Social Media’s Drama Addiction

A 19th Century cartoon illustration of two clownish characters having a sword fight on a stage in front of an audience.
A 19th Century cartoon illustration of two clownish characters having a sword fight on a stage in front of an audience.
John Leech, The Battle of Bosworth Field — A Scene From the Great Drama of History; 1847-48. Public domain.

Commercial social platforms suffer from a problem that is directly tied to the profit motive. Their success is tied to an ever-increasing graph of user engagement.

At first this may seem like a good thing. What drives people to engage? Well, pleasure. The little hits of dopamine we get when people demonstrate their liking for something we do is real, and sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, TikTok, Instagram, Tumblr, etc. were built to get us hooked on those hits. The problem is pleasure isn’t the only addictive feeling they dispense.

All the net’s a stage…

I’m a media and communications person with a McLuhanist bent. It’s my academic background but it’s also my passion.

It’s the reason I studied film and audio, but it’s also the reason I’ve spent nearly 30 years in digital content, counting the short period I worked on CD-ROMs before the internet became a viably place for someone like me to get paid.

It’s even the reason I did so much acting in college. I performed in scripted plays but really found a niche doing looser improvisational work including a fantastic six months as the Commedia dell’Arte character Pulcinella.

My passion for communications is complemented by my aptitude for using and understanding the tools of production, whether they are movie cameras, microphones, or HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Often in my work I’ve moved from one side of the artificial creative/tech barrier to the other, and I often describe my strength as being a translator between the two.

It’s clear to me that the way to understand social media is to focus on the word “media.” The internet is a meta-medium, a medium that contains all media. And within that constellation of sub-media the interaction:reward interface structure of social platforms make them a performance medium.

All communication — human and otherwise — can be viewed through the lens of performance. But the intermediation of social platforms is like turning a TV camera on us. What may appear to be a 1:1 interaction between two social media users is turned into an two person teleplay with an audience.

It doesn’t matter if the audience never reveals their presence by commenting or “applauding” with a “like” button. It doesn’t matter if the algorithms of the platform decide no one will ever see the interaction. The social media users’ interaction is shaped by their awareness that by the nature of the medium someone might be watching them. The range of metaphors for visualizing how this affects what they say and how they say it stretches from the Panopticon to Quantum Physics.

…And all the men and women merely players

— As You Like It, Act 2 Scene 7, lines 139-40; Jacques to Duke Senior and his companions

The One Weird Business Trick of the commercial social platforms is that the companies that run them don’t generate any content at all. Instead they rely on the free labor of their users to make their own content and interact with others’ content in a way that is sufficiently entertaining to keep the audience of watching lurkers entertained.

Most of the decision makers behind commercial social media have technological backgrounds and little to no education in the Humanities. In fact it’s common to see Computer Science majors dismiss the Humanities as a waste of time. When technologies have unintended and unpleasant consequences on the people who use them it’s often because of STEM programs’ systemic failure to introduce students to ways of understanding people as well as machines.

(Of course Humanities programs are often guilty of the opposite oversight, leaving their students at a disadvantage when trying to understand, discuss, and shape the use of the tech that contols and defines so much of our lives.)

It’s from this viewpoint that I am willing to believe that people like Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and Jack Dorsey, formerly of Twitter, were entirely unequipped to see what would happen with, and on, their platforms.

If social media is performance media, then it follows that the pattern of interactions on it will be informed by users’ learned understanding of performing and storytelling. Particularly in the Western tradition stories revolve around change and that change is described as conflict. A story without conflict feels incomplete, and is considered a sketch or study rather than a story.

So we go on social media with the unconscious expectation that there will be a performance and the performance will involve conflict. While many people are content mostly to remain in the audience and watch, there is a never-ending stream of us who step onto the stage and perform for them.

Most friendship is feigning, most loving is folly

— As You Like It, Act 2 Scene 7, LINE 186; AMIENS

Of course, just as in any other story, not every interaction on social media is a contentious one. We make online friends and allies first, or maybe just follow people who we enjoy without interacting. This is the feel-good dopamine part of social media.

In sociology there’s a concept of concentric circles of social connections with different bond strengths. Our closest social connections are with those we call family — biological or chosen — and then the next circle out is those we call friends. Still a strong bond, but not quite the same as the family bond. After that we start getting into weaker bonds with groups like “neighbors,” “co-workers,” or even “people I see at the grocery store.”

It’s certainly not impossible for online connections to cross the intermediation barrier and make stronger bonds, even to the point where we may consider them family. But it is rare for that to happen. Even the people we truly enjoy interacting with online are mostly held at arm’s length by the medium itself.

The more time we spend online, the fewer non-intermediated relationships we have, and as a consequence the weaker our social ties to other people become. Our inner circles shrink, while one of our outer circles filled with people we’ve casually interacted with online grows. This circle can be labeled “audience.”

Many of the fundamental forces of physics are governed by the inverse-square law. Light is a good example: If you double the distance you are from a lamp, the area the light shines on is four times greater but the intensity of the light is only one quarter as strong.

As a metaphor, the inverse-square law is a handy way to describe the impact of the growth of a social media user’s audience circle. The larger the circle grows, the more energy that user has to put into performing just to keep enough of them entertained to maintain the circle’s size.

Twice as many followers means twice as much energy. Fail to put that much effort in, and a percentage of the followers will get bored and drift away. The commercial social platforms are constructed around this idea, and their profitability relies on enough users becoming hooked on the thrill of the performance to keep the others coming back.

Now the users who have bought into the numbers game are motivated to keep their followers engaged, and grow their follower count by attracting even more. And many of them hit upon the thing that the technologists who created the platforms didn’t anticipate: People like stories with conflict.

Pleasure is a complicated emotion, and generally one that’s better experienced in person than through a screen. We get dopamine release from things like food, sex, and exercise. We also get it from praise, which social platforms quantize into little chunks as “likes,” “upvotes,” “favorites,” etc.

What aren’t complicated emotions are anger and fear. It’s a simple biological fact that for survival we needed those two readily accessible. When a lion sprung at your ancestor out of the tall grass on the plains, there was no time to finesse words in the hopes of landing the perfect witty comment to get a flurry of likes. It was fight or flight time and the reason you are here now is because that ancestor took no time whatsoever to pick between those two options.

These are the emotions of conflict, the emotions that drive most of our stories. They are caused by the release of cortisol. They are easy to trigger, easy to magnify, and they keep people coming back for more just as surely as those little hits of dopamine do.

I understand a fury in your words, But not the words

— Othello, Act 4 Scene 2, lines 32-33; Desdemona to Othello

As more and more people come to Mastodon from Twitter, they bring that platform’s drama-for-profit culture with them. It’s not just what they are used to, it’s what they are addicted to.

Instant hyperbolic reactions, name calling in place of considered response, and facile categorization of others as political enemies; These pump energy into the inverse-square law of follower count.

And the newly-arrived from Twitter often focus their Mastodon accounts first on trying to replicate their follower lists. Those who cultivated big numbers there are hooked on the big numbers and the drama that got them those numbers.

It doesn’t really matter to the newcomers that Mastodon has a different established culture. They see it as just another platform for their Main Character performance. Like colonizers they barely notice the landscape around them or change their behavior to match local norms.

But will Mastodon’s different culture stand? Will it lead them to change their behavior?

I’ve been endeavoring to write this from an impartial analytical perspective. However I’m not going to lie about why I started writing it. I’m harboring some resentment about a very Twitter-like interaction that I had on Mastodon with someone who clearly does not understand the platform and isn’t interested in learning. They pumped what to me was a widely inappropriate amount of energy into posturing for their followers. They libeled and misrepresented me so their relatively large audience circle would find them sufficiently entertaining.

I’m bothered. And therein lies the problem.

I’m channeling all the cortisol and anger I felt — and still feel — into this blog post, all while telling myself I’m being purely academic and not at all vindictive. It’s not healthy, and it’s a reaction I’ve been trying to stop letting myself have since I walked away from Facebook several years ago.

I increasingly feel this is an existential threat because of what it says about our ability to manage the world together. Either we find a solution for our addiction to drama or we perish at our own hands.

I am not wrong in feeling what I’m feeling, but I’m wrong in venting those feelings in this post. Admitting I’m wrong doesn’t make it right, but maybe it can help set an example. We all fuck up sometimes. Rather than double down and insist on our perfection, it’s healthier for us and our communities if we just admit it.

As people flock to Mastodon they bring the conditioning and behavioral expectations they picked up on other social media with them. Culture clashes are inevitable, and they are made worse by the fact that many who were already on Mastodon are heavily invested in countering what they experienced on platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

Reasoned explanation is unfortunately a terrible way to shape culture (which is where I went wrong in my recent frustrating interaction). Leading by example works, but only if the people you wish to educate bother to look outside themselves and their addictions.

What remains to be seen is if instance administration can bring the newcomers to draw their own conclusions about their behavior. (I do count myself as a newcomer, despite having a legacy Mastodon account that I used for about two months in 2017.)

There’s irony in the thought that some people fleeing Twitter in horror due to the effects of its moderation being undone in the name of “free speech” may now need to feel the hand of moderation on Mastodon before they learn to stop acting like they are still on Twitter. Overblown outrage, insults, petty snark, and tantrums were rewarded there. They pushed the engagement desired by the monolithic corporate owners.

That doesn’t mean we should reward those behaviors on Mastodon. In fact it may actually mean that we should actively isolate those who treat it like Twitter until they finally understand it isn’t.

In a federated social universe where the goal of most admins is to have actual community, bad behavior should be self-defeating behavior. As performers we shouldn’t engage in it, and as audience members we shouldn’t reward it.