3_TRENDS is an interview series with experts who have their ear to culture, identifying the overlooked ripples turning into swells.
Rachel E. Greenspan (RG) is an editor on Insider’s Digital Culture desk. She won an American Journalism Online Award from NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute for her coverage of QAnon. Previously, she was a reporter for TIME. She tweets at @rach_greenspan.
MK: Rachel, what’s on your mind?
Undecorated (Online) Homes
RG: Social media is our social life: sliding into someone’s DM’s is just the online version of meeting someone offline. And, like our experiences away from the keyboard, sometimes the DM works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
I hate dating apps. That’s not a hot take: A 2020 Pew Research survey found that roughly 6-in-10 dating app users had negative experiences with them. Majority would prefer to meet someone organically... but the already rare opportunities for this are now even slimmer due to pandemic precautions.
When you follow someone on social media, you access significantly more information to base your opinion off of than what a dating profile provides. Beyond just a few curated photos and cringe attempts at “funny” profile prompts, someone’s social media profile reveals their sense of humor, opinions, world-views, the figures they look up to, the figures they hate, and the world which they want to create. This is just for starters.
You’re way more likely to have a good first date with someone whose social profiles you’ve analyzed than rolling the dice with an attractive stranger you’ve exchanged only a few messages with.
I wonder if dating apps can find ways to evoke these aspects of social media to create a more authentic and insightful environment.
MK: I’m fortunate that I’m no longer on “the apps", yet I continue to despise them. They’ve become the necessary evil. There’s something about how limiting they are.
I’m familiar with the same study and it blows my mind that...
“For those who have used a dating site or app in the past year, many say the experience has left them feeling more frustrated (45%) than hopeful (28%). They’re also more pessimistic (35%) than optimistic (29%) when it comes to the future of online dating.”
I’ve extensively written about their flaws — primarily their misaligned incentives...
“Hinge only makes money on single people. Profiting on ineffectiveness is a conflict of interest. While plumbers and hospitals also arguably profit on ineffectiveness, their solutions must be consistent. Their livelihood depends upon reliability. With limited dating alternatives (ex. social media or bars), singles pay and accept low consistency.
But besides the business model, I think the other large thorn is how flattened you’re allowed (and forced) to become. On dating apps, everyone is rendered unoriginal.
Liking The Office is not a personality. And every woman on Earth can be found petting the dog at the party.
Finding ways to personally flourish profiles — which are just sterile templates — is one opportunity, but also baking in dynamicism is another. We’re not the same person all the time. Context is also missing. In other words, there’s two very different versions of a user swiping on Monday 11AM vs. Friday 11PM. (See: Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life) Apps need to permit situational change. This goes for all platforms. (Ex. When sending an email, why can’t my avatar change based upon (inferred/selected) tone or mood or time of day?)
This is the phenomenon I called out in my 2021 Overlooked Trends piece. As we depend upon more devices, “Home Screen” is the desire to dress and spruce up our new residences.
That we’re desiring dating app profiles to be more expressive like social — which is arguably also incredibly templatized — is concerning. We’ve gone backwards. MySpace Tom already cracked it with HTML profiles. Before him, GeoCities.
For a platform (ex. Facebook, Twitter, Hinge) which serves as a home to connect with family, friends or potential partners, it’s mind-blowing how there’s literally no ability to decorate or design.
MySpace truly embodied the spirit of my space.
Nearly every product today permits some form of personalization, customization, or tailored option (from sweaters and couches, to vitamins and cable plans). That the products explicitly servicing connection and expression today are the least homey is a shame.
Career Mergers & Acquisitions
RG: A person who was successful as a teen or young adult on the internet has a few different paths as they age. They can be a “regular” person with a massive social following; they can continue their work as a creator; they can pivot to becoming a public figure in some other sense; or they can leave the internet and creator economy entirely.
But figuring out which path to go down among these options is exceedingly difficult, particularly for influencers whose interests change as they age.
In the early-to-mid 2010s, a large group of young, beauty YouTubers reigned supreme. While many of the women I followed in those days remain influencers, they’re no longer posting eyeshadow tutorials and “what’s in my purse” videos. For example, Claudia Sulewski posts lifestyle and fashion content (she’s also an actress, and the girlfriend of Billie Eilish’s brother, Finneas.) And Meghan Rienks, an actor, author, and podcast host, now also shares commentary on the YouTube drama world.
(To be fair, influencers diversifying their incomes is something that has evolved demonstrably since these creators first posted on YouTube, as my colleagues Amanda Perrelli and Dan Whateley have reported on.)
But while many of those people appear to be pivoting nicely into new creator genres, others have struggled.
Acacia Brinley Kersey, who has been a controversial figure and subject of harassment in several online spaces for a decade, is now a mother of three who has sought to rebrand her persona into that of a mommy-lifestyle influencer. But the 23-year-old announced in October that she was leaving social media altogether.
“This role has done an immense amount of damage to me, my relationships, my financial stability and my view of the world.”
Kersey’s comments reminds me of a story I wrote for Insider about how young influencers are likely to face the same mental health issues — if not worse — that mark public perception of traditional Hollywood child stars.
Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist, told me:
"It isn't like somebody is giving you a part to play in or writing a script for you. You're having to do this sort of creation all the time.”
“At what point is it you, and at what point is it this persona that you've created?"
MK: This is an interesting concept especially in our moment of thinking about the future of work.
I think these influencers are revealing how difficult it truly is to pivot a career.
In discussing the future of work, we look to the democratization of up-skilling technology or knowledge (courses, bootcamps, sprints, etc.) permitting anyone to enter any industry. With remote-first companies and expanding globalization, you can work for anyone, anywhere, anytime. And with gig-based or crowdsourcing platforms, you can even contribute part-time with fractional commitments. The central tenants of the future of work have become access and flexibility.
But while we talk about second, third or fourth-act careers, the truth of the matter is, it’s not that fucking simple.
Amidst a pandemic, people are lucky to even maintain and appreciate their “first act.”
No one gets to flip the switch and deviate career paths overnight. And that these social media figures with unparalleled networks, support, influence (and often paychecks) still struggle, shines light on how impractical pivots are for the average worker.
And while headlines proclaim the “Great Resignation”, and discussions within r/AntiWork fuel the fiery resentment against The Man, it’s only time before droves return from their dream vacations, pivots don’t pan out, startups fail, YOLO stock options don’t hit their strike price, and savings run dry.
I think rather than focused pivots, embracing range and collecting specialties is the emergent move. Merged expertises. It’s perhaps why we see terms like “polymaths” or “multi-hyphenates” currently gaining such traction.
RG: Kids aren’t that into Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg knows: He recently shared on a Q3 earnings call that the company should make "serving young adults the north star.” The company reportedly anticipates that teen usage of its flagship app will decline -45% in the next two years.
Instead of Facebook, they’re using Instagram (which is owned by Facebook, which is now called Meta), Snapchat, and of course, TikTok. (That includes my 14-year-old sister, who uses all of those platforms and has never been interested in joining Facebook.)
But those platforms can’t do what Facebook did for Millennials.
Facebook was an invaluable “database” of social connections.
On Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, it’s not easy to see mutual connections, details like where someone is from or went to college, whom they’re friends with, and even what they look like (in a world where most people choose to have private Instagram accounts).
Throughout high school and college, in particular, I can’t imagine how I would have sourced this kind of information about people without Facebook.
MK: Since moving off of Facebook I’ve nearly missed every friend’s birthday. Diss Facebook as much as you’d like, but big blue really came in clutch there.
I have two hypotheses for this death of the rolodex.
According to The Survey Center on American Life, 52% of young men, and 59% of young women shared that they “lost touch with friends since the pandemic.” 18-29 year olds are the highest age group (12.5%) to report they “lost touch with most of their friends.”
Consequently, 79% of 18-22 year-olds currently feel alone, and Gen Z is now the most alone generation of them all... and of all time. Gen Z didn’t kill friends, though. It’s a figure rising for all generations.
Today, 49% of Americans report having fewer than just three “close friends.” Further...
12% of Americans claim to have zero friends today, which is 4x the number of people who said the same 30 years ago.
Perhaps the social rolodex is dying because the need to keep in touch with loose connections is becoming extinct?
When connections today are made through interest-based social networks and platforms (i.e. Twitch or Reddit), the need for pure contact-based social networks and platforms (i.e. LinkedIn or Facebook) is un-needed — the ability to keep tabs on these connections are baked in. And when we’d rather connect with strangers that we have common interests with, than chat with existing connections who we have nothing in common with, a separate database to track those new peers becomes redundant.
Reminder: Lots of Connections ≠ Lots of Friends
Meanwhile, for those that we do remain close with, we use text or apps like Signal or WhatsApp to keep in touch. For those loose tertiary peers (which feel so rare), they’re now oftentimes anonymous or pseudo anonymous. We’d actually prefer not to be in someone’s database.
As I’ve consulted in the past, for a social platform which exists to help people connect, they must take on a fiduciary duty to first seed, foster and maintain these connections.
In a moment where friends are few and far between, perhaps if you want to be a platform to host personal profiles, you initially need to start helping people make those friends. God knows we need it.
Maybe that can drive relevancy?