The Social Eclipse

This is a rough draft of a first section to a work in progress, probably essay length, about new types of engagement and critical understandings brought about in changes in the media tentatively entitled "The Meme, The Hot-Take and the Advent of Pop-Nihilism".  

To parrot many a critic from the mid-2000's, Web 2.0 changed everything. Well, actually, that's hyperbole but I'm getting ahead of myself. What Web 2.0, which put the "social" in social media, did cause was a profound shift in people's media habits. While it did not entirely subsume pre-existing forms of media, the social feed overtook all other forms of media consumption, replacing the television, the radio and the newspaper as the mainstay of people's media diet.

At the time, this transformation was heralded as a moment of democratization, putting the ability to produce and determine the publishing priority of information in the hands of the crowd. From the protests that swept through Iran to the Arab Spring, the establishment (old) media seem more fixated on the new forms of communication that were part of these revolutionary moments than the content or demands themselves.

This fixation of the establishment media on social media sprung from a twofold anxiety. Firstly, in the wake of numerous failures of the media to perform a journalist function, most notably in the lead up to the Iraq war, the establishment media was concerned that these new forms of social media were doing the job than they were doing. That social media would expose the dearth in the establishment media of critical journalism and thought that would, as the adage goes, "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted".

There is no doubt that this new media landscape did bring to light injustices that had been hidden for decades and create the conditions for the emergence of new forms of social organization. Indeed, the call to Occupy Wall Street was desseminated through a well-crafted meme and it's decentralized networked structure reflected this new media landscape.

I would also be remise not to remember how #BlackLivesMatter emerged as a hashtag to unify the outrage over the slew of new cellphone videos being shared on social media. Of course, these videos were no surprise to people who had always lived with the brutal reality of white supremacy.  However, as establishment media was dominated by people with "called themselves white",  it had consciously and unconciously downplayed and failed to cover the violence white supremacy, and the police in particular, regularly unleashed on black bodies. So, social media had, in the case of Occupy and #BlackLivesMatter, fulfilled its promise to democratize the media and was, accordingly, deeply threatening to the establishment media.

But, undoubtedly more threatening than the manner in which social media had the potential to uncover the way the establishment media had served rather than expose power, was the manner in which it fundementally threatened the economic viability of establishment media. This, I believe, was the true cause of the anxiety that drove the establishment media's obsession with social media: not some set of liberal commitments to examine the transformation of the forth estate but the sensation that their way of life would be toppled by the winds of technological change. Just as the printing press killed the town crier, social media was promising to destroy, or at least irrevocably transform, the earlier forms of media. 

This attention to the economic model of social media brings me to what I believe is one of the most important and novel transformation brought about by social media. This transformation is that social media, in an unprecedented way, turned attention into a commodity.


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