Culture Critically podcast episode 14: TikTok and mental health feat. Meredith Scott

On this week’s episode, host James Gilmore welcomes Clemson undergraduate student Meredith Scott onto the show to discuss how TikTok contributes to unrealistic beauty standards and mental health issues.

See direct mp3 link above, or find us on Apple and Spotify

How COVID-19 transformed the community, classroom, and careers

By: Madison Wilkins

No one ever expected the elbow bump to replace the handshake, or for a virtual meeting program to take over the classroom space. The idea of having to wear a surgical mask for your own safety would’ve sounded absurd, and having to maintain 6 feet from somebody is otherworldly. For a brief period of time, COVID-19 made this our new normal.

Social norms are the perceived informal, mostly unwritten, rules that define acceptable and appropriate actions within a given group or community, thus guiding human behavior. The COVID-19 pandemic has completely transformed our community, classroom, and careers. More specifically, our perception of the every-changing social norms within these “3 C’s”. As the three areas are explored, I examined the personal impact it has made on my experience as a college student. Additionally, taking a closer look at the various findings and current events that tie into the impacts it has made on our world.

Community begins within the home. It takes a village to often have that needed support amongst a group of people. The first COVID-19 impacts we saw within the community was the serious health and financial burdens in many U.S. households. Our villages grew smaller as our health officials and care-givers spent more time in hospitals, and we spent less time with our high-risk members of the community who lost the battle against the Coronavirus. Our local businesses in these communities suffered financial losses as they either temporarily or permanently closed. The community had to also quickly adapt to the inability to host social gatherings, remain less than 6 feet apart, and for some states, adopt curfews. As a resident of New Jersey, we saw the shift from normality as we spent 3 consecutive months without leaving our homes. The police department searched the streets past a certain time of night to ensure safety within the community. A source by the National Academy of Medicine further explains these impacts and compelling needs of the patients and family communities, “It is amid this period of declining health and growing inequality in America that the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The public health emergency—which remains ongoing at the time of this paper’s publication—has negatively impacted the lives of virtually every patient, family, and community throughout the nation and the world”. In addition to these worldwide impacts, we are also seeing this shift in normality within the classroom as well.

The role social norms have played, how they’ve changed, and the impacts on the future. Our governing rules of behavior have also created large impacts within the classroom. As a current junior in college, the memories of times when zoom was’t utilized are blurry. For some, pen and paper have simply become a thing of the past. As a member of the Class of 2020, there was no senior trip, prom, or graduation parties. Not to mention the transition to becoming a college student. The classroom faced some of the biggest changes during the global pandemic. Virtual meeting options are normalized and I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a scantron. From a psychological perspective, COVID-19 in the classroom disrupted student growth and development. For example, the staff shortages and lack of face to face brings forth confusion and frustration for many students that need individualized attention. Brookings, Brown Center Chalkboard focused an entire study on the pandemic’s impacts on learning. The research made new discoveries on impacts on learning during a pandemic as well as the possible school closures. “The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced uncertainty into major aspects of national and global society, including for schools. For example, there is uncertainty about how school closures last spring impacted student achievement, as well as how the rapid conversion of most instruction to an online platform this academic year will continue to affect achievement”. The rapid conversion to online instruction heavily impacted my transition into Clemson University. 

My entire first semester at Clemson was spent online as I tried to adapt to being miles away from home, a pandemic, and the changes that come with being a college freshman. Despite the transition, COVID-19 sparked new developments in education for higher seminaries of learning. It is now socially acceptable to virtually meet with your advisor or professor even after the end of the pandemic. For those applying or transferring into Clemson, the university is still test optional for admission. These decisions set the precedent for the college experience for all of the students. Additionally, the COVID-19 classroom impacts create change for the “c” that follows as we explore the changes it has made in careers.

The career field is always changing but a global pandemic is a factor that no corporation saw coming. COVID-19 impacted desirable job types and employment around the world. At the onset of the pandemic we saw a shift to remote work for the jobs that allowed. For those that relied on in person interaction, drastic changes were made as they pushed to stay open or prepared to be permanently closed. Many individuals and families struggled through unemployment as well. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development stated that, “The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered one of the worst jobs crises since the Great Depression. There is a real danger that the crisis will increase poverty and widen inequalities, with the impact felt for years to come.” The previous dilemma came to life as we saw the impacts of this current job crisis. Moreover, we are also seeing a shift in job desirability. More individuals are choosing to work remotely from home when given the opportunity. The career field is also changing as more are making the decision to make a living off of social media rather than a traditional job. Regardless of the place of work, COVID-19 is making impacts in all of these areas.

All things considered, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely transformed our community, classroom, and careers. The world has had to adapt to new guiding behaviors. Whether it’s social distancing or virtual meetings, these were the new social norms and they have impacted our “3 c’s” forever.


The Kardashian Empire and its Contributions to Shaping Social Norms

by: Ashley Myers

The Kardashian family has created an empire that no other family of influencers has been able to replicate, and have a ubiquitous force on popular culture. Everyone knows their names, brands, and television shows, and many strive to be like them: beautiful, rich, and successful. They have integrated themselves into mass media, and offer up a template for people who want to become successful influencers. Since their first television show, “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” came out in 2007, the family has soared to the top of the social pyramid, and has left an imprint so large on our culture that it has actually helped to shape some of the social norms we follow today. From shaping an idea of the ideal body type to empowering female entrepreneurs, the family has clearly had an impact among younger generations’ thoughts on how they should act, as well as what they should look like.

Since their rise to fame the family constantly competes for who has the highest net worth. Currently, Kim holds the highest net worth in the family at $1.8 billion, with a large portion of her wealth coming from KKW Beauty and Skims. Following behind her is Kylie with a net worth of $600 million. Kylie was also named “The Youngest Self-Made Billionaire” at the age of 21 by Forbes in 2019. The family has also collectively launched 26 businesses since they made a name for themselves. However, not all of these businesses have succeeded as exceptionally as their top brands today. Yet, the family has demonstrated that failure of a business venture does not necessarily mean that you have failed. They take their failures as a lesson instead of a defeat, which shows hopeful entrepreneurs that even the most powerful business people fail. Despite the public’s animosity for the Kardashian family, they are a successful family of women in business, and are an inspiration for female entrepreneurs who want to make a name for themselves, as well as for mothers who want to do it all.

Despite their overwhelming success as business tycoons, their brands also tend to promote a specific beauty standard. For example, Skims is a shape wear company that is “Kim’s answer to shape wear that actually works” and is designed to “smooth, enhance, lift and tone.” Though the company encourages women on embracing their natural shape, they call their product “solution-oriented,” which paradoxically implies that women’s bodies are not good enough as they are, and they need a brand like Skims to help them achieve the ideal shape. Another brand that tends to promote looking a certain way is Kylie’s makeup brand, Kylie Cosmetics, and specifically her popular lip kits. Kylie’s lips have famously become a part of her signature look, and have become the preferred look for many individuals. Her lip kits are designed to help consumers achieve full, plump lips without the help of lip fillers. However, the brand constantly uses Kylie’s lips as a model for the brand, despite the fact that she has admitted to receiving lip injections. Though the brands tailored by the Kar-Jenners may be controversial, there is no doubt that their multi-million dollar brand empire is a tremendous testament to just how influential they are in the beauty industry, and how they help promote specific beauty standards to be the norm.

The Kar-Jenners seem to set up their brands to make it easier for the general population to be more like them without spending loads of money on their appearance. However, the photographs we see on social media are not entirely realistic, as almost all of the family has had some sort of work done as well as has admitted to using photoshop on the photos they post to social media. The phenomena of advertising brands that are supposed to make you look more ‘perfect’ feeds into the idea that women must look a certain way to be beautiful, and it is no secret that social media idealizes the bodies of the Kardashians. Social media sites such as Instagram and TikTok make it increasingly easier for users to change their appearance with the countless filters that they provide. There are even filters that help you to replicate the look of the Kardashians, such as the Kardashian filter effect on TikTok

While the brands created by the Kar-Jenners are a testament to how successful and influential they are, they also contribute to shaping certain social norms, especially how we think about body image. The family’s brands and companies are seemingly centered around products that better how we look, such as clothing, makeup, and skin care products, so it is only fitting that the family has a set beauty standard: curvy with a small waist, full lips, glowing skin, perfect makeup, and no sign of cellulite or imperfections. Due to their empire of brands and influence in the media, the beauty standard they have created has become ideal for much of the younger generations, and it has actually become a norm to strive to look this certain way, hence why their brands have gained so much popularity. Though this promotion of a certain body type may be good for the family’s ever growing empire, it is not necessarily good for everyone else. Constantly seeing images of seemingly perfect women online can cause distress in mental health, and can even lead to eating disorders. This feeling among women has become increasingly normalized, especially those between the age of 18 and 25. Along with the idea of needing to fit a certain body type, photoshopping pictures has also become increasingly normalized. Social media has essentially become an individual’s highlight reel where all posts are carefully tailored to fit a certain aesthetic. Though this norm was not created by the Kardashian clan, they have definitely helped to promote the idea that photoshopping is normal, as their influence on social media is enormous, with their following count amounting to over 1.2 billion followers collectively. As social media continues to be a very influential platform for the younger generation, the promotion of having a certain body type by influencers continues to have a negative effect on how people view themselves, and the Kardashians’ seemingly perfect feeds are not helping the situation.

While the Kardashians are a controversial family with drama surrounding their every move, there is no doubt that they are very influential when it comes to ideas surrounding female entrepreneurship and body image. They are powerful women who have made names for themselves through entrepreneurial ventures, and are loved and hated by viewers around the globe. Though many of their projects have good intentions, the norms they promote are not always ideal for women in society, especially younger generations, when it comes to mental health. The Kar-Jenners have created a powerful empire with a platform that has the ability to influence certain social norms, whether they have good or bad ideals. Let’s hope they continue to push forward good ideals into the media, and leave hurtful ones in the past.

How TikTok is Changing the Narrative Surrounding Mental Health

by: Brooke Harley

In the past couple of decades, social media has completely changed the world in nearly every way imaginable. It has allowed for connections across the globe, and for everyday people to share a glimpse into their lives at just the click of a button. Even within social media itself there are so many different platforms, expectations and trends whose popularity is constantly ebbing and flowing. These changes have added a whole other layer to societal expectations both on and off the platforms. Since this particular blog series focuses on social norms and how they change and differ, I find it only fitting to dive into one of the biggest recent changes in social media. This post focuses on TikTok, and how it has altered the narrative surrounding mental health in both positive and negative ways.

Up until recently, mental health was not a very popular discussion topic. Concerns were only really addressed with the closest and most trusted of family members and friends, or a professional. The struggles associated with mental health and mental illnesses were completely kept to oneself and dealt with in private, and to discuss them publically was seen as a taboo. Social media has been a key player in the shift away from this narrative. Early platforms like MySpace and Facebook provided the space and opportunity to share very casual thoughts and even struggles from the user’s day-to-day lives. Not only did these platforms provide the space, but they also provided the audience. On public accounts, these more vulnerable posts were reaching many more people, some of whom related to struggling with mental health and slowly, people started to find support and community through sharing their struggles online.  Not only did social media provide support for those struggling mentally, but it also exposed others to mental illness in a more concrete and relatable way, allowing for more education about mental health. At the same time, many negative influences on mental health have come out of social media, not only from the bullying that takes place behind the anonymity of a screen, but also regarding unrealistic portrayals of lifestyle and body image. While social media became an outlet for more casual and vulnerable posts, it also allowed for people to create an appearance of casualness and vulnerability that was not genuine, but extremely staged. On top of that, it also allowed for rather unhealthy and unbalanced lifestyles to be portrayed as “normal” when in reality they were promoting behaviors that encourage eating disorders, and unrealistic body “goals” and image. In more recent years, with the rise of TikTok, I’ve seen this frequently on the platform and in my day-to-day life. As the platform continues to grow, creators start to make more and more original content that falls into these categories in one way or another. The four content creators that I will be highlighting in this post each show through their content the ways in which these themes are seen on TikTok every day. 

TikTok features a variety of different genres that aim to help its viewers. From recipes, to home decoration advice, to ways to study more efficiently, there is much to learn from the platform and its creators. One of the most important sub-categories of these tips and tricks are the TikToks created by mental health professionals. Many of these videos contain information on mental illnesses, like commonly overlooked symptoms and characteristics, as well as small tips to help alleviate the burdens caused by the illnesses. They also provide resources for those who want to seek help but either don’t know where to start, or haven’t found a resource that works for them. Two creators that are very different from each other, but both create this type of content are Maggie Lancioni (@therapywithmaggielpc), and Tom Hulme (@mindful_tom).  Lancioni’s content focuses much more on mental struggles themselves, with much of her content highlighting symptoms of mental illness that aren’t discussed as frequently, small ways to combat specific mental illnesses, and reenacting real life scenarios to show what it’s like to live with mental illnesses.  Her page has about 300k followers, and over 2 million likes, so her content is reaching much further than most traditional mental health resources would on another platform. The awareness that her page brings, could potentially not only help someone who is already looking for mental health resources, but someone who is struggling and isn’t sure why. Lancioni’s page is also described in her bio as a “Safe Space“, and the comment sections of her videos are filled with people not only relating to her content, but venting in a place where they won’t be judged. On the other hand, Hulme’s content takes a much different approach to the topic of mental health. The majority of his content contains tips to lighten the burden of certain mental health issues, and words of encouragement for bad days. His page has over 600k followers and over 53 million likes, so while his content isn’t quite as specific as Lancioni’s, the reach is more than double. This type of content doesn’t promote seeking help, but instead offers more advice and portrays a positive message that could turn someone’s day around completely. Both of these creators, as different as their content is, contribute to the changing and improving narrative surrounding mental health on social media and in real life. By creating safe spaces, and encouraging reminders, they are normalizing and working to improve the reality that is living with a mental illness.

In a stark contrast to the uplifting and positive side of TikTok that aims to improve mental health issues, there is a very different side of TikTok that normalizes unhealthy, imbalanced lifestyles aesthetically disguised as “Wellness Lifestyles“. This category of creators often make videos that show a peek into their day, including everything from what they eat, to what they do, to what they are wearing. While the videos are supposed to seem like an authentic peek into an inspirational way of life, they are often unrealistic, highly curated and edited, and leave the viewer feeling less than for not being able to maintain a similar lifestyle. Two accounts that I’ve found showcase this concept well are are Sophia (@wellbysophia)  and Lexi Shadle (@lexishadle).Sophia’s content is less overtly problematic than Shadle’s, but still promotes an unrealistic view of what a healthy life looks like. Many of her videos include clips of her “healthy girl lifestyle” that feature aesthetically pleasing shots of skimpy matching workout sets, a perfectly clean apartment, fresh fruit, and working out. These oversimplified images of what it means to be “healthy” don’t look like a day in the life of an average person, and this leads many people to have a negative self-image because of their inability to perfectly recreate the “healthy” lifestyle. This being said, there are few things more harmful to self-image than the accounts that focus solely on losing weight and being thin, each micro and macro included. Shadle’s account features content that revolves solely around the lifestyle of losing weight and staying skinny, including videos with recipes that are “macro friendly”, including calorie content and how to stick to your weight loss routine during the holidays. Her account has over 58k followers and 1.5 million likes, promoting a lifestyle highlighting counting calories and working out 5-6 times a week. This focus on staying skinny and keeping track of every single calorie consumed is incredibly damaging to body image and self-worth, and accounts like this are a very large part of why social media is considered unhealthy and detrimental to mental health.  Although the content from both of these users varies, the same underlying theme of promoting an unrealistic “healthy” lifestyle exists, and these creators aren’t seen as very big creators who have millions of followers and billions of likes. As TikTok continues to grow, and these kinds of users gain bigger followings, it is clear that the social media mental health crisis could continue to expand, specifically regarding body image. 

The change in narrative surrounding mental health has without a doubt been altered by TikTok. The amount of both positive and negative content is astounding, and the resources it can provide are incredible. However, there is still so much misinformation and disinformation on the platform that are presented as facts. As TikTok and other platforms continue to grow, it is vital to gain a broader and deeper understanding of the information presented, especially when it comes to topics like mental health. 

Peru: Tourism, Exploration, and Exploitation

By Sara Ciplickas

Photo by Junior Machado on

In the summer of 2022, I had the opportunity to travel to Peru. I met with a group of solo travelers and explored the coast and Andean region. Like most people who visit Peru for the first time, I explored significant cities such as Lima and Cusco, hiked Machu Picchu and Mount Vinicunca, and visited the Spanish cathedrals and catacombs. I also explored local villages within the sacred valley and rode ATVs through farmland outside Cusco. 

During my stay, my friends and I spoke with many locals who combined English, Spanish, and Quechuan (the language families of people indigenous to the Andean region). While their kindness and hospitality made my trip unforgettable, I was shocked to be invited (or allowed) into so many sacred and private spaces. In addition to visiting Machu Picchu, a sacred Incan city hidden by the Incas in the 1400s, many people invited me into their private homes built during the same time. I was enamored by the relics, dried food, and alters scattered around the single-room houses. It indeed was like stepping into the past, but I often felt like an intruder. As a tourist engaging with this country’s past, I felt a sense of guilt stepping into spaces that white European colonists tried to erase. 

Tourism is Peru’s third-largest income source. The country, like many others, took a sizeable economic hit in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic initiated harsh lockdowns. Around 85% of the people working in tourism lost their jobs. I was more than happy to buy as much as I could pack and thrilled to listen to the people tell stories; however, my trip seemed like a tug-of-war game between tourist sites and private spaces. At times, it was hard to tell which was which. The commodification of culture is not something exclusive to Peru. Many countries optimize their historical sites and traditions to stimulate travel and economic growth.  Specifically, indigenous cultures of North and Latin America are commercialized because they are considered to be a variation of the “public domain.” (Think about when someone dressed up as an “Indian” for Halloween or attended a Redskins game.) Contrary to the United States, indigenous culture in Peru, based on my observation, is more integrated into the everyday life of all Peruvians and consumer products and services. Upon reflection, I wondered why it was so uncomfortable for me to experience an indigenous culture outside of museums. 

Like the United States, Europeans colonized Peru, and the native people were either enslaved or murdered. Contrasting to the present-day Native-American tribes, the Incan people more successfully preserved their indigenous traditions and ways of life. We, of European descendants, in the United States, do not recognize, participate in, or acknowledge the cultures of Native American descendants. Most Native American culture has been systematically exterminated by the United States government throughout history. In Peru, I could see a difference. History, traditions, art, clothing, and food were acknowledged, used, and appreciated. One way this is done is through the commodification of said traditions. Arguably, the Incan people have survived so long because they have allowed their private traditions to be opened up as tourist exhibitions. As a tourist, I could see the tension between the need to preserve and sell one’s culture, especially when I visited local markets.

Now, this is not as black and white as it may sound. Peru has its fair share of racism and disrespect for indigenous cultures. Additionally, the United States has areas and new laws trying to protect indigenous communities. Both countries have inexcusably disrespected their Native people, and I am not defending the colonists in Peru one bit. However, my time in Peru and the oddness of seeing so much indigenous culture have caused me to reflect on how my own country has handled (and erased) its colonial past. 

The balance between the preservation and commodification of culture is blurry. In some ways, by opening up to the public, Indigenous traditions and sites have survived history. My time in Peru exposed to me this tension in how tourism works — as a means of preserving and commodifying, often both at once — in a way I had not previously considered. I still wholly support traveling and learning about different parts of the world and their people. However, the tourism industry’s complexity is not to be ignored. As white European travelers, it is easy to view other, often poorer cultures, as far-removed places to visit and get a glimpse of the ancient world (even if unintentionally). That is not the case. Places like Peru that thrive off tourism are also recovering from previous exploitation. With that comes the responsibility of both seeing the world and understanding why and how certain places use tourism to keep themselves alive. 

‘You want to end the party at 11’: “Social media” at a moment of rearticulation

by: James N. Gilmore

These quick thoughts are meant to offer a reflection of an idea I’ve been thinking through since spring of 2022, largely when Elon Musk first announced his intention to purchase Twitter. Now that the deal has gone through and Musk owns the company, lots of questions are circulating about leadership, staffing, the company’s future, and its ability to maintain and build a user base. Please read these as cursory, and let’s talk about them in the coming year. Things will undoubtedly continue to change.

Musk offered two Tweets as the purchase closed and he gained control of the company. In the first, he wrote, “Entering Twitter HQ – let that sink in!” This was accompanied by a 9-second video of him walking into the lobby of Twitter’s headquarters holding a white sink. The pun is something between a Dad Joke and a troll, Musk making light of a sprawling, tumultuous half-year that nearly saw him in court over his bid to purchase Twitter. In the second tweet, he wrote “Dear Twitter Advertisers,” followed by three separate screenshots explaining—to a point—his position on acquiring the company and what he saw as its future. That the letter was pitched to advertisers and not to users is telling, indicating that Musk’s first public statements on the platform are pitched at the mechanism designed to build capital. While I don’t want to walk through these statements in their entirety, I do want to point to three contrasting statements:

  1. “The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence.” This has long been a conception of contemporary social platforms—the “town square” model that owes something to Habermas’s history of the “public sphere”—but plenty of social media researchers are quick to point out the limitations of this model: As a computational software platform, Twitter simply doesn’t function this way, and the practices of trolling, disinformation, and other modes of concerted attacks mobilized through the platform undermine its possibility to really achieve this rose-colored possibility.
  2. “…our platform must be warm and welcoming to all, where you can choose your desired experience according to your preferences, just as you can choose, for example to see movies or play video games ranging from all ages to mature.” Theories of the active audience aside, Musk is here conflating participation in public discourse with media consumption. A choice to play a video game is quite different from choosing to voice political speech online. There have been lingering questions about Musk’s plans for content moderation and community guidelines on the platform, and this short note does nothing to address how—apart from obeying “the laws of the land” (which land, exactly?)—he understands the intricate relationship between social media and speech. It is always a productive act, not a consumptive act.
  3. “Fundamentally, Twitter aspires to be the most respect advertising platform in the world that strengthens your brand and grows your enterprise.” And this is, really, the main takeaway: the “town square” model is foregrounded because it sounds nice, the false analogy to movies and games only work on the most superficial level, but this is the closest Musk comes to indicating an emphasis in Twitter as a town square that works for the expressions of brands. Musk realizes that, regardless of what happens to the user base of Twitter over the coming 12-24 months, he needs to demonstrate to advertisers a commitment to the money they are willing to spend on targeted advertising, professional analytics, and reach.

So the story is the same as it ever was: The pursuit of advertisers to fund the platform and accrue value. We know this, of course; it’s the entire basis of models like Zuboff’s “Surveillance capitalism,” Smythe’s “audience commodity,” as well as any number of histories of media audience tracking and data collection—in choosing an advertising model that is “free” to use, users become the product, sold to advertisers who demand a return-on-investment and, increasingly, value granular data to understand the work of their social media brand.

But let’s talk about “value.” Because as much as Twitter’s market stock has rebounded over the course of a tumultuous year, it’s about to be taken of the NYSE. Musk’s acquisition is also taking the company private. Meanwhile, Meta—which was once seen as the biggest social network company in the world—has lost 69% of its market value over the last year. While, clearly, the stock market doesn’t tell us everything, Facebook’s rebranding into Meta has done little to build faith in the company. Earlier this month, Zuckerberg announced “legs are coming” to Meta avatars—your character in the company’s virtual reality space doesn’t exist from the waist-down—before some realized the “legs” in the hype video had been faked and created from motion capture for the purposes of the demo. It’s a small, stupid thing, but it encapsulates quite well the company’s ongoing fall from grace.

While my undergraduate students are far from a reliable sample size (about n = 50 per semester), I’ve noticed a precipitous drop in any of them saying they use Facebook and, over the last two years, any of them saying they use Twitter. Instagram and TikTok are more the platforms du jour. But with ongoing discussions about data collection and data security happening around TikTok; as Wired put it last month, “it is unclear whether TikTok poses a unique and specific threat to US national security or if it is simply a convenient proxy through which lawmakers are grappling with larger issues of data security and privacy, disinformation, content moderation, and influence in a globalized tech market.”

And this, to me, is part of what unites that Facebook now feels stale (and Meta seems unappealing to any of my students no matter how many commercials I show them), Twitter’s content moderation and speech regulations are again at the forefront as Musk promises sweeping changes to the company, and TikTok remains a sort of signifier for the perils of data privacy and security: We are at the end of the first “social media” generation.

While, clearly, historians of the Internet (as well as anyone active in online networks in the 1980s and 1990s will tell you), the idea of social network websites where people could post and engage each other has been around for much longer (not to mention the arguments occasionally shared from some corners that “all media are social!”), the actual phrase social media was not meaningfully used until about 2004 according to a Google Books Ngram search:

The phrase exploded over a five-year period, coming to dominance as a fully-formed logic of technology and culture by 2010, before slowing down its discursive growth in the last decade. While an Ngram search of a word’s frequency can only tell us so much, it underscores that “social media” arrived at a particular moment. Its lasting legacy may be a recognition that all our media are inherently social, and will retain elements of social connection in future developments, but this also shows us nothing is assured here, and the history of this phrase and its dominant meanings and understandings is still very much up for grabs.

While Geocities was launched in 1994 and LiveJournal was launched in 1999, the founding of Friendster in 2002, MySpace in 2003, and Facebook in 2004 collectively inspired a sedimentation around the idea of social media as a space for online social networking and the sharing of thoughts, photos, and eventually videos.

Twenty years since the founding of Friendster, we find ourselves in a moment that will truly test the future of what the phrase “social media” is meant to indicate, and what its legacy might be. Will Facebook continue to bleed users (and fail to bring younger users into the fold), converting it into a sort of online directory of businesses and community groups? (It’s worth noting that news deserts like the one in which I live still basically only use Facebook to share community news with residents). Can Twitter survive Musk’s acquisition and his plans to center the company as a brand-focused town square? (And will news organizations and politicians continue to use Twitter, legitimating its status as this so-called “town square,” now that it’s a private company again?) As the realities of data extraction become more known and accepted, the political realities of disinformation more part of our ongoing public discussions of social media, are these forever companies? Or, to borrow a line from David Fincher’s The Social Network, has the party ended at 11? Will these companies ultimately fail to make the pivot into “The Next Generation” (Star Trek pun intended) and begin to sputter? 

To be clear, I don’t think Facebook or Twitter or Instagram will disappear. They are deeply entrenched in cultural practice. But it is relatively easy, at this point, to imagine Facebook basically being an online directory, a version of the White Pages. It’s easy to imagine Twitter being basically a hub for news outlets, politicians, and public figures to share statements without much of the vibrant, chaotic (and yes, often hateful and horrid) forms of networking which characterized the platform’s first 15 year of public life.

I offer these reflections not because I have an answer, but because I think we need to encourage everyone to start thinking about these platforms as historical entities; they emerged within a particular material, cultural, economic, and technological context, and they have participated in the shifting contexts of the last 20 years. The major players in the social media industry are all at a moment of rearticulation: Formally rebranded into Meta, formally changing ownership and becoming private, these reconnections will undoubtedly spill out into other contextual relationships. Thinking of them as historically situated can give us, I hope, the necessary vantage to have serious conversations about Meta and Twitter in the coming year, as they undoubtedly undergo a series of changes to try and (re)build value.

“Social media” is a historical phrase. Its first moment of articulation shifted how different social and cultural groups engage each other, how political conversations operate, how ideologies are built and challenged, and on and on it goes. These changes are still quite deeply felt, but they are not a guarantor of any sort of future around the phrase “social media” and its broader structures of feeling. We can’t lose sight of that specific historicity as we critique the next moves of these companies and the platforms they operate.

“We are going to live on the Internet,” claims a fictional version of Sean Parker towards the end of The Social Network. But maybe that promised future has already passed, or is already passing. At the very least, life on the Internet is transforming.