Photo by Hailey Kean

We need to talk

But without putting up a performance.

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.
William Shakespeare, As you like it

Shakespeare’s words could not be truer today. We now spend more time on social media than we spend on even eating or drinking. Clearly, social media is important to us. However, most social media platforms have slowly evolved into places to showcase and perform, not interact. What we thought was a club has become an amphitheatre — one microphone on a stage in the front, while everyone else is seated around it, all of whom are on a higher pedestal than the stage. And the entry is free.

We’ve all felt it one time or the other: You publish a post, and anxiously wait for people to react to it. Very few or no reactions come, though, as your post flows in and out of the social consciousness like a tree that fell in the forest, and nobody heard it. So that’s anxiety, followed by embarrassment: this is not an experience one has when having a conversation. This is an experience of a performance gone bad.

The same goes for reactions on these platforms. When you post on a group or public fora, a lot of people see it, immediately have mental reactions to it, but most move on without expressing anything. Just like posts, reactions are measured and tailored because they too define your identity online.

Social media treats interaction as currency. As in any system involving currency, natural tendencies eventually give way to cautiousness and calculations that will help maximise one’s ROI, shifting focus from the real goal to fake, vain ones. People don’t express, they work the system, because there is currency to earn. Post baby pictures, vacation pictures, significant achievements in life — these sell. People spend reactions on these easily. Post an opinion, and suddenly, there’s either silence or a raging debate. Nothing in between.

How do we fix this? We need these platforms but they must enable conversations instead of pushing us towards free performances and the lowest common denominator of human interaction. Perhaps a couple of tweaks would help bring in nuances of the way people interact normally.

Remove bias

People tend to hit like more on posts that have already garnered some amount of likes. A popular performance easily grows in popularity. It is exponentially harder for people to be the first ones to like a post that comes in their feed.

Imagine if all the social media platforms hid the number of likes from everyone except the person who published the post. How would the experience change? Imagine the implications: if you hit like on something, nobody other than the person who put it up, sees it. If you post something, nobody knows if it was received well or not. Suddenly, the bias that is created by others’ reactions and the relative scale of measuring success is eliminated. A measure of honesty might get injected into reactions!

Tackle the bystander effect

When people know that a post could be visible to scores or hundreds of people, they don’t feel compelled to react to it. Why should I, if others have not? Why should I, if others can do too?

Imagine, then, a platform where the person publishing the post has significant control over whom the post reaches. Consequently, as a regular user of the platform, if you see a post in your feed, you know it’s there because its publisher probably put it there for you to see it, that they chose you for it. You, the viewer, are no longer a bystander, but a recipient, a participant. The drive to react to it in this case is much higher, almost like an email.

Recognise that content is not interaction

This simple realisation is what most of this write-up is building up to. Most social media platforms simultaneously claim to be a tool for connecting people to each other, and platforms for finding content. Over time, the narrative has blurred the line between content and interaction. It’s quite ridiculous, if you really think about it — tools built for human interaction should never be worried about the content in the interaction. They should worry about the quality of the interaction itself.

Imagine a platform designed for better quality of interaction, and not more volume of content. The incentive system on this platform would automatically stop encouraging vanity points aimed at content such as likes, and start valuing parameters that create better inter-person interaction. It worries about whom to send the post to, about the relevance of a post, its value to the targeted audience and its need for urgency. It evolves better features for interaction with one another, rather than, say, yet another way to watch cat-videos, but this time in 360 degrees.

We need social media now more than ever, but only if it helps us to interact, not to put up an act.