If I had to explain how I feel lately, I’d say I feel “partied out.”
I bring this up as context for why I recently subscribed to a newspaper, and what I think it might mean for how websites are managed, and for the ways in which we engage with—and increasingly engage against—social media.
So first things first: When I say social media, I mean all of it. I mean the whole myriad of ways we interact with one or more people online, but especially in public forums. Because really, what’s the point in making distinctions anymore? Most 20-year-olds are savvy enough to code-switch across a half-dozen platforms every day. Individual apps are no longer the chest but the tools within it, chosen to meet the particular needs of the particular message. Say, that sounds familiar.
And the lines are not exactly distinct, either. There was a time when the comments section of major news sites were not farmed out to Facebook, but even some of the giants are making that switch. Which means that increasingly, in some sense, you’re always engaging with social platforms even when that isn’t your purpose.
I’m aware there’s a lot of doom and gloom about the possible negative effects of social media. But that’s not really what I’m talking about here. Pointing out that social media is probably bad for you is like pointing out that, hey, you probably shouldn’t be smoking so much either. (Don’t worry, there are plenty of articles online to help you quit.)
No, what I’m talking about is the shift in what the Internet is fundamentally. Because the dominance of social media has turned the Internet into the world’s longest, most distressing party—one where the bloviating never stops, and where, every so often, someone is socially executed.
But as a user, what if that’s not what you’re looking for? There is still content out there, after all. Yes, you can will yourself to avoid nasty comment sections (if you can also avoid willpower fatigue), and sure, you can deactivate or delete your Facebook account, but after a while you have to ask: Why am I the one doing all the work here?
In my case, the fact that I couldn’t answer that question led me to end up with a newspaper. Great for me, but what about the all those online content providers I just ditched? Is there any lesson in here for them, or am I just an obnoxious outlier with a soapbox?
Look, if you’re a content provider, your goal isn’t solely to engage people. It’s to engage people in an intentional way that stays true to your goals. One of the best current examples of this on the web right now is The Toast, a site on which carefully moderated comments actually produce a supportive, respectful community of readers. One benefit? Some commenters go on to contribute substantive articles for the site. Another? Well, there was that anonymous commenter-to-commenter organ donation.
Fostering this kind of community can be a full-time job. In some cases, the demand on a publisher’s time may simply be too high. In an example like that, what happens when comments run directly counter to the goals of the publisher?
Perhaps the most notable instance of this involved Popular Science. Their website shut down comments due to their deleterious effects. In this case, the party chatter was acting in direct opposition to the goals of the site. Good for a lively discussion? Maybe. But good for the user? The answer, as shown in the cited study, was a firm no.
The never-ending social media party only shows further signs of sprawl. Some websites, such as Medium, grow in popularity by blurring the line between content itself and social media interactions. But none of that is inherently bad.
What’s bad is when you are producing worthy content and it gets lost in the din. The party is loud, and it is big, and it is not remotely interested in serving your users. If you handle the partygoers with intention, if you know how you want them to serve or enhance what you’re delivering, they can be a real asset.
If you just let them sprawl through your site unchecked? Your users might start looking for content elsewhere.