How do you think we will study social media in the future? Will we look back on everyone’s personal accounts, analyze them for trends, and map out each and every way our lives have been changed by the monolith that is social media? Probably not. We may be able to keep track of what trends bled over into the press or specific posts that broke records for engagement (think the Ellen Oscars selfie). But I would argue that if we could record, track, and analyze the vast amount of information circling around each corner of the internet, we’d find fascinating and potentially useful data for the world of sociology and anthropology.
From the beginning, I recognized that TikTok was quickly becoming the place where we establish and learn current social norms. And now I can’t unsee it. Whenever a “2024 Ins and Outs” comes up on my feed, I watch and listen closely, not always realizing how much it informs the current status quo. These lists are particularly fascinating because they’re rather easy to record and analyze, and you can see patterns of what the general consciousness agrees we should do or not do. There are many commonalities — like everyone wanting to drink less, spend more quality time with friends, etc. Then, there are some areas of contention where there’s not one major train of thought.
Lists are fun and casual and much more traceable than some of the other methods of social informing. And that’s where I think things start to get contentious. TikTok is flooded with mounds of information — to the point of overindulgence — regarding what is now socially acceptable. The form of content that really catches my eye is the storytime video, in which people give each and every detail of a social dilemma they find themselves in, and 600K people with entirely different life experiences weigh in. There are entire accounts dedicated to reposting these videos and asking viewers, “What would you do?”
An example that comes to mind is when two ex-best friends posted viral videos retelling their sides of their falling out. Friend 1 started the conversation by telling a story about how she thought Friend 2 was flirting with her boyfriend on Instagram (namely by including him on her close friends list). Friend 2 then publicly defended herself, iterating that she doesn’t take her close friends list that seriously, and she’ll add anyone on it — thus opening a can of worms. I have watched several commentary videos on this particular beef, read hundreds of comments, and even had conversations in real life about it. Through these videos, I molded my own understanding of Instagram’s close friends list and questioned my own social practices when being friends with someone’s boyfriend. All that from a few TikTok videos!
My interest in that particular video saga is twofold. One, we have new avenues and hierarchies of establishing connections due to social media (e.g., just following someone on Instagram vs. including them as a close friend). And two, the way we understand these new mechanisms is now also discussed and enforced by the deeply unorganized zeitgeist that is the comments section. Mind you, this is all happening at a rapid pace. I watched upwards of 10 videos on this one topic over the span of a week, and then never again. This begs the question, “How do we process this much information, and what value does it have?”
In terms of study, we no longer can turn to the magazine archives that trace the influence of extreme dieting in the 2000s or the records of talks held by revolutionaries that shaped Black radical thought in the 60s to discover what molded the consensus. In our time, social media has information and opinions on everything, so how do you study…everything?