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Stop calling them 'social': Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al are the new mainstream media

Stop calling them 'social': Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al are the new mainstream media
Media's new mainstream (Manan Vatsrayana / AFP/Getty Images)

When a racist tweet by Roseanne Barr leads to the cancellation of her top-rated show 24 hours later, when YouTube tightens up its monetization policy to howls of protest, when Snapchat prepares to expand into India, when Vogue offers tips on how to perfectly Instagram your wedding, when Facebook ditches “trending news” while testing a “breaking news” feature it’s time to reconsider the term “social media.”

Post-Congressional hearing, Facebook did its best to revive the “social” brand, launching a cloying ad campaign that pledges to return us to a simpler time when “friends” were actually friends and accounts weren’t being harvested for information used to influence the 2016 presidential election. But all the prayer hand emojis in the world can’t change one simple fact: Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are as powerful, and divisive, and reliant on audience-drawing controversy as any 24-hour cable news network.

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“Social,” with its connotations of community gatherings involving ice cream or strawberries, has got nothing to do with it.

So all those thumb-drumming into various phone apps to express their hatred of the “mainstream media” have joined rather than beaten their perceived foe. Social platforms are the new mainstream media — #NMM.

Indeed, considering the manner in which our president announces policy decisions and White House personnel changes, Twitter has effectively become a member of the White House Press Corps.

Even more than their predecessors, the new mainstream media is fueled by an arms race for followers, (and should we have been more concerned when “readers” and “viewers” were replaced by the more cultlike term “followers”?) re-posts and response rate.

Yet, as we saw from the Barr debacle, many people — including those with exquisite understanding of how to work the media — continue to use these platforms casually, conversationally, as if the fact that they are in their pajamas or their cars when they post, retweet or like somehow makes their statements less public.

The racist tweet that led to the cancellation of “Roseanne” was issued pretty much as an aside, a response to a random follower in the middle of a bizarre thread about Chelsea Clinton. Barr later blamed Ambien, probably because she could not blame a reporter or host for taking her words out of context . Nor, despite deleting the tweet, could she deny she had said it.

In the new mainstream media, there is no context, and you are always on the record — to your own followers, the potential millions of those who retweet you and any other media outlet, whose members are constantly scanning social platforms for sources, announcements, trends, feel-good moments, spats and offensive statements.

The Barr story was notable in that it occurred almost entirely on Twitter and followed the #NMM news cycle with almost comical precision. First came the crime, then the outrage, then the apology, followed by more outrage, including demands for cancellation/firing. Said cancellation was followed by celebration, extended threads and thought pieces, reactions to these extended threads and thought pieces and demands that someone figure out how to cancel President Trump. (Many roads in the new mainstream media lead to Trump.)

Next day, flipside. Barr returned to Twitter, at first apologetic and then, quickly, not, and the counter-outrage began. Riled up by the “cancel Trump” campaign, many people with American flags in their handles argued that many nasty things have been said about the president on television; why weren’t those people canceled?

Then, three days in and as if on cue, Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump an opprobrious epithet (that begins with “c”) and the armies grew in number, as obvious and loud as the Confederate and Union troops facing off from either side of the Wheatfield in Gettysburg.

All of which was chronicled with varying degrees of speed and breathlessness on every American media outlet, including this one.

As that cloying Facebook ad reminds us, the term “social media” was created to describe a system of community sharing, platforms on which people mix and mingle as if they were at a digital block party.

There was a time when that seemed almost true. People, most of them young and tech-savvy, posted and tweeted, friended and followed in an effort to commune with people they knew or in the sort of micro-demographics that previously had to gather in church basements and convention centers to connect. There were engagement announcements, baby pictures and pet obituaries, conversations about love and loss and how to build your own igloo. Non-users made fun of the photos of omelets and skinny jeans, the random hashtags and DIY videos.

All of which lasted about as long as a Snapchat post. While there is still plenty of uplifting micro-blogging and cute pet tricks (see the recently viral “My dog’s best friend is a brick” tweet/Instagram), the marketing potential of these platforms was simply too good to pass up. With just a few taps and a hashtag, anyone it seemed could launch an honest to God “word of mouth” campaign about anything — breaking news, lifestyle gurus, celebrity access, restaurant ratings, television shows, storm warnings, the latest cocktail, sports scores and more punditry than is good for any of us.

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All of which was increasingly supported by advertisers and the analytics kept track of with Nielsen-like dedication because that is what they had paid for, in the billions. New media barons were born, all intent on growing their user base, and as any media outlet knows, you don’t grow a user base with baby pictures. You grow it by compelling people to watch/read/participate. You grow it with controversy, branding, revelation and habit-forming repetition.

#NMM isn’t so much social as it is reactionary, an elaborate, unending iteration of Tell Us What You Think journalism, without the benefit/hindrance of a reporter, editor, host, curator or guide. We tweet and post in silence, often in the middle of some other activity, at times completely obsessed, at times as if it doesn’t really matter. Where previous generations buried their heads in the paper or kept the TV on as background noise, we now keep one eye on our ever flowing media devices.

And sometimes, with little or no warning, the mainstream overruns its banks and, for better or worse, sweeps something, or someone, away.

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