If you look closer at our digital ecosystem, you will find that its fun and flashy exterior masks a fragile and faulty interior. A billionaire can change the name and iconic branding of a social media company to a monotonous letter overnight. Elon Musk’s erratic decisions with Twitter — now “X” — and its subsequent downfall have highlighted how unsavoury our digital ecosystem is, with no solution for a society reliant on social media.
New updates gradually homogenize what was once unique to an app. When TikTok burgeoned, Instagram introduced its ‘new’ reels feature, and YouTube introduced ‘shorts.’ Snapchat’s success as a platform known for its limited stories feature was first replicated by Instagram stories, then as Twitter’s short-lived ‘fleets’, and lastly as TikTok stories. Musk’s witless governing of Twitter has caused multiple alternatives like Meta’s Threads.
Although these platforms are growing more similar to one another, they market themselves as separate, which invokes pressure on users to consume them all. This leads to much higher screen times, more money being spent, and an increasingly harder hole of dependence to climb out of. It seems progressively harder each day to figure out what to do about our digital ecosystem.
Luckily, Frankfurt School philosophers and sociologists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer can help explain the growing uniformity of our social media platforms. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, the pair contend that mass culture is shallow and widely appealing — which applies all too well to our digital ecosystem. Despite appearing to offer the public a voice — given that you share your own thoughts and create your own content — our digital ecosystem promotes consumption and perpetuates the cycle of cultural conformity.
Participating in viral TikTok trends means buying a new Amazon product every week, including the $700 Dyson Airwrap. The fear of missing out or appearing uninteresting has become monopolized, as almost every post online is an advertisement for how you can become identical to your favourite content creator — if you spend money.
Various indistinguishable ‘wellness’ and ‘fitness’ accounts on Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok also highlight this digital cultural uniformity. They all market similar healthy products and wellness lifestyles, each claiming to have the solution to change your life even though they are ultimately the same. Their widely appealing marketing deceives viewers into spending money on a product hoping that it will change their appearance or make them happier. But these pleasures are ultimately false and continue the cycle of control and conformity. Adorno and Horkheimer thus appear to me to be correct when they say that the ‘culture industry’ — where popular culture is produced like standardized factory goods — is just mass public conformity to the interests of corporations.
French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard also felt that digital media reaped negative cultural effects. In his key text, Simulacra and Simulation, he wrote that the loss of meaning created by a capitalist society’s culture is related to the rapid dissemination of information in mass media. Digital media confronts viewers with an overwhelming stream of information and causes meaning to become lost in a wave of uncertainty and constant change. TikTok users will see news, jokes, art, and more within seconds of each other. When information flashes by that quickly, it is impossible to properly engage and reflect on its meaning. Baudrillard assesses that this dissolves one’s ability to use traditional interpretation.
Now that Adorno, Horkheimer, and Baudrillard have helped us realize that our digital ecosystem is very much headed for the worse, how do we cope with our digital ecosystem going down the drain when we are dependent on it in ways we don’t even recognize?
Baudrillard suggests refusing the system through “mass silence.” His advice provides a counter strategy for individuals to resist hegemonic narratives through the lack of a response. I have attempted this multiple times with TikTok, and after re-adjusting to life without it, my most recent regression made me realize that I dislike the app. Its shallow noise had become unavoidable to me and I got no pleasure out of scrolling for hours on end.
Adorno and Horkheimer summarize this quite well: “All mass culture under monopoly is identical, and the contours of its skeleton, the conceptual armature fabricated by monopoly, are beginning to stand out.” Many of us are starting to get fed up with our digital ecosystem’s faults. Journalism student Jenna Bloom wrote in The Washington Post about her decision to quit social media after realizing that she still felt alone despite “[spending] entire days, weeks, months” on her phone.
Unfortunately, Baudrillard’s rather radical approach of mass silence would be impossible for us to achieve. Having grown up with our digital ecosystem, can we actually take a break? I may have been able to delete TikTok, but I know I cannot do the same with Twitter, even though Twitter is the most recent platform to have become a pain to use.
As such, approaching our digital ecosystem’s faults with an overly pessimistic attitude cannot be healthy. Social media and the digital ecosystem as a whole are heavily involved in our everyday lives. Sure, accounts that Instagram thinks I may like have often replaced my friends’ feeds, but I put up with the app because I use it to keep in touch with overseas friends and family.
Dependency and addiction aside, social media can do quite a lot of good. We use our digital ecosystem to do school work, keep in touch with relatives, forge lifelong friendships, and distract ourselves from our dim reality — which, ironically, the ecosystem also perpetuates. When our real lives falter, our digital ecosystem fills in the gap and provides support. Most of us cannot afford to get rid of these apps.
Of course, reinviting meaning in our digital ecosystem means addressing underlying issues that are bigger than the individual consumer, but this doesn’t mean we have to sit around in despair. Perhaps a way to resist would be to channel pessimism into awareness. Awareness of how our ecosystem impacts how we view the world and ourselves. Awareness that despite being used by the masses, our ecosystems are run by and thus serve the elite.
And if our digital algorithms are crafted to make us idle and dependent, wouldn’t the key to circumventing them be being thoughtful? Can we disrupt the monopoly if we slow down our approach to the digital ecosystem? Putting time limits on each app could alleviate this dependency. Taking time while scrolling, or scrolling past a video that adds no comedic or serious value to your day, could allow for more reflection. Unlearning the idea that being ‘perfect’ or ‘interesting’ looks a certain way could help us avoid overconsumption.
There is no clear-cut answer to help individuals deal with our failing digital ecosystem’s future. However, by taking smaller steps, namely, learning about the ecosystem from philosophers or sociologists, creating awareness, and treating our current digital ecosystem with thoughtfulness, we can perhaps get closer to taking larger actions — including a mass silence. Mia Jakobsen is a third-year student at Victoria College studying book and media studies, sexual diversity studies, and digital humanities. She is the president of the Book & Media Studies Student Association and the director of marketing and outreach for VicPride.