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Just what are social media? The answer will determine what will happen to these influential platforms

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Social media exploded onto the world stage like a barrage of fireworks: loud, colourful, shocking, and impossible to ignore. The sudden change — at the turn of the millennium no-one knew what it was, 20 years later half the world was posting to Facebook or tweeting — was utterly unprecedented.

But a fireworks show, once it is done, tends to leave one looking around, a little bit lost, asking one another: “Ok … now what?”

That is about where we are now.

Social media — they form a collective noun — as we knew it is in decline. Meta, parent company of Facebook, laid off 11,000 people as it faced serious headwinds, with its stock plunging 65 per cent in a year. Snapchat is somehow still losing money. Instagram is ceding cultural ground to TikTok, but even TikTok, itself, has missed revenue expectations.

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Even the most generous reading of the mess that is Twitter can’t exactly inspire confidence: “Without significant subscription revenue, there is a good chance Twitter will not survive the upcoming economic downturn,” Elon Musk wrote in a memo to staff this week.

Whatever social media was for the past couple of decades, it appears this phase of it is coming to an end.

Major industries that become like utilities rarely flame out in spectacular fashion. Instead, like electricity, which was once transformative, they can persist in the background and become unremarkable. Perhaps they are supplanted but still linger, like linear TV, or they transmogrify just as cable TV has now emerged into a set of competing streaming services.

And, of course, they can, in fact, disappear, as home video did, because they simply aren’t useful any more.

 

Whether social media falls into one of these categories is a question of considerable debate, mostly because it’s not entirely clear what social media actually is.

Is it a place to connect with friends? Is it a place to broadcast to others? Is it a place to earn a living by promoting content or being an influencer? Is it a place in which to find an audience, or to engage in conversation?

Perhaps it’s a hard question to answer precisely because social media, in the collective sense, ostensibly was meant to erase those distinctions — that it essentially collapsed the once bright line between publishing and communication.

But there were a lot of consequences of turning how we socialize into a way to also broadcast — especially when you consider that, economically, it was necessarily a system that ran on ads.

You needed attention to make it all work. People wanted an audience and did whatever they could to find and foster one, whether through inflammatory content or the common approach of subject matter that represented the lowest common denominator. Quantity mattered more than quality; after all, you had to keep people engaged.

“We cannot make social media good, because it is fundamentally bad,” wrote Ian Bogost in The Atlantic this week.

The argument is that social media was less a declining business, than a world historical mistake.

The history of media has been one where normal human things — stories, communication, the desire for information — have been turned into external objects we can consume away from the people who made it.

Print turned spoken language into portable text. Radio turned human speech into a broadcast. TV and film turned story and theatre into shared culture.

And social media turned our socializing, voyeurism, and desire to let others know who we are into an online media phenomenon.

But now that social media is a core part of modern life, look at the bad things it has brought; polarization is rampant, and we believe the worst of those who don’t share our ideologies. Millions of people around the world believe that vaccines don’t work, and any other number of bizarre conspiracy theories.

Writing in Vice recently, Edward Ongweso Jr. made the argument more pointedly, writing that social media “are a series of communication networks interested in providing a paltry simulacrum of sociality in service of behaviour modification and profit maximization.”

 

Yet it would be foolish to dismiss social media in its entirety. It’s troubling and hard to unravel, but its flaws are also its strengths. It has given a voice to millions, particularly those who might not have otherwise had it. It is a lifeline among dissidents, the marginalized.

Perhaps, then, that means that if social emerges evolves, the economic model must change. Perhaps it means we must think of it in smaller terms, not as a gigantic global town square, but as an array of smaller, more local ones.

Perhaps we just need to demand something better.

There is a scene at the end of “Fight Club,” the quintessential 1990s film, which now seems a little more problematic than it did at the time, in which characters Tyler and Marla stand, holding hands, as they watch a skyscraper implode, taking with it the debt and consumer records of millions.

The hope is that something new and better will emerge from the rubble, something not so corrupted by the persistence and pervasiveness of capital.

 

As we watch whatever social media was slowly crumble and break apart, that is my hope for it, too.

 

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Vancouver woman wins identity fraud fight with Bell Mobility after posting on social media

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It’s been four blissfully quiet days since Erica Phillips last heard from the collection agencies ringing her two or three times daily for months, demanding payment of hundreds of dollars owed on a Bell Mobility account with her name on it that she never opened.

“It’s a huge sense of relief,” she said. “It’s so nice knowing that this won’t continue being a daily reminder of something that shouldn’t have been my problem to begin with.”

The Vancouver woman says she has been fighting the company for more than two years with little response, submitting documents supporting that the account was fraudulently opened using her name while at the same time filing reports with police, credit agencies and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

She says relief from the collection calls only came after she contacted news outlets and posted about her frustrations on social media.

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“I took all of the correct avenues,” she said. “I didn’t want to make myself public but I felt like I was forced to,” she said.

Phillips’ ordeal started in 2020 when she received notices mailed to an old address from both Rogers and Bell Mobility that said she owed money. She says she had never been a client of either company, so she thought they were a phishing scam. Further investigation found that identity fraudsters had used her personal information to open the accounts in her name.

She says Rogers took quick action to cancel the account when she contacted them, but Bell Mobility did not.

“That’s what seemed so insane to me at the beginning, that it was so easily taken care of with one of the companies and then not at all with the other,” said Phillips.

In an emailed statement, Bell Mobility told CBC:

“We have conducted an investigation and have determined that this account was fraudulent. We are attempting to contact the client and have advised our affiliated credit agencies of the billing error.”

The Consumer Protection B.C. website has information on how to prevent identity theft. It also has forms and advice for individuals who are being pursued by a company or collection agency for a debt that is not theirs.

Identity fraud and identity theft are criminal offences, but have become lucrative thanks to the growth of technology, according to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

In 2021, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre issued an alert after a spike in identity fraud reporting.

“Fraudsters are using personal information about Canadians to apply for government benefits, credit cards, bank accounts, cellphone accounts or even take over social media and email accounts,” it said.

Phillips says in just one night her social media post received more than 100,000 views. She’s been surprised by the number of people who have reached out to her to say they too have been victims of identity fraud.

“It’s unbelievable the comments that I’m getting on all of the various stories now of people in similar situations,” she said. “It’s crazy.”

She says Bell Mobility has not apologized.

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Lawler pays tribute to Edmonton on social media, says goodbye to Elks ahead of CFL free agency

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He was the Edmonton Elks’ superstar free agent signing last year, but with one week to go until the next CFL free agency period begins, receiver Kenny Lawler announced on social media that he plans to leave Alberta’s capital.

“Thank you so much for allowing me to represent this city and this amazing organization,” the 28-year-old football player said in an Instagram post on Tuesday. He said his family was grateful for their brief time in the city.

“Everyone we crossed paths with helped make this transition easy as possible for us.”

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Ottawa Redblacks Patrick Levels (3) tackles Edmonton Elks Kenny Lawler (89) during first half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Saturday August 27, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson.

Last off-season, the Elks signed Lawler to a one-year contract worth a reported $300,000, making him the highest paid player in the CFL who was not a quarterback.

Citing an anonymous source, The Canadian Press reported Tuesday that the receiver who hails from California has agreed to a deal in principle with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

CFL contracts cannot officially be agreed to until Feb. 14, when free agency officially begins. However, once the reported two-year deal is officially announced, it would mark Lawler’s return to Manitoba where he began his electrifying CFL career in 2019.

While playing for Winnipeg, Lawler helped the Bombers win Grey Cups in 2019 and 2021. In his only season with the Elks, Lawler managed to tally 58 catches for 894 yards and five touchdowns before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.

The 2022 season for the Elks was a difficult one. The club went 4-14 as it continues to rebuild since losing key players like quarterback Mike Reilly in 2019. Lawler said despite the challenging season with the Green and Gold, he was grateful for the competitive spirit the coaching staff maintained.

“Though we fell short, you all were never compromised in getting us to settle for nothing less than the goal we set out to achieve,” Lawler said, adding he will miss the teammates he played with and that he has “gained relationships this year that I know will last a lifetime.”

–With files from Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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Media braces for the robot era

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The rapid rise of generative AI tools like ChatGPT could displace dozens of media companies if they don’t move quickly to adapt to a new internet reality.

Why it matters: Facebook’s many pivots pushed media outlets to move their focus away from social media and toward search — but now experts predict another major disruption for publishers relying on search traffic.

“It’s an undoing of the robotic behavior with which we were already committing journalism, because it’s questionable whether writing about National Donut Day really served anybody,” said S. Mitra Kalita, a former CNN executive who has co-founded two new local media companies, Epicenter NYC and URL Media.

  • “In some ways, the work we were doing towards optimizing for SEO and trending content was robotic. Arguably, we were using what was trending on Twitter and Google to create the news agenda. What happened was a sameness across the internet.”

Driving the news: BuzzFeed last week said it is using OpenAI’s publicly available software, which is similar to the popular generative text site ChatGPT, to automatically publish quizzes, beginning this month.

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  • “To be clear, we see the breakthroughs in AI opening up a new era of creativity that will allow humans to harness creativity in new ways with endless opportunities and applications for good,” the company’s CEO, Jonah Peretti, said in a memo to staffers.

BuzzFeed doesn’t plan to use AI to write journalistic articles, which seems to be a line that most publishers aren’t eager to cross.

  • But figuring out the right balance when using AI won’t be easy, as was made obvious by CNET’s AI mea culpa last month.
  • The CEO of Dotdash Meredith, a rival to CNET’s parent Red Ventures, told Axios last month that the firm “will never have an article written by a machine,” but it has already begun to bake AI into many of its workflows, like sourcing images.

Be smart: The past few years gave rise to a slew of successful digital media companies that focused on monetizing search traffic, while social media-reliant publishers struggled to adapt.

  • But the content that has done well on search, such as evergreen articles that help people answer questions or provide recommendations, is poised to be challenged by artificial intelligence.
  • “The most immediate impact of AI is probably that it becomes an efficiency tool,” said Brian Morrissey, former president and editor-in-chief of Digiday and author of a Substack newsletter on media called The Rebooting.

The big picture: Decades of constant pivots at the hands of Big Tech firms had media executives losing sight of which audiences they aimed to serve to begin with, Kalita noted.

  • ABC chief legal correspondent and media entrepreneur Dan Abrams said his media industry news site Mediaite began seeing record engagement once it started to push away from social media and search distribution.
  • The thinking has changed from “find the SEO angle” or “find the Facebook angle” to “find the Mediaite angle, and a large, loyal audience has followed,” Abrams said.
  • Around 16% of the site’s pageviews in 2022 came from homepage traffic, Abrams said.

What’s next: As search-based content becomes more commoditized, media brands will need to pivot towards serving specific audiences, rather than the masses.

  • “You’re going to have to get even more specialized as a publisher,” Morrissey said.

Bottom line: “Trying to compete on efficiency with robots never works, they always win,” Morrissey said.

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