Five years before Mark Zuckerberg was born, I was feeding cards (yes, those little cardboard-paper-with-holes-in-them thingies) into a large machine in order to do a regression analysis for my undergrad economics thesis on an energy pipeline’s feasibility. I suppose it was a mainframe. Maybe an IBM. I’m not sure. When Zuckerberg started up Facebook in February of 2004, I had a PC and the extent of my programming skills was manipulating a few basic commands in IRC-Chat.

In the decade and a half hence, I have tried to learn a few basics of code – python, SQL, and Html/CSS – with limited success. I have admittedly achieved far less than those who have had to learn to program for work or educational reasons, or both. But we all feel a little like we’re chasing or being chased, by something far too big to really understand.

Maybe in part that’s because Zuckerberg over those 15 years has changed the world.

And apparently destroyed some really vital things that helped us form civil society, as we’re beginning to realize. As all of us try to keep up. Even many of the employees at Facebook itself, or at Google, for example.

James Poulos – the LA-based musician/writer/commentator has unleashed in an opinion piece at the Washington Examiner, a devastating and depressing assessment of the effects of social media, and particularly of Zuckerberg’s destruction of what had been mainstream media, and what still is in some ways. But with an important difference:

Major publications have to go begging at the feet of Facebook, and that has changed how we think and deal with each other. Here’s Poulos:

Whether it’s injecting creative works into the market, opinions into the maelstrom of the online discourse, or corrective lectures into raging debates, the potential payoff for all these sorts of activities is plummeting.

The culprit is not simply digital tech’s propensity to glut markets until demand collapses. In our era when just about anyone can write, record, produce, and release a single, a movie, a podcast, or a video show, the barriers to entry are so low that the market space has filled to the brim with content that’s almost totally inessential to nearly all would-be consumers.

Most content on the net is close to zero in value, according to Poulos. That is, when you measure value as people’s willingness to pay for something.
As well, the revenue that media used to earn from advertising have been swallowed up by Facebook in the years following Napster and the collapse of the music industry. What used to be aggregators – like evil record companies and righteous monopolistic media companies – are now 2nd rate players who no longer create a shared space – one with restricted access where not just anyone could write for a newspaper or record an album – a space where we can consume and critique and think about our shared entertainment and news. And share a common culture.

Social media (and that includes video games if you think about it) blew it all up real good. Something increasingly evident over the last couple of decades.
As a result, what we are also seeing over these last few years is how social media has played a key role in the tribalizing of society into hostile factions. Here’s Poulos again:

Television is now so democratized and secularized that it has become little more than ammunition for cultural skirmishes, losing even superficial commonality. Social media, too, is faltering; influential “creatives” and creative “influencers” have begun to realize that posting their hard work for free brings them little more than fleeting attention, often of the hateful or irrelevant kind. And in the high-prestige, high-pay “knowledge work” industries that depend on mass participation in communications and culture markets, even the most expert of elites have very little idea what to do about it.

In other words, a network of over a billion users has turned us inward not outwards and made us retreat from the offline world where eye contact and conversation matter. Nowadays, eye contact and conversation are possible, but sometimes a little tricky or even dangerous, especially if political opinions collide.

Of course, if James Poulos had written his wonderful essay over 20 years ago, I likely wouldn’t have read it unless he was lucky enough to have been published by the right media players and then to have appeared on prime-time television, just when I happened to be watching. And I had then driven to some bookstore or convenience store that carried a magazine that contained that specific article and had bought the damn thing as opposed to a newspaper or a couple of Kit Kats. An unlikely series of events. Poulos is much easier to reach and to read because of the very processes that also make getting paid well a distant reality for most.

And finally, without our globalized and digitized world, you wouldn’t be reading this opinion, because there wouldn’t be anywhere for me to write it.

Yes, for most of us, making a reasonable living as a content provider is not an option. There’s too many of us, quite simply.

I’m not sure most consumers of social media mind that in the least bit. Consuming what you want, or at least what’s within easy reach and for free aside from the ads, is not a business model that the billion plus users of Facebook have any problems with.

So maybe it’s only journalists, writers, musicians, film directors, and the endless and various content providers who wish more people would read them, see them, hear them, feel them, touch them and please, please, please, pay them that is the problem. And that would be their problem. Our problem. Not yours.

So, the question becomes how do we rebuild functional forms of workable consensus in an age that is deconstructing mono-culture media at a savage pace?

I wonder if, as I read my own question again, things like broad and lasting consensuses on almost anything is possible any longer. Someone my age worries that today’s youth is too inward, too indoors, and too uninterested in the offline world. One they still live in, but hardly notice anymore between the selfies and games.

I’m wrong about that of course. The so-called indoor generation will remake the world as they grow up and get jobs, the way boomers, then gen-X’ers and now millennials like Zuckerberg have remade the world. I’m just not sure if I’ll understand or like what my son’s generation does.

I just hope and pray they’ll like and understand a few of the things that made life wonderful in my youth. Like playing Monopoly after dinner.

Oh. That’s in fact what my son’s asking me to do tonight. Play that odd game Monopoly with him. He might even turn off his play station he says. Or at least put it on pause while we play. That’s not a bad start, even if it’s a tiny one.

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