Social media is resource extraction and you are the resource
Drill, baby! Drill!
Edited by Sam Thielman
IT’S DIFFICULT to care too awfully much about the way Elon Musk is pulverizing Twitter. The platform has not dissolved entirely, as some feared, but it’s certainly about as stupid and chaotic as I expected Musk’s ownership to make it.
Since the epic bacon billionaire acquired the platform, he’s severely polluted its cultural influence and junked up its user experience—presumably in the hope of squeezing some additional profit out of users willing to pay for a version that sucks less. Well, that’s one reason; another is apparently the pursuit of the good opinion of people like Catturd2, who wake up every morning to a world of infinite possibilities and decide to fill their wild and precious corners of the internet with vapid bullshit that pleases no one but the world’s conservative elites and their toadies. Each day brings new and surprising ways to make this farcical scenario slightly stupider.
There are certainly things that make the situation around Twitter unique. Musk is both Twitter’s owner and its (self-appointed) main character, motivated by his fragile ego and a hopeless addiction to the kind of superficial validation with which his platform entices its users to return again and again. But on a deeper level, Musk’s retooling of Twitter isn’t terribly unlike that of other social media behemoths on the other side of their peak. Musk is shamelessly and belligerently piloting Twitter down a path that several have blazed before him with more precision.
Social media platforms can be understood as extractive businesses like oil companies or mineral mines. Both kinds of business extract value that isn’t monetized elsewhere and destroy structures protecting that value from them, whether those are land use restrictions or shared senses of reality. The brains behind these corporations scour the world for undiscovered territory where they might strike liquid—or digital, or literal—gold. They rush to dominate and monopolize at the first signs of success, using the powers that God-mode amounts of money give them to squash would-be competitors, court cultural influences, integrate with businesses, curry favor with politicians, and so on.
When they’ve obtained the means to begin their real work, they use the influences they’ve cultivated to protect their projects’ viability. For social media giants, part of that strategy includes manipulating people to be dependent on their products and in turn capturing a space in the minds of their users. These efforts happen over the course of years and often come at a financial loss to the companies.
But, once a reliable worksite is established, the real extraction process can begin. The people who use social media platforms are the product for sale, incentivizing those platforms to exploit and sap users of their maximum value—which in this case takes the form of attention, a currency that can be exchanged for political power. In the extraction phase, platforms deploy more advertising, data collection, and engagement bait, and sometimes they directly solicit money from users. Any conceivable source of revenue is ruthlessly stripped out in service of the bottom line, user experience be damned. In the same way that drilling oil damages the environment, this priority shift often undermines the novelty that makes these platforms appealing to begin with, and by extension, any parts of the host culture—journalism, politics, entertainment—that have become dependent on them.
For many modern tech giants—Meta comes to mind, here—we are witnessing this extraction process in real time. When they reach their endpoints, whether that is years or decades from now, it will not be the companies but instead society left to reconcile with the devastation the process inflicted. And while we contemplate and debate ways to salvage the wreckage, the venture capitalists who underwrote the damage will be hunting for their next chance to do it all over again. In fact, many are already trying to do just this.
We have collectively surrendered how we use the internet to relate to each other— communication—to ruthless corporations, placing ourselves in the middle of fundamentally exploitative business models that work against our own best interests. But like the climate change that oil production hastens, we now face dangers larger than individual consumer choices can solve. Left to their own devices, these companies will never reform themselves in any way that makes a hole in their balance sheets. We need business regulation and we needed it years ago.
It’d be a shame if Musk manages to destroy every benefit Twitter was able to provide people who wanted to participate in public conversation with political and cultural figures. But what does it say about us that we tolerate an internet where methods of communication can be sabotaged by the insecurities of a single man?
TWITTER IS THE ONLY social media platform I use in any public way. My accounts on other platforms are as private as they’re able to be and things will stay that way for the safety of myself and my family, given the kind of work I do for a living. That’s to say that beyond this newsletter I don’t have a sort of backup location for those trying to find my work.
One might expect someone in my position to be more protective of the digital soapbox I have, but I am increasingly content to let it collapse, should things continue to slump in that direction. Some of this comes from the fact I’m a little bit older now and my life’s priorities have shifted accordingly. But a lot of it has more to do with what platforms like Twitter have done to my mind over time. Years of my life were shaped by my near-constant use of social media, which I understand now had profoundly negative impacts on my wellbeing. The internet is cool and convenient but ultimately it ends up making us miserable.
The human mind is not made to sit under a waterfall of information all day. A bombardment of messages numbs our mental state, makes us feel confused, and turns us into easier marks to manipulate. Some political actors know this intimately, like Steve Bannon and his “flood the zone with shit” mantra. It’s how hate-driven clickbait can make Kid Rock want to fire guns into cases of Bud Light.
It seems counter-intuitive, but subjecting ourselves to a constant flow of information doesn’t always make us smarter. Regularly checking our social media feeds does not necessarily make us better informed about the people around us or the situations we face. In some situations, that barrage of information might even produce the opposite effect.
SOME READERS MIGHT KNOW I have taken up golf in my spare time. On social media, and especially YouTube, there is an ocean of golf content to fill the void between weekend rounds with my friends. Perfectly good (but hardly exceptional) players offer loads of videos promising to help viewers fix their cursed swings, each containing a new tip or trick that just might unlock some unrealized potential. I can, and have, watched many hours of these videos only to play just as poorly, or even worse, the next time I tee up. It doesn’t matter how much I now think I know about hitting wedges, no amount of video content will ever teach me what it feels like to swing properly.
Which is merely to say that there’s no substitute for the physical and mental experience of being there—whatever that might mean to you and what you care about. The idea sounds very obvious, but it’s been harder to implement in my day to day life than I am happy to admit.
Our time on this planet is too uncertain to find our sense of self in the judgments we face online from strangers who we’ll never meet in person. Social media platforms encourage us to doubt that truth. They’re only successful if we agree to do that.
We might not be able to change these companies, but we do have a say in the terms and conditions they try to create in our offline lives.