One of the outcomes of the Stay-at-Home/Shelter-in-Place/Lockdown/whatever-we-call-this-self-isolation-thing I’m quite enjoying is the resurgence of the virtual water cooler conversational approach on various social networks combined with a decline in the “I wanna be a social media influencer” performative approach.
I’ve watched more people interact and engage in more meaningful conversations than I’ve seen in a long time. I’m enjoying the spontaneous discussions, the generosity of people just waiting in the wings to see whom they can help, the mutual vulnerability of everyone involved in chatter about how to cope, and the amazing amount of actual listening that I see people doing.
Contrast this to pre-COVID-19 isolation when everyone was too busy trying to prove themselves to the world – growing their “personal brand,” chasing the dopamine hits that follow likes and shares, spending countless hours creating and curating content to perform their profound knowledge or perfect lives (“if you want to be successful just like me, do this…”).
I know why so many people were doing this: it does bring attention and opportunity from time to time. I totally get the desire to be seen and valued and create a level of security.
But honestly? Social networks had become insufferable. Everyone was yelling and hand waving and begging for attention, but the pursuit of this attention (and the amount of focus on making content) had sucked all of the time away from being present and interactive.
Social media used to feel like the town square, where you’d witness people engaging in conversations, moving from group to group, catching up with one another, and making new acquaintances. In my early days of social media, I met new people every single day through conversations. I’d open up my feed to witness a friend talking about an interesting subject with a group. Within that group, I’d discover new people I hadn’t met before. I’d jump into the conversation and, within minutes, I’d have new connections. Some of those connections would deepen to become lifelong friends.
Sure, there were a few performers and salespeople, but I didn’t pay too much attention unless I needed to be entertained or to buy something in particular. I didn’t mind their presence. They were part of the mix. I certainly didn’t see them as something to aspire to.
But something changed. Maybe it was that there were a few performers that showed up and “inspired” the rest of the townspeople with their razzle-dazzle. Perhaps the growth of social media created more opportunities for salespeople and performers to thrive. Either way, the interactions people were having waned while the transactions that were happening grew.
The context of uncertainty and anxiety around COVID-19 has made salespeople and performers gauche and unwanted. People have gathered, once again, in the town square to participate and connect. We’re isolated, so we need to have conversations beyond our immediate networks. We’re afraid, so we’re seeking solace in the solidarity of our “togetherness.”
Celebrities and influencers have tried to distract us with their razzle-dazzle, but it just demonstrates how desperate they are for attention. Did they always look that sad and cringeworthy? I re-watched Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes roast lately, and, man, he was right. He was still mean about it, but he was bang on.
I wonder if we can ever look at Instagram models, YouTube listicle makers, and LinkedIn pontificators the same way we did pre-COVID-19. I hope not. I hope we can all agree that conversations and discovering new friends and contacts make for a much more delightful experience of these platforms.
I still believe that social media platforms made a terrible error when they decided to publish vanity metrics for follows, likes, and shares instead of points for positive community participation (like on Reddit). A few networks, like Snapchat, have designed for participation rather than performance (only the person who holds the account sees the numbers), but even before the pandemic, there were signs of hope as Instagram started experimenting with hiding vanity metrics.
I, for one, am exhausted. I’m exhausted from watching and dodging all of the people performing. For a long time, I’ve been dissatisfied with social media, spending less and less time on it. In the past two months, however, I’m falling in love again… all due to the return to our conversational town square.
What do you think? Would you like to return to a world filled with people performing for your attention or continue on with this world where we catch up with old friends and discover new ones?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.