Is This Post Really Necessary?

The declining fortunes of social media might be the direct result of the pandemic and lockdown.

Every period of mass hardship brings with it a new or expanded cultural skepticism about risk. For the COVID-19 pandemic that went global in January 2020, the new skepticism seems to have to do with social risks. This has changed the perception of social media. Where previously social media was seen as an opportunity for self-expression, now it is seen also as a personal risk or a risky investment. “I have to post this!” has turned into “Is this post really necessary?” Of course, the answer is very often no.

Certain kinds of posts are as common as they were before. People show their major initiatives and their long-distance moves, for example. Other categories of posts have all but disappeared. If you have no aspirations to be a professional chef, for example, it no longer seems like a good idea to put your latest recipe adjustment in front of the larger world.

A nearly identical effect is hampering online shopping. During the lockdown period, it was easy enough to justify feel-good purchases made on a whim. The new question online shoppers are asking is, “How do I know I will get the thing I order?” Again, depending on the retailer, the answer might be, “You really don’t know until you have it in your hands.”

It is either poetically fitting or actual cause and effect that the new sense of caution is directed toward the same class of risks that created the pandemic in the first place. By some accounts, this was a military virus created without regard for the potential consequences, released from a laboratory through sloppy handling, then mostly spread by a relatively small number of people who failed to take the most basic precautions. If there is a moral to this story, it is that you cannot count on everyone to behave sensibly. In anything that depends on the actions of thousands of relatively unknown people, things will eventually go wrong. It is that risk that people in general have become more sensitive to.

Most of us, I believe, have learned of this risk the hard way. By now, the average person has had dozens of disappointing experiences online, whether of posting something that should have been perfectly innocent that turned into a big controversy or ordering one product and receiving another. Either way, it is the unpredictable behavior of near-strangers that makes the situation risky, and that is what people have broadly become more cautious about.

It is the platforms and sites that have the fewest controls that have created most of these difficulties, notably Facebook in social media and Amazon in retail, and it is no accident that these are the places that have seen the most stunning declines.

To an extent, people need to shop, but social media is, for the most part, a luxury, and one that people seem to be thinking twice about in the post-pandemic world.

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