Hooked on the Social Media Drug

I remember when social media sites were first set up. They invited us to join for free, to exchange messages, pictures and other snapshots of our lives with friends scattered far and wide over the planet. When I signed up for Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads, I thought this was an excellent way of keeping in touch with the people I had met in the many corners of the world where I had lived or travelled to. I even started contributing original content for free in order to keep the channel alive—we all did. And we saw the means of promoting ourselves and our occupations (especially for self-employed ones among us like artists, writers and musicians) without falling prey to big corporate costs for such promotion, costs that hitherto had shut us out of traditional media.

Then something started to happen. Venture capitalists and other funding sources started reeling in the endless supply of funds to these social media sites, saying “Grow up boys, and pay your rent, now.” So, the Social Media sites started to take on advertizing to supplement their income. Their promise to advertisers: a captive audience that could be segmented in a myriad of different ways with sophisticated algorithms, and fed advertisements based on taste, geography, budget etc., at the click of a button and at a relatively low cost. They left the traditional media in the dust when it came to reach, relevance and cost.

Then something else started to happen. Bad guys cottoned onto how effective social media could be if they could infiltrate it with their own messaging that could help influence the outcome of public opinion and policy, national elections, and human behaviour. Very soon we saw people meeting at parties and retreating to their handhelds, people talking across the table via Messenger, pornography becoming a staple with no age barrier and differentiated only by which brand one consumed, and wild card politicians being elected to office thanks to third party influencers in social media.

When the regulators started to grumble about how powerful the tech companies were becoming and began applying retail tax laws to them just as they did for bricks and mortar operators, and threatened further regulation, the tech companies decided to put on a good corporate citizen face and capitalize further on the situation. They came back promising the following to: (1) favour personal content over promotional content for users in order to “restore the platform to its original intent.” (2) restrict promotional content to paid advertizing only, thereby getting more revenue from those independent artists, writers and musicians who previously promoted to friends and followers without having to pay for advertizing; there was no mention of how frequently this revamped paid advertizing would be hoisted upon the user base—i.e. more often than before, or less often? (3) hint that advertizing rates would increase because viewership was expected to drop due to #1 above. The bottom line from these changes: prices are going up, effectiveness is going down; advertisers and users lose, social media platform wins!

My old guru used to say, “Beware when they come and offer sweets outside the school gates. The candy could be laced with drugs, and you will become an addict very quickly.” That analogy is true here too. We were sucked in with the promise of becoming famous for free. Now it’s payback time and the fledgling social media company start-ups, that we helped grow into large corporations, have got us by the short and curlies, and we are hooked without any means of disengaging. We haven’t learnt much have we? My old guru must be turning in his grave.

A good story will be told – ultimately!

Writing gurus advise us not to despair when the rejection slips pile up, they urge us to keep going back to the well and digging deeper until a real gem pops out, for after all, “a good story must be told”. After a while, this sounds like another feel•good•ism to sooth the battered writer toiling away into insanity and an early death. It is tempting to say, “Stuff the gurus,” stash the pen, switch off the computer and take up golf. But something happened to me recently to reinforce this sage message that perhaps a good story will be told, even after 30 years.

Thirty years ago, when I was a young and callow fellow and lived in a country renowned for its beautiful beaches, hospitable people, empty coffers, and peace (yes, we had peace back then, before all the separatist struggles began), I wrote a story in anger to expose youth prostitution going on in the country, fuelled by western money. Wealthy middle•aged male tourists from the developed west were swooping down on our sunny third•world island and procuring young boys for their pleasure and taking them back home, while providing their families with money and material goods like tee shirts, bell bottoms and boom boxes to feed starved material appetites and sooth fears. I also happened to travel to Western Europe at the time and meet some of these kids who were now on the “other side,” ostensibly the side of milk and honey. Instead, they were living half•lives in dead•end jobs, some without legal immigration status and some still in bondage to their pedophile puppet•masters. So I wrote my story in anger and sent it to the national radio station to be read on “This Week’s Short Story” a very popular program, on which I’d successfully had some of my earlier stories read. This story was, as anticipated, rejected on the premise that it was “not good for tourism.”

I left the old country soon thereafter, had many adventures abroad, and lost the story in the intervening years. Three years ago, when I moved to Cobourg, Ontario, Canada, I found the original in a box of old souvenirs, a faded foolscap paper with my former cursive handwriting to remind and shame me for deteriorating to a fowl scratch after I bought a computer. I polished my lost•and•found story and included it in a novel (which also remains unpublished to this date, but I hope, will appear in print shortly) and it was cut out by the editor as “the piece did not fit.”

Every time I showed my orphan story to the literati, they liked it, but no one wanted to publish it. Then recently, I was invited to submit a non•fiction piece to a travel anthology. I submitted an account of a soft adventure trip I once took to the Arctic Circle in Finland in the month of February. In the same submission, I asked the editor, somewhat surreptitiously, whether she would consider this “other piece,” which was, ah… not quite travelogue material, but anti•tourist, in fact. To my surprise the editor not only accepted my 30 year•old story but changed its title to read “Number One” in the local vernacular. The story is to be published shortly.

So the writing gurus must be right, after all. A good story will be told, by hook or by crook. I offer this story•within•a•story as hope to my fellow scribes who toil in the dark waiting to be discovered. I also hope that the rest of my stories and novels don’t take thirty years apiece to come out; although that would leave me in royalties for the next five hundred years, I may never live long enough to enjoy a single penny. And that will be another story worth telling, perhaps!