection. But what’s new, right? In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to the spring break pics. May we all find ourselves cute outfits and good lighting.
Contact Stephanie Chen at stephchen ‘at’ stanford.edu.