Social media -- with its focus on status-striving for likes, shares, followers, and paypig bux -- did not exist before around 2012. Before then, no one "generated content" online to get famous (chase clout), to pay rent (grift, hustle), or otherwise strive for status.
And yet people had been "generating content" and interacting with one another ever since the advent of web 2.0 in the mid-2000s.
In place of Twitter's unstructured, farted-out reactions larded with snark, there was the sincere effort-posting of the blogosphere. In place of Facebook's endless churn of reactions, takes, look-at-my-lunch shots, etc., there was the stable MySpace profile that was only tweaked every several weeks or months. And in place of Instagram's selfie / lifestyle snapshot competition, there was the outward-directed candid photo gallery of Flickr.
If the pre-social media platforms had been built for striving purposes, they would have included a rating system, and some way of pledging your fan-like support for someone (without reciprocation). The competitors in a status contest need a way to evaluate who is higher-ranked than who else, and without public numerical stats, the evaluation would be far too subjective to settle the contest.
Whether the competitors like it or not, all content generated on social media platforms is geared toward maxing out these stats, to the best of the user's ability, and suited to their niche and audience. They do more of the behavior that was rewarded with likes and followers, and do less of that which received few likes or lost followers.
As entertainers, they are entirely beholden to the demands of their audience, and cannot pursue whatever strikes their fancy -- whether that's the overall subject matter, or the particular views they express on some subject. In the pre-social media platforms, the "creators" played an authorial role, determining what topics to cover, and in what ways -- and their audience's composition and engagement changed however it might.
That's why blogs, MySpace, and Flickr did not build-in ways for the audience to rate the "content" and, in aggregate, let the "creator" know how well they were supplying what the audience was demanding. The "creator" simply did not care -- their focus was on the creation, and they just accepted whatever audience showed up as a result, and who reacted however they did.
Social media personas put the audience first -- either by selecting an audience beforehand and pandering / catering to them at the outset, or by doing their own thing for a little while, seeing what audience shows up, and then getting locked into a feedback loop of supply-and-demand for that existing audience.
As a direct result of this focus on supplying the audience's demand, these kinds of posters require feedback mechanisms such as a rating system (for individual posts, to signal do more or do less), as well as a census of their audience (the better to cater to it). Hence, the obligatory "like" and "follow" buttons on social media platforms.
I reject the view that the social media platforms took over the internet like they were a hostile superior race of aliens, and that all of the toxic garbage that is associated with such sites is an unwanted consequence of their colonization. Nobody forced anyone to join Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
Indeed, some of the social media posters must have had a blog, a MySpace profile, or a Flickr gallery before abandoning them for social media. I thought "network effects" and "first mover advantage" were supposed to lock the creators and the audiences into those older sites. And yet, not only are those old sites largely defunct, they were not replaced with similar sites that simply "did it better" -- it was an entirely different mode of creating and interacting with online content (likes, follows, payments).
What changed over the course of the 2010s was not the technology per se -- that was an epiphenomenon -- but the goals of the users. Now the "creators" wanted clout, income, and other forms of cyber-status. This is mainly generational turnover, whereby the post-Boomer generations -- Millennials more so than Gen X-ers -- have been locked out of the wealth-based status contests, so they have turned to different arenas such as lifestyle striving and persona striving. See here and here.
The aftermath of the Great Recession may have heightened their awareness of the futility in striving for career and wealth status, but they were destined to find that out sooner or later during their 20-something years. That seems like the explanation for the timing -- when Millennials were 20-somethings discovering that, recession or no recession, the Boomers had locked them out of upward mobility in career / wealth contests, and that they had to adapt by pursuing upward mobility in lifestyle / persona contests instead. And talking heads -- or rather, reacting avatars -- are nothing if not personas.
I'll conclude with another call to those I mentioned in a recent post about ditching social media and starting a blog. (Angela Nagle, Heather Habsburg, Alison Balsam, and Marina / Shamshi_Adad.) That argument was based on not being tethered to the 24-hour news cycle and its junkies, but now we see that it's more general. If you want to pursue authorial intent, you cannot do so on social media -- it has to be on a platform without buttons for rating and following.
Yes, you would be giving up potential Twitter points, but you'd enjoy the dignity of being an autonomous writer. You don't want to be some over-glorified wedding DJ. Toil then no longer under the yoke of fave-slavery.
Alison Balsam said that "sincere posts are the nudes of the mind". But if there's a tipping jar installed onto your posts, a social media platform is at best the Only Fans of the mind. You can only reveal your inner thought, with any humanity, on a blog.