Social Media is Meta-Commentary on Ourselves

It’s strange how you can fall down several different, seemingly disparate rabbit holes in a day, and they all sort of connect with each other somehow. After spending some time reading through a few of Alan Jacobs’s old pieces at the Atlantic, I later randomly stumbled across this piece on Bo Burnham and his recent film, “Eighth Grade.”

Jacobs’s posts at the Atlantic offered some interesting commentary (from back in 2012 and 2013!) on the open internet and the indie web that led me down a strange internet wormhole. In several of these pieces, Jacobs, true to form, writes on the importance of autonomous web pages — spaces which we have our own control over, and which are not at risk of deletion or loss because some company owns the material we post. While he doesn’t explicitly talk about Twitter or Facebook, he does mention in at least one piece how he manages his online reading (Twitter/RSS to Instapaper to Pinboard). These allow him to stay up to date without being held hostage by the Twitter hoard. I don’t know if that’s what he does now, but it’s what he describes in this post.

In the profile of Burnham, the author describes what Burnham has been working on the last couple of years while taking a break from stand-up comedy: a film (“Eighth Grade”) that seeks to pull back the curtain on what it feels like to be an adolescent in a world enveloped and overwhelmed by social media and building audiences and having a voice. Kayla is the film’s protagonist, and he says of her character: “In the movie, she’s meta-commenting on herself in a way she’s totally unaware of. She thinks she’s living one coherent life.” In other words, as Kayla is attempting to say something meaningful to her (non)audience via social media, she’s actually speaking (in)directly about her own fears and selfhood. The problem really ends up being that it’s a show meant for others, and by attempting to gain an audience, she doesn’t understand that she’s “meta-commenting.”

I wonder, if we followed Jacobs’s and others’ vision of what a better web looks like (owning our own space, using it as a personal archive, etc.), if we can avoid some of the pitfalls of performance that social media in its current forms propagates.

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