Tracking the signals of cruel-posting and what it could mean for 2022

Fair warning: if you work in social this may bum you out

Because I’ve been working in and around social media and social media marketing for so long, I often get asked my opinion on what’s happening, how we got here, and where we’re headed. But lately, it’s hard to give a definitive answer.

Even those of us who were early adopters and pioneers in bringing marketing to social media are taking a pause right now to try to understand – and reconcile – specifically what’s happening, how we got here, and where we’re headed.

We can all feel it. There’s something gross happening across our social feeds. We’re consuming more and more content about being cruel to each other. And it’s not just Karen videos or a generational habit. Some of it is the typical faux outrage, immaturity, and trolling we’ve seen since the inception of social media, but not all of it. This is different.

Whether this behavior is affected by the culture wars or a direct outcome of them, what’s happening is more subtle and perhaps even more concerning as we look into social signals for 2022. 

We’re all a little on edge right now. It was a pretty terrible last year and a half for many, and somehow things aren’t looking better. As we try to reconcile the bifurcated response to the global pandemic, the spotlight on systemic racism prompted by George Floyd’s murder, the gaslighting of the presidential election results, investigations of the January 6 insurrection, debates about masks, return to in-person school or work, social platform boycotts (and many more!), you can assume a correlation in this societal stress permeating into our feeds… and maybe our own offline behavior. 

Will this be a blip or is this the new normal? The signals indicate it could be a long-term trend.

Here are some thoughts. They are not entirely cohesive, definitive, or linear. This hasn’t been proofed. This is, however, a curated list of signals I’ve been tracking and thinking about lately. Thanks to the internet, I can share it with others on the internet, and get feedback, right? So give me some feedback. But please be kind. That’s the whole point.

CRUEL-POSTING AS ENTERTAINMENT

You’ve probably seen the footage of unruly airline passenger incidents on social media and in the press, including the spokesperson for the FAA saying passenger violence is their primary concern right now. Although incidents may be actually down, the content persists in our feeds and collective memories.

Photos of the removed soap dispensers at my son’s school

You’ve probably seen the news coverage of the Devious Licks school challenge, where kids are vandalizing school bathrooms and posting that footage across TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram. Or maybe you got an email from your own school about it as I did. Or maybe your son shared pictures with you of the removed soap dispensers to head off damage in your local school as mine did. The trend is subsiding this week – but only because the news cycle is highlighting the next one, called “Slap a Teacher Challenge.” I’m not kidding.

You’ve probably seen news reports and social content about violent attacks, shooting, and car crashes related to road rage. AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety conducted a national study where 80 percent of drivers admitted to driving aggressively as they return to the roads after the COVID lockdown. But all that speeding, honking, and cutting each other off is triggering each other, with sometimes deadly consequences. 

You’ve probably seen footage from city council and school board meetings with grown adults screaming obscenities at each other, being forcibly removed by security, and elected officials swarmed by emotional galleries.

SOURCE: @influencersinthewild

You’ve probably seen posts from influencers creating content while terrible things happen in the background. To be transparent about one of my big triggers: this video of two folks doing a social dance in front of first responders and fire trucks super bummed me out.

We’ve all seen the above categories of cruel-posting content, whether on our feeds, in our group chats, or on the news. Maybe you’ve even shared it. Maybe you’ve unfollowed accounts and media that share this content, or maybe you’ve sought them out. It’s everywhere. It’s unavoidable. It’s starting to feel like Ted Lasso is an outlier; cruel posting was the theme of Q3 2022.

Are these cruel-posting trends actually on the rise or are we just seeing them in our social feeds, resurfaced over and over by algorithms we are training to show us more because we consume the content every time we see it?  

Where did it come from? Well, we’ve come a long way from dial-up message boards and chat rooms…

A look back to the early days of “social” in message boards and chat

So we can blame social media for this, but social media is no longer an aspect of our lives that lives isolated enough to actually blame.

You’ve heard the expression of “not being able to see the forest for the trees.” In the case of social media undergirding the worst of society within that metaphor, however, it would be like being angry at photosynthesis that helps all plants grow and thinking if you cut down a forest that will change how nature works.

We blame social because 1) we can remember before social existed, and 2) we feel like we have control over social because we can opt-out individually. Except we only think we can opt-out. The social virus has spread into everything and took over its hosts. Thinking you’re untouched by social media by logging off a social platform just shows how very much you can’t see it. Social is inseparable from our lives now.

BLAMING THE PLATFORMS IS SHORT-SIGHTED

The great Facebook + Instagram + Whatsapp crash this week shined a lens on the role social media plays in this observation AND ALSO the fact this consumer habit is fed by social media, networks, media, and more – well beyond the major social platforms.

If you’re above a certain age, you may be tempted to point the finger at a generational trait versus owning that this gross way of how we treat each other and then consume content of us being mean to each other spans ages and life stages.

My friends in the news media say that news is only negative if you view it through that lens. And I think you can say that about social, too. On a personal level, social media has been a godsend for my kids during the pandemic. It helped me find and make friends when we moved to Minneapolis. And it has deeply impacted my life for the better. There is good social, and it is actually good.

But on a macro scale, news and social content consumption are drawn to spectacle, tension, and polarization. Because human behavior seeks it out. PT Barnum didn’t invent the freak show; he just capitalized on our human desire to pay to see weird stuff. So it goes with the content we consume today.

The last two weeks brought a number of stories about issues, complicity, lack of responsibility, and government oversight of social media platforms. And don’t get me started on the lack of understanding of technology and social media from our elected leaders tasked with overseeing those platforms –– we’re only six years out from a Senator on the Internet Policy Subcommittee bragging he had “never sent an email,” which makes asking the question “Will you commit to ending Finsta?” seem near-genius.

What we tend to forget is that the notion of social media as a backbone of society is still quite relatively new as a human truth. Few saw this phenomenon coming and fewer know where it’s headed next. Even less actually control the trajectory.

We can track the signals, however, and for many of us, it’s our job to track those signals. Signals of where things are and where they’re headed.

To me, today, the signals at the moment are pretty concerning that we’ve lost the focus of the good of social media. The puppies and cute babies and satire and more. Being cruel to each other is entertainment, and it’s evolved quite more than watching dads getting kicked in the genitals on America’s Funniest Videos’ Snapchat Discover channel. Instead, our online consumption feeds our offline behavior as much as our online behavior.

Until quite recently I thought of IRL and the internet as fundamentally separate spaces…but in truth there is no bright line between real life and cyberspace and the outrageous ridiculousness we encounter – whether online or off – end up shaping the people we are and the world we share… And I don’t know what to do about that.” – Hank Green, in a vlog about how a medical doctor says sneezing isn’t normal.

There’s no question the societal contract is broken – exemplified through systemic racism, politics, poverty, education, and healthcare. With that brokenness, it can be easy to blame social media for offline behavior, and a lot of it is deserved. It can be cathartic, too. Especially for those of us who work in social media.

But we also need more data protection, privacy, and sexual harassment legislation. We need education at all age levels about how to set privacy settings, blocking and reporting strategies, and ownership over the digital breadcrumbs we leave behind. We need a reset on civics in the social media age. A reset on the collective responsibility of us all to protect each other. And inspiration to use these tools to elevate each other, create value, and celebrate human creativity through technology not in spite of it.

We point our fingers at social platforms for the election fallout and threaten boycotts, but should equally hold companies accountable for things like suggesting and paying for a propagandist cable news network. Or politicians for politicizing net neutrality. Or, or, or…

There are arguments and hot takes people have been making for decades about the perils of emerging technology, politics, and corruption on the social story we tell ourselves. The difference today is that we are now the central character in our own story. And we live out that story through our social actions in ways we don’t yet understand but that earn us attention in the form of likes and shares. That engagement then shapes how we act offline, as we consciously and subconsciously change our behavior to earn social favor.

BEING THE MAIN CHARACTER IN YOUR SOCIAL STORY

Screenshots of Main Character and #notthemaincharacter TikToks.
Bustle: Do You Have Main Character Energy Yet

I don’t think it’s a surprise that the most popular show in the world right now is Squid Game, a survival-game meets Truman Show meets Black Mirror series that is more psychologically violent than gory. But it’s a different type of reality entertainment than watching Survivor because you can play it out on Roblox and act it out on social or in real life (later shared on social) in exchange for attention and personal engagement.

In the current state of social media + entertainment, you can actively be the main character by co-opting content trends or by leveraging those trends to create experiences where people can join in on the fun. This is the equivalent of Andy Warhol’s “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Our entertainment has become co-optable and performative. Celebrate being cruel to each other in four dimensions! Finally.

This plays out in our feeds daily… Something bad happens and suddenly your Instagram Stories are flooded with your network, sharing topical memes to “educate” each other and demonstrate a common sense of outrage. Then one of them oversteps, gets “investigated,” called out, and posts an apology (often framed as a clarification). Everyone grumbles and life moves on. Then it’s all repeated. We see this trend happen with deleted Twitter thread temper tantrums, screenshotted Facebook posts about the man who died from the virus he said was fake, YouTube apology videos, archived emails, text message screenshots, and more.

Social archaeologists will have a field day digging up the dirt of our digital privacy naivete and laissez-faire to the permanence of the internet in the decades between 2005-2025.

My updated take on Warhol, based on these current signals…

In the future, everyone will be infamous for 15 seconds.”

Digging up dirt on each other is the new sport. Looking up each other’s home values and photos on Zillow is simple. Looking at old embarrassingly profile pics on Facebook takes 2 seconds. Searching public officials’ salaries is even faster. Screenshotting social is immediate. It’s all kind of sad.

We’re told by our parents and therapists and friends that nobody is thinking about us as much as we think they are. But sometimes…they are. Sometimes, they’ve dedicated entire Reddit threads to dissecting the posts of complete strangers, and sometimes they’re posting reviews of your work that are really just reviews of you, sometimes they’re following your posts just so they can make fun of you in a group chat… – Nora McInerny

To be clear, I’m not being anti-woke or decrying accountability. People who have done or posted terrible things should be held accountable.

What I mean here is that I’m observing a growth in the signal of looking for gross things about everyday people to cruel-post and/or engage with that content online in a way that informs our offline behavior. To the point it’s emerging as a primary form of entertainment.

Signals like this matter because the current state of social media and content trends is akin to the improv comedy rule-of-thumb of “yes, and” that suggests that a participant should accept what another participant has stated (“yes”) and then expand on that line of thinking (“and”).

Everyone is building upon each other’s behavior and negative content, and there’s little reward in saying “no” or “not that, how about this?” It’s just not how the algorithms work, so it’s not how humans work. It’s not how humans work, so it’s not how the algorithms work. So a cycle in motion like this will persist until something extreme happens to replace it… “yes, but how about..”

What will the state of social media content and this trend of cruel-posting be like in 10 years when cameras move from our pockets to our faces? And livestreaming video and body cam-style footage is widely available for civilians (similar to Dave Eggers’ “The Circle”)? Will Squid Game become a new basis for reality TV and social gaming?

Nobody can know, but we can look closely at the forthcoming human milestones that will impact content strategy next year given this signal and the biggest one we know is coming: the 2022 mid-term election.

Here’s my prediction given all signals covered so far: The mid-term elections of 2022 will amplify the culture wars, fuel cruel-posting, further vilify platforms, attract us to even more violent entertainment, and impact brand content strategy worse than the summer of 2020.

Damn it. I know. But that’s my prediction. Sorry.

Mark Twain said it best… (and don’t forget even he used a pen name a hundred years ago)…

“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” – Mark Twain

MICRO ACTIONS FOR MACRO PROBLEMS

So what can we control? How do we reconcile working in social media when there’s so much yuck and next year looks worse?

Some ideas:

  1. Rethink your content consumption and engagement: Unfollow the Karen accounts. Don’t engage with cruel-posting. Don’t leave comments that aren’t additive. Retrain your algorithms and resist putting garbage in when only garbage comes out.
  2. Focus on content for good: create content and engagement opportunities that create fun and positive signals, not that contribute to noise and negativity. This doesn’t mean every post you or your brand posts has to be feel-good content, but it does mean creating a best-practice content strategy that feeds more on Ted Lasso than Tony Soprano. There is so much good in social; don’t lose track of that. Elevate it.
  3. Educate yourselves, your peers, your children, and your parents: If you think your phone is listening to you and that’s why your advertisements are so well targeted, you have some research to do. And then you need to explain your new understanding of data privacy and algorithms to everyone you know. Expose your kids, peers, and parents to the best side of social media, and dissuade them from negative behavior and engagement. Seth Godin’s Tools for modern citizens is a place to start.
  4. Vote: If the election of 2020 taught us anything, it’s the imperative of voting. And hopefully, we are served by elected leaders who are ahead of us on the education journey so they can accurately represent us. It’s a broken system, but it’s a system we can affect nonetheless. Vote in 2022!
  5. Be slow to faux outrage: It’s almost too easy to be angry these days. My experience in community management is that very few people who TYPE IN ALL CAPS actually do anything about it. Don’t fall into that trap. Save your emotion and energy for the right places.
  6. Be quick to boycott the right places: Actually moving your business elsewhere does impact business decisions. Unfollowing toxic influencers, friends, and family members cuts off their oxygen. Be strategic. There will be social platform boycotts again, and we need to have the hard conversations now about what to do beyond a concerted movement or knee-jerk app deletion. Intention is powerful.
  7. Turn off: Just because social media is intertwined into our lives doesn’t mean it has to consume us if things continue trending downward. But don’t post that you’re going to take a break; just do it. If you work in social, you cannot leave social media. I get it. But you can set boundaries, enforce personal policies, seek professional help, and be purposeful about your limits.
  8. Tune In: Be intentional to rediscover and reclaim the joyful parts of social media that got you there in the first place. You are a victim of your algorithm until you take an active role in teaching and training it. A well-trained algorithm does what it’s taught – spark joy, discovery, and release that sweet sweet serotonin.

I clearly don’t have the macro answers, and I’m not sure I can even hold the entire problem in my head to know what needs answering. But that’s the point of this post. I’m just sensing signals and trying to make sense of them via micro-actions.

What I love about this vocation is that we (you and me!) have an active opportunity to change the trajectory of some of this, while being a student of the rest. I’m the main character… but so are you. What are we going to do about it?

RECOMMENDED AND RELATED READING:

See you on the internet!
Greg

*Disclaimer: my day job and consulting work are thoroughly rooted in the major social platforms and they help pay my bills. That fact certainly shapes my biases and analysis.

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