As I see it, social media platforms exert three kinds of power over you (and whatever you create):
- The power of influence, and
- The power of access, and
- The power of distraction.
That’s big power.
1️⃣ The power of influence
The more people who have spaces where they can share their thoughts and experiences, the better. Social media does give us that ability, and it’s useful in a lot of ways.
It’s also crowded, noisy, and trend-driven.
It’s an environment of urgency and reactivity, not one that lends itself well to conversation or developing insights over time or exploring, collecting, curating, and creating thoughtfully.
The elements that create virality – hashtags, trends, and algorithms – are also the elements which manipulate where your attention goes. They exert influence over what you notice and what you don’t. And they do it in a way that feels natural, so you don’t notice what’s happening. You just end up on #mosstok one day and you’re cool with it.
And it is cool. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and it can lead you to all sorts of interesting rabbit holes and delightful connections.
But here’s the problem: if you’re interested in creating your own stuff, and developing your own voice, and making content that is meaningful and personal for you, you need space from the influence of others. You need space in your own head, you need slower time, you need separation, you need less noise.
Does this mean you shouldn’t use social media?
No, not at all.
Just be aware that the power of influence is a big power.
If you’re using social media as the only or primary place where you create your stuff, it’s most likely that your stuff is less about your ideas, your voice, and your values than about what’s trending this week.
For some people, that might not be an issue. But for others, it’s a core issue.
For both types of people, the way social media exerts the power of access is a big big big issue.
2️⃣ The power of access
Some people, many people, manage to rise above the noise of social media and use the platforms for what they want. They inspire deep discussions, share insights, and create thoughtful content and collections. Or they just make really funny videos.
Then one day they get an email: they’ve violated community standards and they’re banned from posting for X days. Or their account has been shut down completely.
It’s a very real danger on social media; it’s happened to many people. And almost every person who’s experienced this shutdown has experienced, next, the frustration of trying to talk to a real person or get clear answers about what’s going on.
That’s one part of the access problem: your access to your own content is controlled, as it turns out, not by you but by the social media platform.
The second part of the access problem is this: social media can make it easy or difficult for others to access your content. Oh, sure, in theory whatever you post is always accessible if people go directly to your profile / page. But in reality, people pay attention to what shows up on their feed, or timeline, or for-you page.
And what shows up there isn’t up to you, or even up to them. It’s up to the algorithm.
Facebook can change their algorithm anytime, and the posts from your business page now only show up for 10% of your followers, 10% of the time.
Substitute any social media platform for Facebook. Maybe you’ll get shadow banned on Instagram, inexplicably lose views on YouTube, or shuffled to the bottom of the pile on TikTok. You won’t know until it happens, and you will have to guess why it happened, and there won’t be much, if anything, you can do about it.
But let’s say that doesn’t happen to you. Let’s imagine things on social media go as well as they can: you thrive on the novelty, you enjoy creating with trends, and the algorithm loves you. You’ll still want to consider the third power that social media wields.
3️⃣ The power of distraction
Every good story has a conflict. Conflict creates interest. Conflict raises questions: What will happen? What’s the outcome? Who will win? How does this end?
You get hooked into a story by the uncertainty, the not-knowing. Your brain naturally wants resolution. Your brain wants answers. Your brain wants to know.
Social media is a constantly changing, randomly shifting collection of stories with an infinite number of subplots.
Every subplot is full of conflicts.
And every piece of content you create or share has a position in those conflicts.
You’re involved. You’re on one side or the other, even if you don’t know it.
If anything you create gains any sort of popularity, you’ll know pretty quickly. Because the “other side” will show up. Suddenly your post is getting all sorts of nasty comments, and then “your side” starts responding to those comments, and soon there’s an all-out war happening on your post.
What do you do? Are you responsible? Should you weigh in? Do you need to respond to every comment? Should you referee? Do you go through and delete nasty comments? Do you block people who make nasty comments?
Those are all weighty decisions. They take your time and attention. They have a mental and emotional cost.
They’re distractions. But they’re distractions you are hard-wired to notice. They’re conflict-based. They feel urgent. They invoke your sense of identity. If the conflict occurs on your post, you feel a sense of responsibility. You get immediate and emotional feedback.
While you’re dealing with the conflict, or using all your willpower and emotional bandwidth not to, you’re not doing anything else.