Curating social media platforms to minimise digital drama and digital over-engagement

It’s 2023 and social media is ubiquitous, but I can recall my first, very arguably overinvolved experience with social media dating back to 2005 when we were gifted MXit by tech pioneer Herman Heunis. I can recall the alarm and dramatic concern of the older generations who didn’t get the fascination, thrill and craze that came with the app for young people. It must also be stated that there was not yet comprehension regarding the outright addictive nature of cellphones once such apps were developed for use. MXit marked the change in how I could communicate and use cellphone technology, and a lot of learning has unfolded. 

Reflecting back to my use of MXit what stands out is how I curated the experience. I did not have contacts of people who were complete strangers, I also did not participate in chat rooms for that particular reason as well. That meant a well-insulated safe virtual bubble for me, the best way to experience the internet and its vast nature for a teen. This bubble was my way of unknowingly minimising exposure to ‘digital drama’. Digital drama is a phrase developed by scholars of consumer psychology to refer to the occurrence of and the reactions to negative online consumer behaviours. Negative online consumer behaviours include but not limited to sexting, cyberbullying, fear of missing out, abuse and many others. Digital drama can occur with other forms of technology. Other forms of technology mean beyond the scope of social media, take e-mails for example when the accidental reply to all incident happens it can birth digital drama (Angeline Close Scheinbaum et al.,2018:4). As others may react with a chain of messages to what was not meant for them. With the accidental sender likely needing to apologise and deal with the shame that comes with this digital drama they caused, unintentionally.  

Digital Drama as a concept along with my aversion of it, has helped me put so many of my experiences with social media into perspective. For example, I disengaged from Facebook for a long time because I could not curate the experience that suits my preferences. There was no unfollow but stay friends option with Facebook in 2015. Which enables users to curate what they can see on their timeline. Meanwhile on Twitter before Elon Musk acquired the platform it allowed one to curate the kind of timeline they wanted to have. Curating my Twitter timeline enabled me to carve out a timeline for specific interests. I continuously muted words, ideas and statements that were bigoted in nature and contrary to my ideals and values. I also found it important to exercise restraint and not engage with people whose views were antagonist or bigoted in nature. This was knowing I do not desire to use social media for hate engagement or outrage. Understanding that one cannot hold strangers on the internet accountable as we are not in a respectful mutually valued relationship with one another. The attempt to hold strangers on the internet accountable also means likely getting consumed by digital over-engagement as a back and forth unfolds. Digital over-engagement is another likely by-product of outrage engagement on social media as well.

Essentially, digital drama is very lucrative in the context of the attention economy as tech companies want us to spend as much time as possible on their platforms. Digital drama is the way many have built social media brands by being instigators and baiting other users into outrage engagement. Corporate brands are guilty of this especially with regards to non-white communities around the world. There are many examples of outrage baiting African Americans by huge corporations through ‘mishaps’ with their advertising and PR materials. Which have been followed by days of outrage social media engagement calling out these companies, demanding accountability, acknowledgement and correction. Which also translates in engagement, sales and an extended period of brand visibility at no cost to the company. 

At an individual level, curating social media time lines and not giving away one’s precious attention, energy and time toward things that do not add positively to the experience is a worthy pursuit. Being unable to do this, is precisely why I have decided to deactivate my account on X formerly known as Twitter. The experience since Elon Musk has become such that one CANNOT escape bigotry and white supremacist ideology nor be able to see the mainly tweets from those you follow intentionally. This happened because the mute, block and curating functions have been dismantled. There are a number of sensible arguments as to why this is the case, with Twitter having been notable in organising efforts that have advanced social justice movements in many countries around the world. Destroying its previous algorithm destroys the potential and the power that comes with connecting with like-minded people toward a common social justice goal for example.

 It is worthwhile to not only be a user of social media but also be one who engages in an effort to understand what makes social media (attention economy, outrage as currency and complex ever changing algorithms) and keeps it going. Being proactive to learn and gain language to explain some of the phenomena that comes with social media is useful. Knowing that algorithms are designed to keep users on the platforms as much as possible, while pushing content that can cause outrage which causes users to fall into the digital over-engagement trap is insightful information for how we can use and engage with social media.