My nomination for the trend of the decade is the expansion of social media and the contraction of our social world into it. At the very end of the first decade of the century, social media was hailed as a liberating force that would empower liberal movements across the Third World. Like our hopes for Chinese liberalization, it turned out the flow worked as well or better in the opposite direction.
Now social media is seen by liberals as a source for backlash politics, an open channel for interference by the illiberal Right. Conservatives see it as a seat of power for a progressive nomenklatura. Most parents see it as a source of danger for their kids — but a necessary one. Kids run their social lives through it. And even public schools communicate to parents through this medium.
Facebook began in the first decade of this century when it virally attached itself to the high stakes and somewhat claustrophobic social world of America’s most highly reputed school, Harvard University. It spread then to other top schools, and now it is coming closer than its founder could have dreamed to realizing a true “social graph” of the planet. Not just friendships, but reading, shopping, and thinking habits.
Social media’s birth and gestation in colleges and high schools seems in some way to have given it a quality that remakes the whole world as a giant school. And like a school, it has a variety of aristocracies. The (formerly bookish) gossips on Twitter determine the meaning of news events. The beautiful and stylish determine fashion and luxury trends across Instagram. The youth emerging from their own platforms are building a counterculture that is being bought up by corporations and political movements. The Great Awokening and the alt-right were the conjoined twins, offspring of the friction between Tumblr and Reddit/4chan.
For me personally, it became impossible to ignore this cafeteria-like element almost seven years ago, when the word “derp” started spreading across social media. It was a nonsense word generated to point to nonsense. It was also literally the thing that was yelled and half-sung across my own high school’s cafeteria whenever someone accidentally knocked over one of the aluminum poles marking off the lunch line, leading to that unpleasant sound of aluminum hitting cold tile.
We were warned by teachers and school administrators that we had a permanent record. Now we actually have one. We were warned by George Orwell of a state that would impose a perpetual two-way broadcast from screens that were also video cameras. We think it’s heartwarming. But the end result is like an intensification of high school, where people feel that one social misstep can destroy them, even if the details of it are almost instantly forgotten during the next hurricane of outrage.
Social media’s strange power comes not just from its intelligent algorithms, which make such an exhaustive study of us. It comes from its strange combination of virality — things that spread wildly with memetic power — and exhaustive documentation, a function associated with modern institutions.
What will be the results? I’m not sure. But so far it looks like the decade of social media will make moral panics a habit. It will give us the politics of undereducated and narcissistic children, and a creeping sense that totalitarian levels of surveillance and social intervention are the natural consequence of free people interacting freely.