404 Not Found: The Future Absence of Social Media

Essay / November 2022

404 Not Found: The Future Absence of Social Media 
By Jacob Barnes

There is a small pleasure in the chaos that Elon Musk has sowed over at Twitter HQ; a levity that comes with being reminded that the otherwise immovable fixtures of our world are in fact much more malleable than previously thought. A year ago, it would have been near-impossible to imagine one of social media’s giants no longer playing an important role in the media landscape. Today, it not only looks possible, it’s very plausible.

But as Musk looks to undo his 44 billion dollar investment in 180 character increments and late night duty-calls, I am struck by how logical this deterioration of social media appears within a global geopolitical context. Indeed, what really seems to be at the heart of Twitter’s meltdown is not managerial ineptitude (although that doesn’t help), but instead a decoupling of globalism as we perceive it and how it can be realised.

Elon Musk appears to be of the persuasion that “free speech absolutism” represents the apex of interpersonal communication; that if everyone can say exactly what they think, we can divine what it is that humanity as a whole wants, or at least engender discourses that reflect the viewpoints of the masses. It also happens to be the case that mass discourses tend to be a little bit more coarse than we’d otherwise think productive. And “little bit” is a gross understatement; as forums like 4chan and its spawn (and the devolution of Twitter over the last few weeks) clarify, mass discourses becomes vulgar, hateful seeding grounds for misguided groupthink. In other words, we’re coming to realise that constant, unmoderated, cross-cultural contact is ultimately untenable. When presented with what everyone actually wants to say all of the time, many of us grow tired of the resulting nonsense, and choose to turn off the tap—users have left Twitter in droves. Circling back around to managerial ineptitude, Twitter employees don’t seem to be big fans of the Musk regime either.

The end result is that we all recede back into our localised groups for communication, composed primarily of those we know or take a serious interest in our work. When faced with the very real impediments towards full-scale globalism—supply chain disruptions, inflation, deflation, global health crises—it turns out that we don’t really have much time anymore for what everyone else thinks. That is not to say that internationalism is dead; it predates social media. Instead, it is to suggest that the way we conceive of it, as a kind of immutable stream of impersonal data that defines much of our waking hours, may change. I’m also not the only one thinking this way: Substack Chat seems to aim exactly at this development.

In light of this, (I hope) the Instagram-dependent international art market has had a good shudder. If the recent spate of accidental suspensions and historically low engagement aren’t enough to highlight the frailty of the platform’s infrastructure, Twitter’s downturn, along with Meta’s floundering elsewhere, ought to be well-heeded signs. A key facilitator of both recognition and sales, Instagram can (and may) reach a self-inflicted obsolescence. If it proves no longer functional for its business uses, while exhibiting and buying work becomes more costly on a macro scale due to rising costs in labour and transport, it must be replaced. Not by way of conscientious technological revolt, but by the need to drive interactions and sales in an otherwise fickle business.

Again, personalised and localised modes of contact may once more hold primacy—if Instagram can no longer effectively connect galleries to their audience, temporally immediate and geographically proximate answers are natural replacements. While collective privacy remains an issue, WhatsApp and Telegram may have the edge here: the group chat is a functional and already culturally legible means of reaching large swathes of people.

Maybe this is a flash in the pan; these minor ripples may never translate to the wave of changes they possibly signal. Yet, in conceiving of these alternatives, particularly as they relate the world as it changes around us, we reveal valuable alternative modes of operating. We may continue tweeting and posting well into the future, but we remain active agents in our response to major shifts in global paradigms. If only to echo a truism, it’s better to dictate these changes than to simply fall subject to them.

Image Credits:
Image 1: Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash