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The description — which Musk owes to former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo — envisions Twitter as a place where the masses convene to share what they find interesting, meaningful or momentous and talk it over with others. Facebook didn’t describe itself as a town square but it was founded on a similar principle.
But Musk or no Musk, the vision of a global town square is dead. We have seen too much and we don’t want to look, listen or trust the squabbling voices squashed together in one place.
That’s why there may never be anything like Twitter or Facebook again. The world is too divided and discordant for any app to bring us together.
This vision of connecting the world and convening the masses was always partly fictional and wholly problematic. But the idea also has wisps of beauty and truth.
Even if you never used Twitter or reluctantly waded onto Facebook, you gained something from the hope baked into social media. In there was the desire to expand your human interactions beyond the physical world and an implicit desire to better understand one another.
Broadcasting to the world can be profound and useful. In the hands of a Minneapolis teenager, Darnella Frazier, social media helped reveal the murder of George Floyd. It is empowering people in Iran to show the world and one another their determination to win freedom. We joked together about llamas on the loose that one time. It could also show or encourage the worst of us.
No matter what, many starry-eyed Silicon Valley technologists are no longer imagining bringing billions together with a shared purpose. A principle of cryptocurrency and the related blockchain technology is that no one can be trusted and no one knows anything, as Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey said in some recent tweets. Essentially, the dream of a global town square is for suckers.
What we have instead of a town square is an explosion of private parties. The text-and-audio app Discord, Snapchat, Twitch, Truth Social, group text chats and Zoom are about mingling with people we choose to be with.
There are still billions of people using Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, WhatsApp and WeChat in China. But the town square principle is fraying.
You’re not on YouTube to hear everyone but to scatter into self-selected communities around Mr. Beast, “CoComelon” or that guy roasting the perfect Thanksgiving turkey. Reddit, Substack and Tumblr function this way, too. Twitter itself may have always been best not as a central square but as smaller communities of interest or identity, like Black Twitter or UFC fans.
And if Facebook’s animating idea was you were one click away from a meaningful connection, TikTok’s big idea is that you don’t need friends at all.
Instead computers will divine your desires and spit out bite-sized moments calculated to please you. You might never confront an uncomfortable idea. Mark Zuckerberg is remaking Facebook and Instagram to work more this way.
Part of me grieves the loss of the principle behind Facebook and Twitter as central places for global conversations. And part of me thinks, good riddance to all that.
It was often exhausting and awful to be cast into the human cacophony. Like in the real world, the powerful in the town squares often had more voice than the powerless. And why should we have to listen to those jerks over there, anyway?
The idea of mass social media may have always been doomed. In our age of abundance and fracture, it’s difficult to get behind one megawatt movie star, all buy that album, or trust in the same truth.
Maybe the magic of social media as a global town square is that it happened in the first place. It was a temporary shared delusion.
Why holiday shopping is different this year
This week is the official kickoff of seasonal shopping mania, but you might have noticed that “holiday” sales started weeks or months ago. Yup.
Your shopping habits in 2022 are weird. All those leggings, TV sets and bicycles that were sold out during our pandemic-fueled buying manias? Nah, you don’t want them so much anymore. Companies are stuck with a bunch of merchandise that isn’t selling so hot. Inflation is changing what you buy and more shopping has swapped from the web to in-person stores.
These unexpected events have scrambled the typical holiday plans for retailers and will result in some great deals in the next few weeks — and a bunch of bad ones.
To help you navigate a confusing moment, my colleague Jackie Peiser published a holiday shopping survival guide with tips on saving money.
➦ A big yikes from Jackie: More stores and websites are charging money to return items. You may want to put extra care into selecting gifts (and self-gifts) so you don’t stick your cousin with a waffle iron he’ll have to pay to return.
A tip from Laura Wittig, the founder of climate-conscious shopping and information site Brightly: Use wish lists available from many online stores or tell friends and family members what you want. It might take the surprise out of gift-giving, but buying the right thing the first time is better for the gift giver, the recipient and the planet.
➦ Is Amazon Prime worth it for you? The Post’s Help Desk team put together a handy quiz of your shopping and other habits to answer that question.
Help us help you. How are you navigating online shopping for the holidays? What are your strategies for buying the right things or buying less? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or ask us your questions about technology in your life. We’re all in this together.
One tiny win
Your cellphone company tracks whom you call, where you go on the internet and your location at all times to fling ads at you and make more money. Yeah, I know.
You can say ‘heck no’ to this. Tatum Hunter walks you through which settings to change with each of the three largest U.S. phone companies. It’s one small task to feel empowered today. And read more from Tatum.
Brag about YOUR one tiny win! Tell us about an app, gadget, or tech trick that made your day a little better. We might feature your advice in a future edition of The Tech Friend.
Help Desk: Making tech work for you
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