How Big Money Broke Social Media

Geoff Livingston
4 min readJun 30, 2020
Nothing is clear with social media challenges.

Social media finds itself mired with polarized communities filled with distrust, hate, troll armies, fake media, relentless stalkerish ads, and government tracking of conversations, to name a few things. How did this happen?

People fell for the promise of connections via conversations with their peers and to a lesser extent the brands we love. Adrenalized by new social recognition, communities formed and engaged with each other. News stories broke, change movements arose, and newfound relationships happened.

When web 2.0 was booming with blogs and Twitter and Facebook were taking the technology world by storm, words like authenticity, two-way dialogue, and transparency dominated discussions about the trend. A revolution of engagement was upon us and the era of command and control communications was over.

The heretic Cluetrain Manifesto promised two-way conversations on social media would empower citizen conversations and minimize the PR power of corporations and governments. At its apex, social media helped the Arab Spring movement topple authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Social media had realized its promise.

Or so we thought…

Now we find ourselves hustled with over-contrived social content that provokes us into reacting. When engagement occurs, big social and digital media companies can sell more advertising and conversational data. Big social networks and sites use AI-scoured data to monetize that conversational data.

Prioritizing Engagement at the Expense of Conversations

How did we move from conversations and exciting new communities to a hate-filled online world driven by algorithms and advertisers? Rather than nurture the actual community and the exchange of conversations, social network stream algorithms reward content that provokes the most engagement.

Advertisers could pay their way into the streams, too. But they found little engagement without the sensational. Over-engineered content, lampoon GIFs, photoshopped airbrushed selfies, ridiculous statements, and sensational…