The Next Social Platform Won’t Be Individualistic
There is an opportunity to build the next generation of social platforms that build upon our growing desire for deep connection.
Social media is insanely effective at driving human behavior. Just the wrong ones.
Social platforms have created some of the greatest value seemingly out of thin air, having tapped into our innate desire to connect and feel connected. At the same time, it’s become astonishingly clear that they’ve also had detrimental effects on our society; individuals become addicted to endless scrolling, charlatans peddle propaganda and misinformation, and the result is the decay of our bonds to each other. It’s too easy to just myopically wrap up the argument with “social media is bad.”
In previous years, we were able to tell ourselves into thinking that screens were auxiliary to our lives, so we were able to somewhat bear with their ills. No matter how much time we spent with a device in our hands, it would never supplant real world interaction, we told ourselves. However, with the coronavirus pandemic temporarily severing our real world interactions, we are left with digital as the only way of interacting with each other. This narrow channel to the rest of humanity has exposed some of the challenges technology can create — “Zoom fatigue” was not something actively discussed before. No longer is it acceptable to have a sub-human experience on our phones and desktops; these phones and desktops are, for now, the primary way in which we can be human with each other. We should take these challenges as positive, as it exposes the needs of the world to the builders out there — how do we craft experiences that let us get as close as possible to true human connection?
In regard to the major social platforms, while there are calls to regulate, break apart, and unplug, I don’t believe those address the root problem.
The problem is that social media as we know it today is built for, and endlessly optimized, to drive immediate, measurable human behavior. And in the desire to serve the advertising business model, the primary driver has been to hack those behaviors to have us spend as much time engaged and viewing ads — not necessarily connecting with one another. Advertisers are constantly tinkering with social media algorithms in an effort to cause use to keep scrolling and stick around for better sales, for better engagement numbers, but not for the health of our relationships.
The social tools on the internet started out, as much does, with good intentions and true value. The novelty of connecting with, seeing, and talking to each other regardless of proximity became enmeshed with how we related to each other. But as what we said or shared online became our primary representation of ourselves — and therefore our self worth — our egos became enslaved to the tools. Twitter’s original prompt was “What are you doing?” This gave us the ability to share the raw feed of our lives behind the curtain (I did). Now, given the immense volume of messages we see, and the desire to get some kind of feedback as a faceless algorithm decides who views what, every post is crafted as if our reputation hangs in the balance. Facebook was a place you could write on each other’s walls, poke, and play games.
Now, we fight for relevance on a central feed and take a like or comment as a measure of our value to society. Josh Elman notes “the challenge isn’t that we gave everyone a voice. It’s that we gave them a channel.” Our primary job now is to broadcast a message by shouting into the ether, in the hopes that message is viewed favorably. Otherwise, in our mind, why post at all?
“The modern devil is cheap dopamine.” — Naval Ravikant
Social Media has been just that… media. We’ve created a new voice in the commons. As Mark Zuckerberg claimed, social media platforms are the Fifth Estate, where everyone has the ability to create and hear each other. But as more and more emphasis has been created around social media platforms, we’ve all been geared to think that the two most important things is creating content that people respond favorably to and responding favorably to other people’s content. The result is that everyone is shouting into the wind, hoping that someone will hear them. But real connection with others — the early promise of social media — is reliant on much more than public exchanges.
Connection requires deep vulnerability, real conversation, and, most of all, doing things together to weave a shared context and the ever-powerful story.
What will it take to realize that the primary goals we’re working toward on social media are not of our own creation? That these goals have been set for us as opposed to by us? As author and psychoanalyst James Hollis shared from one of his patients, “I always sought to win whatever the game was, and only now do I realize how much I have been played by the game. I played the game hard and willingly, always thinking I was winning something. But in the end there really was nothing to win, or what I did win really didn’t matter in the end.”
If existing social platforms are built on what will drive us to market our individual selves, what happens if we’re no longer as interested in said marketing? What if our social priorities shift to something else?
America’s flavor of capitalism has increasingly championed individual success over that of the collective, relying on the fabric woven by our traditional social institutions to keep us together. We could strive to be robber-barons on Mondays, as long as we took our seat in the church pew the following Sunday. When mainstream society 1960s swung away from conformity toward freedom and autonomous identity, it welcomed people to “be themselves.” While this opened up the possibility for incredible advancements in creating a more inclusive society, it did little to aid the mutual cooperativeness that we so need. Instead, it put the needs of me above all else, at the cost of us. The question is this: when everyone is not just free to be themselves, but encouraged to be themselves, do we inflate our egos too much? And with everyone championing what makes them an individual and different from others, can anyone belong anymore?
Our individualism comes at a cost, as we put into greater importance on ourselves at the cost of our connections to others. Extreme individualism, which we see everywhere around us today, ignores and violates the innate kinship we all have. What better example of this do we have nowadays than the “personal choice” to not wear a mask, at the expense of everyone around you.
So, should we be surprised at all that our “social” tools are built to serve the individual in their thirst for recognizing their own individualism? We tweak the filters on our Instagram accounts to get likes, caress the words on our Facebook post to get comments, and continually work on our public self to look as on top of it as possible — who cares about anyone around us, right? While we do everything to come across as confident and “slaying it” among our #squad, we know deep down that something is else is present. Anxiety about the future. Confusion over what our priorities are and should be. The feeling of being stuck. Lost. These are the words that each of us can relate to in our situation, backed up by research that we’re losing our friendships, committing suicide more, and lonely than before. “This is an inheritance of absolutely nothing as far as meaningful moral values,” notes author David Foster Wallace, a victim of suicide himself.
The biggest opportunity for the next wave of social platform is to skate where society is heading. Not to build around how we operate today.
Is individualism the way of the future?
As evidenced by our treatment of each other in contemporary society, I believe that we’ve hit bottom, or close to it. We have been driven to hunger relentlessly for anything that helps *me — *money, power, status, clicks, likes. We have been led to believe that the good life is about checking off the boxes that others have set for us, and maybe, donate a few dollars or tip a little bit extra. But here we are, safer, better fed, and with more opportunities than all of our ancestors, and we are miserable. Divided. Alienated. Rotten.
But with a bottom comes the opportunity to bounce back with fervor, in a different direction. I’m a fervent believer in the opportunity to move away from our hyper-individualistic world to something much more deeper and fulfilling. More than we may realize, we can fundamentally reprogram our society. Who we are, and therefore how we view the world, can change at any one moment. Our worldviews can shift with the tide, and I believe that technology can be leveraged to create tidal waves of positive change.
Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. — Victor Hugo
Rather than continue our path of increasing hyper-individualism, I believe we will prioritize deep relations and community in the coming decades.
You can tell the difference between someone still operating with a hyper-individualistic mindset, and someone who has made the shift to be more relational. Personal happiness, independence, self-control, power are the primary terms and themes you may hear from someone who chooses to “be me.” There is nothing inherently wrong with those motivations, except when it’s pursued above all else. However, what you hear from the growing masses is the desire to “be we” again, through interdependence and relationship. Instead of constantly talking, the one who has prioritized human connection is constantly listening to others, and themselves.
If we are shifting away from individualism into community, then the tools we use and value will shift too.
What if the interaction patterns on the social platforms we use every day were completely different? What if like counts went away? What if comment threads were healthy debate forums to explore alternate points of view?
One of the best hints of this shift may be in the platforms themselves. Facebook has been leaning more and more into community as a core product initiative, with the emphasis on empowering community builders and funneling people into groups . It might work, and we might go there to find our third place, to belong, and to grow. Or it might be too little, too late, and we could continue to see it as a place for carnival barkers to get reactions. I go to Facebook for my sweet tooth — to share highlights, get likes, and feel little hits of dopamine. I’ve sought my true community elsewhere — to belong. To grow. To see and be seen. To be part of something bigger. To realize that, as Bruce Springsteen once shared with Dave Grohl, “When you look out at the audience, you should see yourself in them, just as they should see themselves in you.”
The last wave of faux-social products were little more than advertising platforms that preyed on our coding. The next generation has the opportunity to nourish our yearning for a deepened sense of humanity, to unlock our psyches. To get us out of our ego-feeding trends of begging for likes by posting our individual highlights. To break the filter bubbles and see the opportunity to really engage with others, as uncomfortable as it may be at times. To move our fingers from doomscrolling to sharing messages of deep thought and intention. We have more motivation — and tools — than ever. As venture capitalist James Currier says, “The best product builders understand that great “social” means creating something that compels our humanity and our psyche.”
There’s a tremendous opportunity to put aside, almost entirely, the existing model of social platforms, and build towards how we need to connect.
We must break out of the distortion field of our individual thinking today, wipe the slate clean, and project ourselves into the brighter future. What do our higher selves call for? What isn’t being provided today nearly well enough? From there, the bridges to that future can be found — and unlike past generations that had to rely on iron and atoms, we’ll be relying on bytes and pixels. As Albert Einstein shared “The significant problems cannot be solved by the same thinking that created them.”
The next wave of social platforms will put “we” before “me”
What is the ultimate solution? As Viktor Frankl said, “The salvation of man is through love and in love.” What does a platform look like that lets us feel love? Is love seeing 101 favorites on a post become 102? Probably not. Is love walking away from an experience feeling like you were finally accepted as your true self? That’s more like it. We seek love and acceptance, but we are also innately greedy creatures, prone to acting in our best interest. But as blockchain has proven, there are ways to build systems where equilibrium is maintained by every actor being as greedy as possible. What will a world look like when we’ve built the right incentives into our social tools and our society — where all parties benefit from being, and aiding, our true selves? What if status and value can be derived from our ability to connect and help others connect — not to just show them one more advertisement?
We can look to some of the tastemakers online for clues. Social Media influencers have tapped into the yearning that the people have these days — to belong, to actually follow something beyond the weak “follow” we’ve been conditioned to online. They need to — fans are ephemeral, and the content creator is one of many they subscribe to, and can just as easily tire of and silence with one click. But true believers will buy whatever you tell them to, follow you to whatever platform you ask, recruit whomever you tell them to.
A recent New York Times article spoke about Tik Tok cults. Pause. Yes, cults. On Tik Tok. Should we be surprised? These “cults” are giving people purpose, and purpose can be the best cure. “I think a lot of people want to be a part of something,” said one participant in the article. Part of something.
What does a platform look like that lets people be part of something? To belong?
The great challenge of our time — the Age of Belonging — is to break out of our current hyper-individual mode. The mode that has us focused on the egoistic self, on stacking up and climbing the social ladder, on the dollars in our bank accounts or the followers on social media, on external measures as a way of assessing self worth. It will be very hard to break away from our extrinsic motivations, as it is indeed the mode that everyone around us subscribes to and encourages us to subscribe to, as unhealthy as it may be. But we need to, as David Brooks has shared, “build a culture that steers people toward relation, community, and commitment — the things we most deeply yearn for, yet undermine with our hyper-individualistic way of life.” As organized institutions, long the skeletal structure for our world, continue to atrophy, defining the common moral language amongst all of us will be one of the most exciting challenges.
Shifting your soul’s center of gravity from internal egoistic pursuits to a life of deep meaning and belonging doesn’t necessarily begin with, or require, sitting in silent retreat for a year or deep self reflection. Like any habit, it takes a little bit of momentum to get going. Finding the opportunity to authentically connect with a stranger can be a soul-expanding experience, and one moment of connection can pave the way for a lifetime of it. Building that habit will reprogram your world to be less about yourself and more about your surroundings. And, like every other job to be done in our modern world, social media platforms can play a major role in aiding that.
I believe we have more agency over our future than we think. Yes, momentum may be pushing us strongly in one direction. But we have the ability to make that change. And with that challenge comes the call to build tools for that future culture.
Many thanks to Sara Stibitz for her amazing editing skills, George Sequeira, Nick Gray, and Solon Teal for ripping apart an early version of this. Illustrations by the amazing Fru Pinter (thx Nick for the intro!).