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From my first tweet to today: Have we reached a social media reset?
Sorry, this post features no viral dance moves.
So I downloaded my entire batch of Twitter data just in case social media’s nexus for breaking news implodes under Elon Musk’s ownership.
I felt compelled to preserve this keepsake for future generations. It would be tragic for my family—if not the general public—to lose the last 14 years of my brilliant, pithy observations.
It all began once upon a time in July 2008. After several false starts, that July 8 I thumb-typed, “Inane update No. 1, my peeps! Just hard at work …”
The word “inane” in my first allegedly coherent tweet turned out to be prescient for the future of social media. And, no, I can’t offer a good excuse for my use of the word “peeps.”
I was as caught up as anybody in the thrill of what felt like a bold new digital frontier. By the time the pro-democracy demonstrations of the Arab Spring erupted in the early 2010s, I sang along in the chorus of praise for how social media would liberate and unite ever more of us.
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More than a decade later, we’re dismayed if not disillusioned. We’ve learned to value and protect our personal data. We’ve seen bad actors leverage social media to try to manipulate elections. And we’ve been reminded that the platforms we all too readily treated as a digital “public square” in reality can be a billionaire’s gated backyard.
The world isn’t as “flat” and frictionless online as we assumed. TikTok, owned by a Chinese company, is getting banned from state and federal employees’ work phones.
As I mulled social media history I stumbled onto a 2011 graduate thesis about Twitter: “The Pedagogical Use of Twitter in the University Classroom” by Lynn McCool, then at Iowa State University. She’s since earned her doctorate and is an assistant professor in Drake University’s business college.
It felt reassuring that a thoughtful academic at the time also saw social media as a revolutionary tool, with her thesis questioning not if but how the technology should be leveraged in the classroom.
Some of the euphoria we shared for social media a decade ago McCool now sees recurring in the buzz around artificial intelligence.
“We’re always looking for that next thing to quote-unquote save us,” she said.
The good news is that McCool’s students today are “much more mindful of how they are front-facing on any kind of media stream,” she said. They’re more cautious and tend to avoid mixing their private and academic or work lives.
“They realize this stuff never dies.”
On that note, I probably don’t need to worry about misplacing my big book of tweets. The bigger risk no doubt is an embarrassing tweet or two quoted in my eulogy.
For journalism, social media in some ways has been a creative boon—yet also a business bust. The industry was too late in recognizing that Mark Zuckerberg might as well qualify as the new Walter Cronkite in terms of a single figure representing the heart the news economy.
Earlier this month I heard Rep. Ro Khanna speak at the Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement at Drake. The congressman from the tech capital of California’s 17th District was interviewed on stage by Doug Burns, a veteran Iowa journalist and local news publisher (and fellow member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative).
Khanna is promoting a message of “Dignity in a Digital Age” per the title of his latest book. As a progressive Democrat, he speaks passionately about luring more of Silicon Valley’s wealth from the West Coast into the Heartland to reindustrialize rural America. He wants to see production centers in the “digital trades” sprout in remote spots such as Jefferson, Iowa, where lucrative tech careers may attract or retain young professionals otherwise prone to settle in hip metros.
Burns questioned Khanna on Section 230, the federal code limiting the liability of social media compared to news outlets for what gets published on their platforms.
“They are media companies,” Khanna said of social platforms. “They have to have a social responsibility to democracy.”
Newer Twitter alternatives are trying to solve for our belated alarm over all that has been unleashed through social media—whether it’s the open-source, splintered governance of Mastodon or the more rigorous rules of Post News.
But I don’t see any swift tech solution for what ails us. Even if the average quality and civility of our digital communities improve, they’re still fundamentally disconnected from the real neighborhoods and cities where we live—the building blocks of our civic lives and government institutions. We once operated under a local media economy centered on news editors and publishers rooted—culturally, economically, and otherwise—to their communities. If they lived up to the ideals of their job, they held their neighbors accountable, and vice versa. But that structure is being swept aside in a shifting (some say collapsing) news economy. Social media is part of the modern digital flood channeling us into polarized, partisan national tribes. (This is why I’m also involved in the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation to support independent local newsrooms. Please connect with us and help if you can.)
Nearly every day the news highlights a post or video that has gone viral. But what’s legitimately popular on social media, not a manipulation, itself has become difficult to determine. Meanwhile, there seems to be growing disenchantment among those who stake their careers on the social algorithms: The other day I noticed yet another professional influencer stepping away from what she described as a toxic social scene; “there is something to be said for an unobserved life,” she wrote.
It’s been a wild ride in the last decade, swinging on the pendulum from a default view of social media as our salvation to rampant complaints that it’s a cesspool. If neither extreme is true, at least there seems to be general agreement it’s in dire need of repair.
If Twitter collapses and news junkies mourn its passing, McCool said, she has faith in the “ingenuity of the American spirit.” She would expect another, better social media platform to arise from Twitter’s ashes.
“Because we do live in a democracy, a democratic republic, we still have a voice,” she said. “We still have a way to express ourselves. I think there are enough creative people who will find a way to do that—not just for themselves but for other people.”
I’ll leave you on that positive note, my peeps.
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Check out other voices in the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative:
1. Laura Belin: Iowa Politics with Laura Belin, Windsor Heights
2. Doug Burns: The Iowa Mercury, Carroll
3. Dave Busiek: Dave Busiek on Media, Des Moines
4. Art Cullen: Art Cullen’s Notebook, Storm Lake
5. Suzanna de Baca: Dispatches from the Heartland, Huxley
6. Debra Engle: A Whole New World, Madison County
7. Julie Gammack: Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck, Des Moines and Okoboji
8. Joe Geha: Fern and Joe, Ames
9. Jody Gifford: Benign Inspiration, West Des Moines
10. Beth Hoffman: In the Dirt, Lovilla
11. Dana James: New Black Iowa, Des Moines
12. Tar Macias: Hola Iowa, Iowa
13. Pat Kinney: View from Cedar Valley, Waterloo
14. Fern Kupfer: Fern and Joe, Ames
15. Robert Leonard: Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture, Bussey
16. Kyle Munson, Kyle Munson’s Main Street, Des Moines
17. John Naughton: My Life, in Color, Des Moines
18. Chuck Offenburger: Iowa Boy Chuck Offenburger, Jefferson and Des Moines
19. Barry Piatt: Behind the Curtain, Washington, D.C.
20. Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Buggy Land, Kalona
21. Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Emerging Voices, Kalona
22. Cheryl Tevis: Unfinished Business, Boone County
23. Ed Tibbetts: Along the Mississippi, Davenport
24. Teresa Zilk: Talking Good, Des Moines
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