Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Nonfiction
In a dim-lit corner of a restaurant, in a neighborhood where the wine was too expensive and the clatter of cutlery felt too intrusive, Tabitha settled in. Her dress draped gracefully over her promising belly. The air was filled with murmurs of conversations, a sporadic clinking of glasses, and an unmissable undertone of jazz. She wanted a quiet evening, a reprieve, a night for herself.
When Janet appeared at the entrance to pick up her takeout, Tabitha noticed her old friend’s familiar posture and quick, confident movements from their shared days in graduate school remained unchanged. The sudden surprise of recognition draped over her face.
“Tabitha?” she said, approaching with a mixture of disbelief and delight in her eyes, which only widened further as she took in Tabitha’s silhouette. “Oh my God, you’re pregnant!”
Tabitha, fingers instinctively cradling her belly, smiled, “Yup, seven months in. Can you believe it?”
“I’m so happy for you,” Janet exclaimed, sliding closer to Tabitha’s table for one. “You look beautiful. And good for you for keeping it so secret. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.”
Tabitha raised an eyebrow in mild confusion. “What do you mean ‘secret’?”
“Well I just figured,” Janet began, then tilted her head as if she were also lost. “I haven’t seen you post a single thing about your pregnancy on social media.”
Tabitha chuckled, a soft, melodic sound. “Jan, it’s the only thing I’ve been posting about for months.”
Janet quickly retrieved her phone, tapping on her social media app. Within moments, she was scrolling through Tabitha’s profile. Janet had seen none of the photos: Tabitha cradling her bump, ultrasound images with excited captions, a cute pair of baby shoes.
Janet let out a small gasp, “How did I miss all of these?”
Tabitha shook her head, “It’s not just you. My feed is filled with influencers I never followed and ads for things I never need. It’s as if our real lives are getting overshadowed.”
Janet sighed, placing her phone back in her pocket. “It’s a little ironic, isn’t it? We’re more connected than ever, yet most days, it feels like we’re worlds apart.”
Tabitha’s gaze lingered on Janet as they shared a moment, filled with the perplexity of modern connection.
“You know,” Tabitha began, her voice carrying the soft notes of an invitation. “I’ve got this table all to myself. Wanna grab your food and have a seat so we can catch each other up on what we’ve missed?”
Janet’s eyes lit up.”That’s a great idea,” she replied, a smile widening her lips.
Most of us are ensnared in the paradoxes and failures of the social media age — and some of us have decided to finally give up.
Social media, this grand invention, was packaged and delivered to our doorsteps as a bridge. We were sold a dream that the digital world would usher us into a golden age of connectivity. This dream told an alluring tale — that we could touch the soul of a friend halfway across the globe, watch a family member’s child grow without ever boarding a flight to them, be omnipresent in the lives of all we cherished — and those who our therapists probably want us to finally unfollow.
Of course, the capitalistic endeavors of the people who founded these platforms would never allow that supposed dream to ever be truly altruistic, but even so, for a short time we did have what was originally promised.
Remember, not long ago, when ‘The Gram’ was but an album of clumsily filtered memories? When a sepia-toned half-eaten sandwich or a heavily edited sunset after a beach day would grace our screens? Most people were not selling a product, an idea, or even a lifestyle. They were merely sharing digital diaries, made public out of a sense of community, obligation, or perhaps, a form of narcissism. Regardless, it was simple, and relatively straightforward.
In the muted, ambient glow of our handheld screens, an almost magical transformation occurred. What was once a world vast and unreachable, filled with distant lives and unfamiliar faces, suddenly coalesced into an almost intimate, pulsating realm that could be pulled towards us with a mere gesture. The act of pressing “follow” allowed us to become both wanderers and witnesses.
Our screens became the canvases upon which the world painted itself. With every gentle swipe and scroll, we were transported. From the cobblestone streets of old European towns, dappled with morning light, to the vibrant hues of bustling Asian markets. We watched the smallest joys—a child’s laughter, a pet’s antics—and the grandest of sorrows, the kind that make one ponder the depths of the human condition.
Yet this wasn’t just an exercise in distant observation. It was, in many ways, a pilgrimage. We were on an unending journey to discover, to forge connections, to see in others the reflections of our hopes, desires, and trepidations. The social media realm became our compass, pointing us towards the thinkers, the dreamers, those whose voices resonated with the truths we sought. We weren’t just hungry for diversion; we thirsted for enlightenment, for the chance to grow, to be molded by the wisdom of both seasoned sages and humble beginners alike.
It’s how many people who are reading this came to know me. Our equal interest in pushing this world in the direction of progress, found in my books, posts, and essays, ultimately allowing us to become something of a family.
The social media realm, as imperfect, even traumatizing, as it could be, with its foundation of cold codes and deeply rooted projections, paradoxically birthed a landscape of profound warmth and emotion. It was a complex quilt where threads of shared experiences intertwined, creating patterns of understanding and camaraderie. In this place, where moments were brief, vanishing as quickly as they appeared, there was a solace to be found. It was the realization that even though our connections might be transient, the impressions they left could be timeless.
Sadly, the fibers of this dream have frayed and reality has set in. The ‘social’ in social media is dying quickly — or is already dead.
What remains is a mere specter of its former self; a vast expanse we might as well now simply label as ‘media’. All we have to do is take a few minutes stumbling through the pixelated corridors of our screens and scrolling down the current iteration of timelines to see this metamorphosis firsthand. Like many others, I find myself navigating these platforms today with a profound estrangement settling in. Saddened by the ever-present commercialism – realizing social media has become nothing more than a digital marketplace where companies, celebrities, and people I don’t even follow, are all striving for my attention, not just to share, but to sell. These platforms are not aimed at keeping us connected, instead, they have morphed into full-blown media entities.
There’s an undeniable melancholy in realizing that our timelines, once teeming with the thoughts and creations of those we elected to follow, are now interspersed, and often dominated, by unsolicited intrusions. Advertisements, disinformation, influencers with undisclosed affiliations, content thrust upon us without our seeking—it’s as if we’ve boarded a train to a chosen destination only to find ourselves rerouted, without consent, through unfamiliar terrains.
This evolution—or perhaps more aptly, this devolution—of our digital experience, speaks to a larger force always at play: Capitalism. The commodification of attention has become a currency more valuable than any gold or silver. Our eyes, our ears, our thoughts are now prime real estate, auctioned off to the highest bidder, traded in the open market of data analytics and aggressive marketing strategies. What began as a promise of global connection, of amplifying voices from all corners, now eerily transforms into a chorus where the loudest, or rather the most affluent, drown out the rest.
Years ago, newspapers and televisions were the monoliths that dictated the narratives we consumed. They decided for us what was news, what was worth our attention. Now, after baiting us into something supposedly different, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter (I refuse to call it X) and their digital kin, have pulled back the curtain to reveal that they are not only uninterested in undercutting the old media — they’ve found ways to refine the most insidious aspects of it.
To say that social media has ceased being ‘social’ is to, perhaps, oversimplify. What would be a better descriptor would be to say that these platforms have purposely irreparably blurred the line between the personal and the public, the social and the commercial.
The essence of genuine connection — the soft hush of a shared secret, the communion of souls in moments of vulnerability and joy — has been methodically abstracted and repackaged. We have not been ushered into an amphitheater of collective human experience; we are, instead, encircled by the glaring lights of a stage, where most of us are both performer and audience.
Nearly everyone on these platforms has been subtly, and yet with astonishing finality, transformed. So many, molded into perpetual content creators, tirelessly churning the grain of our lives into bytes and pixels. Our joys, sorrows, triumphs, and tragedies, all of it parceled and parsed for instantaneous consumption, to be scrolled past, liked, shared, or — in the most unceremonious of dismissals — simply ignored.
But this seems to have slowly but surely become the only way to have any semblance of the connections we once had.
In a world that has rapidly transformed itself to fit the dream we were sold onto screens of laptops, phones, and virtual realms, we stand at a dangerous crossroads. The very harbingers of this transformation, the giants of Silicon Valley, once the luminous symbols of the future, don’t actually care about creating a bridge for us to one another’s reality. Instead, they are focused on building digital cages where they decide what the very nature of reality is.
This may sound dystopian to some, but I would beg those people to open their eyes.
As an example, Meta’s dive into a metaverse, hailed as the game-changer for human interaction, (which they gouged a multi-billion dollar dent in their own financial armor to work on) was all about creating a new reality they could bring us into. Where they control everything. Luckily, that has failed thus far — though, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. As they are currently tinkering with the ways to best feed us to their desires (and the desires of their advertisers) by constantly altering the algorithms and functionality of their top products, Instagram and Facebook.
Elsewhere in the digital realm, Twitter is caught in its own vortex, with the volatile right-wing troll, Elon Musk, taking it from one whirlwind to another. Making it essentially unusable for many of us.
While Twitter was always a fickle space, there were sides of it that served as a bastion of diverse voices, grassroots movements, and intellectual exchange. But since Elon’s takeover, those sides have all but become skeletal. Now, many believe the platform not only tolerates, but openly rewards, forms of bigotry such as white supremacy and transphobia. This grotesque change underscores a bitter truth about the social media age: no matter how connective and open the platform claims to be, its heartbeats are regulated by the concealed hands of its owners, puppeteers who pull strings and reshape narratives on a whim.
Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter serves as a somber reminder of not only the inherent fragility of social media, but the truth that it was always a façade.
Such a takeover unveils the frailties of the very foundation upon which these platforms were built. We, as users, often buy into the alluring narrative of equality, freedom, and global connection that these platforms peddle. Yet, we don’t hold the keys, and the keys are always for sale.
In the vast digital cosmos, where every like, share, and click wields a certain power, the concentration of control in the hands of a few can have ramifications that ripple through societies and generations. When platforms, once hailed as champions of free speech and connection, become hotbeds for hate and division, it’s evident that their foundational structures were never truly infallible. They are, and have always been, deeply susceptible to manipulation, especially by those with deep pockets and deeper agendas.
The transformation of a platform such as Twitter into an alt-right hellscape, or Facebook being leveraged to undermine democratic election processes, is a stark reflection on the capitalist systems that enable such consolidations of power. It underscores how easily voices, even those in the majority, can be silenced or overshadowed when the levers of control lie with the few. It’s a reminder that, in the end, profitability often trumps principle.
With the press of a button, accounts can be immediately suppressed, or entire platforms can be completely reimagined to work in favor of those who are most benefitted by profit — not progress. Communities, movements, and ideals sacrificed at the altar of yachts and private jets. All of this is far from the dream we were sold.
This revelation brings to the forefront a necessary question: Was social media ever what many of us believed it to be? Or were we, the vast majority of its users, merely passengers, blissfully unaware that the captain was always steering our ship with entirely different coordinates in mind?
Are the tremors we’re witnessing the death throes of the very idea of social media itself? We were once promised the utopia of connection, but what we received instead is a marketplace where our emotions, interactions, and even our very identities are traded, all in service of advertisers and political stakeholders. In this arena, we are neither the players nor the spectators but the very prize.
People such as Mark Zuckerberg became the wealthiest people in history by promising to tether the world’s corners, to create a fabric of humanity interwoven with technology. But was this meant for us, or were we the threads, pulled and twisted to serve his larger design? It’s hard to believe that companies such as Meta, with their relentless forays into various domains — from e-commerce hubs to virtual avatars, from the flirtatious realms of dating to the cryptic alleys of cryptocurrency — were meant to enrich our human experience. They were more like desperate gambits to entangle every facet of our existence within their matrix.
I would be remiss if I didn’t speak to the good these platforms have created. Amidst the chaos, there were old friends reconnected, movements were born, voices found amplification. But even a broken clock is right twice a day.
The darker shades of this era are undeniable. The platforms, which were supposed to be mirrors reflecting our shared humanity, for the most part, distorted it instead, amplifying our anxieties, stoking unfounded fears, and becoming rallying points for ideologies that threaten to pull apart the limbs of our society.
James Baldwin once said, “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” Today, it seems, people are trapped in algorithms, and algorithms are decidedly trapped in profit motives. The web of social media, for all its intricate designs, has wrapped itself around the very core of human interaction, morphing genuine connections into capital exchanges, and turning the vast ocean of human emotion into droplets of content.
To traverse the realm of social media is to navigate a landscape dominated by billboards, where every story, every memory, every smile is commodified. The more we post, the more we are nudged to fit into molds that can be easily presented to the highest bidder. Authenticity, in this age, seems to have become a currency in itself.
When one stops to ponder, it is almost poetic, albeit tragically so, how platforms built on the ideas of “sharing” and “community” have ushered in an era of profound self absorption and loneliness for so many. We have been lulled into a performance, a relentless exhibition where our lives are staged, where algorithms and executives decide if anyone comes to the show.
Each time we open these apps, we are guided by commercial interests and engagement metrics, shaping what we see, pushing content they predict will keep us scrolling. In a world where our realities are molded by what we consume, the danger of ceding control to profit-driven entities cannot be understated. We risk living in echo chambers, where our beliefs are constantly reinforced, our perspectives narrowed, and our critical thinking stifled.
Now, one might argue that every age had its masks, its pretenses, its stages. But the difference here lies in scale and consequence. Our ancestors wore their masks in the village square, at the local theater, or in the salons of the elite. Today, our theater has no boundaries, our audience is omnipresent, and the applause, or lack thereof, echoes with a force that can shape or shatter existences.
So, where do we go from here? I believe the answer lies not in escaping digital realms altogether, for they are but a reflection of the larger societal designs. The true escape, the genuine revolution, would be to rediscover the authenticity of human connection. It would be to remember that before we were content creators, we were storytellers, poets, dreamers, students, and actual friends.
Given this current social media reality, a return to more direct and analog connections seems not just nostalgic, but necessary. There’s a purity, an authenticity in direct engagements that social media platforms, with their algorithms and commercial imperatives, cannot replicate. Opting into relationships, actively choosing the individuals and entities we want to engage with, free from the invisible hands of these platforms, is not regression but a reclaiming of agency.
As we grapple with where social media is going, perhaps the future lies in the past. There’s a certain romance in receiving an email, a text, a letter, a phone call, face-to-face conversations, community gatherings — these modes of communication foster something less diluted by external influences. They allow us to reclaim the narrative, to decide who we want in our stories, and how we want those stories to unfold.
In doing so, we take back some control, choosing our fellow travelers, without surrendering to the whims of the middlemen who, for too long, have been choosing for us.
Frederick Joseph is a two-time New York Times bestselling author, activist, philanthropist, and poet. He is also the recipient of the International Literacy Association’s 2021 Children’s & Young Adults’ Book Award amongst other honors.