#109: Waiting on Silicon Valley
On the creep of techno-pessimism
About 10 years ago, a clever observation a person could make at Thanksgiving dinner was that high school reunions were becoming irrelevant. With the ubiquity of Facebook, the thinking went, everybody would already be up to speed on everyone else. You would forever know what your high school prom king was up to in your hometown, or if that nervous kid from biology got hot and rich, waylaying the promise of a Romy and Michele-style comeback. It recently occurred to me that this future never really came to bear. In fact, I have no idea what most of my high school and college peers are up to. Nor do I know every time an old coworker I barely knew has a baby. This idea that social media would prevent us from losing touch with everyone we ever met now feels like an old, retrofuturist mirage.
The mass migration away from Facebook to Instagram was the first portent of its irrelevance, and the current Instagram malaise feels like the next. Only a handful of people I know still regularly post about what they’re doing, and the rest have abandoned the effort, only popping up occasionally with a meme or selfie or promotional link, or else disappearing entirely. Today my Instagram feed is mostly populated by artists, animals, memes, and brands (including branded people). In essence, a mix of advertising and fodder for killing time on the toilet. Unless I’m trying to snoop, I’ve never once wished someone posted more, which suggests the app has never filled a real social void in my life.
So what exactly is everyone mourning lately? I laughed when, in late July, Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian made news for criticizing Instagram’s new algorithm. “MAKE INSTAGRAM INSTAGRAM AGAIN (stop trying to be tiktok i just want to see cute photos of my friends.) SINCERELY, EVERYONE,” the chain-mail-esque Story slides read. The message was in response to Meta’s emphasis on Reels and escalating interspersion of random “suggested” content, which were drastically recasting people’s feeds. And it makes sense that the Kardashians, as some of the most followed purveyors of highly-curated lifestyle imagery on Instagram, would feel threatened by a TikTok-inspired shift to showing users novel content from a wider net of small creators. But the quaintness of their request—“I just want to see cute photos of my friends”—is comically out of step with how they actually use the app. After all, if we only went on Instagram to see cute photos of our friends, barely anyone would see Kim or Kylie at all.
What the Kadashian-Jenners actually want is for Instagram to go back to being a highly addictive digital popularity contest. This would allow them to keep doing what they’ve always done, which is drum up as much envy as humanly possible and then sell “solutions” to that envy for filthy amounts of personal wealth. I don’t disagree that Instagram has become less enjoyable to use in light of the most recent changes (which are ostensibly now being reversed), but I’d also say that it hasn’t been enjoyable to use for years. This is largely because it’s a product with no broader aims than unmitigated growth and profit, consequently also the aims of the Kardashian-Jenner empire. You could blame this on Facebook's acquisition but I'd wager it would have happened anyway.
When I worked in Silicon Valley, new tech companies were all but doomed if the founders didn’t have a snappy, quasi-altruistic mission. And while any honest accounting of the current state of human welfare shows no signs of those aspirations, the Messianic aura has stuck. We now look to tech founders for solutions to problems other tech founders created. Sometimes, as in the case of Instagram, we look to the founders to fix problems they themselves created, as if they were ever concerned with our wellbeing. “Make Instagram Instagram again”! (In the tenor of begging your local government to save a public park.)
It’s beginning to seem like every successful social platform is fated to follow this same trajectory: founded on a PR-scrubbed “humanitarian” mission, followed by enthusiastic public participation, followed by a slow degeneration in quality as the business caters to the profit motive, followed by its eventual obsolescence or zombie-like continuation, all while founders buy the title of philanthropist with a fraction of their billions.
The latest fixer that’s arrived to rescue us is BeReal. If you’re unfamiliar, the app sells itself as a corrective to overly curated social posting, sending users a push notification at random times imploring them to post whatever they’re doing without pretense or preparation. As Rob Horning put it in his incisive critique of the app for Real Life Mag, “The implication is that methodically catching people off-guard is a surefire way to ascertain their truth, because their conscious will always serves to disguise rather than reveal their character.” Citing fawning reviews by Axios and The Wall Street Journal, Horning notes that most of BeReal’s press coverage seems to take the app’s sales pitch at face value. As if it were irrefutably true that “[t]he authentic self is captured when you are monitored like a subject of an experiment, under controlled conditions,” as Horning put it. The veracity of that assertion aside, users will eventually figure out how to make BeReal false and competitive either way.
We tend to fall easily for the utopian vision: on Facebook, we’re connecting with friends all over the world; on Twitter, we’re sharing our ideas in a town square; on TikTok, algorithms show us who we are; on Tinder, finding love is just a numbers game. When the pitch eventually crumbles under the pressure of reality, the truth laid bare, often we’re already hooked—psychologically, functionally, economically. Like an iPhone designed to start glitching after two years, this deterioration serves as a kind of momentum. The appeal of new social platforms persists. We’re social creatures after all. We can’t help wanting what they’re selling, even if we never see the spoils or experience them only in brief, isolated jolts of pleasure. No matter how much I criticize these apps, for instance, I continue to log on.
But the dismal product cycle is shortening, and glimmers of techno-pessimism are emerging. Less than a year after its launch, the Metaverse real estate market “has plunged.” Three months after the overwhelming crypto push at the Super Bowl, the crypto market crashed, followed shortly by the NFT market crash. As the misery (of those who bought in) and mockery (from those who didn’t) pour in, our tech overlords push forward. In an All-Hands meeting last week about further investment in the Metaverse, Mark Zuckerburg told employees that “they were competing with Apple to determine ‘what direction the internet should go in,’” The Verge reported last month. I’m sure they’ll make the right choice.
Mark Fisher defined capitalist realism as the widespread inability to conceive of viable alternatives to capitalism—a winnowing of the imagination as a result of full immersion in a certain mode of being. After 30 years of global transformation at the hands of personal computers, I think it’s similarly become difficult for us to imagine progress outside the confines of Big Tech. Tech CEOs once changed the world, therefore we can only change the world with tech CEOs. It’s a psychological fencing in. Social media specifically has limited our imaginations as to how we can better connect, leading us toward increasingly creative simulations of the real thing.
I’ve learned I don’t actually want to keep tabs on every person I’ve ever met, nor supply them myself. That was just a boring sales pitch wrapped in novelty with the convenient effect of keeping me roped into viewing Facebook ads for the rest of my life. However unappealing I find my Instagram feed lately, I know better than to long for its previous versions, which were depressing too, only for different reasons. As every social media platform barrels toward the worst version of itself, the question we’re left with is what we actually need to connect and progress, and how we can reliably do those things. It’s become abundantly clear that we won’t find an answer in the infinitely accelerating rollout of flashy new products.
My favorite article I read last week was “If Kim Novak Were to Die: A Conversation with Patrizia Cavalli,” by Annalena Benini for The Paris Review. Friday’s 15 Things list also included the best croissant in New York, the best sleeper karaoke hit, a TikTok recipe that’s actually good, and more. The Rec of the Week was “what should I do in Chicago for my birthday on Sunday,” which I thought might be too niche but turned into an extremely fun and long comment thread! Now I have too many good ideas and I’m panicking. (Yes it’s my birthday today. I’m 33!)
On the podcast this Tuesday, Harling, Avi, and I are back to discuss the only good take on Nathan Fielder. And if you’re a free subscriber and would like to listen to any of the episodes that I’ve made available for free, you can now just search “Maybe Baby” in the Apple Podcast app to find them/subscribe! (You used to have to go through a whole song and dance.)
Thanks for reading! I hope you have a nice Sunday,