After leaving my full-time job at Grist a few weeks ago, I’ve been weighing my next act, and I’ve decided what I want to write about:
Being ourselves in a post-social world.
This is my new project, here. It falls into three parts: a tech-industry beat I will cover; a cultural investigation and conversation I will undertake; and a personal-publishing venture I am kicking off now.
So let me begin to lay all this out — starting, today, with the tech-industry part.
First thing you’re thinking is, what is this “post-social world” he speaks of?
There’s a lot to say here, but at heart, what I mean is: life after Facebook.
No, I don’t think Facebook is going anywhere. It will continue to dominate much of the digital landscape for some time. But I also think peak Facebook is now behind us.
Every era-defining tech company in recent history — Microsoft, Google, and now Facebook — has seized a moment in the industry’s evolution with a single idea. And for a brief period, that idea proves so powerful that it sucks everything else into its orbit. It seems to be the only game in town, and the only possible future. It also propels utopian visions, and the people responsible for it become filled with a sense of omnipotence — a belief that their magnificent technology can and will solve every imaginable human problem as readily as it has made them rich.
This is where the innovation that originally fed the company’s growth mutates into some world-changing ambition that proves tough to square with the practical demands of quarterly reports and margin-seeking investors. Microsoft’s operating system and office tools became “a computer on every desk and in every home”; Google’s efficient, streamlined search box became “organizing the world’s information”; Facebook’s friend-connecting toolkit turned into its current mission, which is to “give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”
But here’s what happens: The moment of corporate omnipotence passes. Always! Microsoft’s computers are still on plenty of desks and in many offices — but they are not in our pockets, where we now use digital technology the most. Google’s search model remains essential, but turns out not to be the only means by which we want to access the world’s information — sorry, Larry and Sergey. Similarly, today’s Facebook has introduced the world to the allure of friend networks and feeds, but it cannot possibly fulfill all of its ambitions or replace email, messaging, news, advertising, entertainment and everything else with its single closed “social graph” universe. The human environment and experience is far too vast to be encompassed by any one company’s data.
Just as the era of Microsoft’s leadership ended with the dotcom crash and the era of Google’s leadership ended with the financial meltdown of 2007-8, so Facebook’s mindshare dominance will end when the current tech bubble deflates. With it will end our mistaken assumption that social networking is the single paradigm that will rule the entire gamut of our Internet-borne behavior.
What comes after that? We don’t know yet. That keeps things interesting! But we have some clues, some sense of which way the pendulums are going to swing:
From the group back to the individual:
- The blogging movement celebrated individual voices. The social-media era’s customs, submerging the individual in a networked environment, privilege the group. We are overdue for a correction.
From centralized platforms to peer networks:
- Some systems concentrate power in one or more hubs. Others move power to the edge. Today’s Internet relies on both approaches, varying depending on which layer of the communications cake you’re talking about; but what defines it, historically and philosophically, is that it is a distributed network.
Right now we’re experiencing a moment of maximum centralization. We have one company with a near lock on our online identities. Another with the keys to our access to information. Another with a huge chunk of the retail market. In the U.S., the network itself is coming to be dominated by a single provider.
None of this bodes well. But none of it is irreversible. Technology is anything but static, and its movements and disruptions allow for regular resets of bad patterns and ingrown problems — particularly if we learn from our mistakes and nudge it. Fortunately, the Internet itself has created conditions that make it possible for us to do just that.
From “take my data” to “let me take my data”:
- The online publishing and marketing business today depends on our willingness to give up rights to our data. It’s been difficult to get the public too worked up — at least in the U.S. — as long as this has simply meant exploiting the tracks we leave in our digital clickstream.
But increasingly, people are understanding that “my data” means everything from my medical information to my financial records to my physical travels. In the post-Snowden universe we’re more likely to question standard-issue “just relax” assurances from industry or government. Contrary to conventional-columnist wisdom, the younger cohorts of today’s Internet users take privacy more seriously, not less, than their elders. I think we’re going to spend much of the next decade rebuilding the technical, legal, and financial guts of our connected online world around a more secure, consensual approach to personal data. It will be messy and complex and fascinating.
So yes, “post-social” means “Life After Facebook,” but it’s a lot more than that. Laid out from a high altitude like this, it may sound a little abstract. Don’t worry; a lot of what I want to do here at Wordyard involves talking with people in the trenches, looking at specific ideas and projects. There are individuals and organizations and companies that are already busy trying to imagine and build this post-social world — to fix the mistakes of the past decade and figure out where we should go in the next one.
All of this is being covered in detail and in patches and shreds by the ambitious and lively tech press that has grown up with the Web. But I haven’t seen anyone out there try to put it all together.
That’s my new work! Or at least, the first part of it. Next, I’ll post at greater length about the second part — this business of “being ourselves.”