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The illusion of digital community

Are we in the darkness before a dawn of less social media?


The illusion of digital community

After several years without a Facebook account, I recently rejoined the site, with a small goal of reconnecting with a handful of friends and spreading the word about some upcoming projects. I quickly added a couple dozen folks and looked forward to seeing their smiling faces on my timeline once again.

My excitement was short-lived. Even after adding several friends, my page was filled not with status updates or cute family photos but advertisements: mostly “promoted” videos from creators I had zero connection with, viral posts intended to pull me down a content rabbit hole instead of friends’ profiles. The logic of Facebook’s algorithm was clear. They expected, and wanted, me to use Facebook for media consumption, rather than relational connection.

As frustrating as this development was, it was not an accident or flaw. Rather, it’s an unmistakable evolution among the major 2000s-era social media companies. What began as a promise to bring people closer to you has transformed into a guarantee to overwhelm you with content. Content is what influencers create, including funny or interesting media, tailor-made to go viral and build up a large following.

The ascendance of the predictive algorithm in Big Tech has made content a massively lucrative business for sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. A decade ago, the first thing a new user of one of these sites would see upon registration was a prompt to search for real people they knew. Now, in almost every case, the first and most important prompt is to select which content creators or major organizations you “like,” and proceed to consume their content.

In a November 2022 piece for The Atlantic, Kate Lindsey chronicled how this transformation at Instagram has alienated their older user base, many of whom now find Instagram nearly unusable as a place to see what their actual loved ones are up to. Lindsey describes Instagram’s current business model as a “capitulation to a new era of ‘performance’ media, in which we create online primarily to reach people we don’t know instead of the people we do.” Performance media is not personal, but strictly business: a post that is almost always a calculated effort to go viral and earn some kind of kickback for the creator.

The very shape of the internet commends passive consumption rather than connection.

Predictive algorithms and the rise of the digital influencer are both perhaps inevitable consequences of the migration of our leisure time to online platforms. On one level, this means that the internet now looks less like a democratically controlled space and more like the broader entertainment business. But on another level, this new influencer-dominated era of social media is a concession to something its critics have known for a long time: that digital “community” is an illusion, and that the very shape of the internet commends passive consumption rather than connection.

This reality has become unavoidable, especially as the rates of loneliness and isolation among young, uber-connected Americans skyrocket. The very technology that was supposed to make everything from business networking to dating to post-college friendship better has instead yielded vast numbers of young adults (and no small number of older adults) who are much better at scrolling than conversation.

These negative effects have a gendered inflection that makes them more potent. Instagram’s algorithmic emphasis on attractiveness and having a “streamable” life pushes insecurity especially hard on young women, whereas platforms like TikTok are alarmingly effective on hooking young men to more and more fringe content via the algorithm.

Content’s conquest of friendship is a bad omen, at least in the short term. In the long term, however, it may be a blessing. As the major internet corporations sell their souls and their code to consumerism, they may have a harder time convincing users that their technology is necessary to maintain relationships. It may be little more than a pipe dream, but I believe there’s a version of the next decade in which scores of Millennials and Gen-Z become fed up with the content mills and decide to put online technology in its proper place. This would be a win not just for the Luddites but for the church, which has a mandate to shape people with the gospel and with embodied gathering that pushes back against the digital liturgies of the age.

Temptation, of course, is not easily overcome. But the age of anti-social media might just be a long-sought opportunity to cast a light on the limitations of technology and the superior joys of human engagement.

Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife Emily live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.

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