Defining Social

Andrew Valdez
5 min readAug 21, 2023

Every Monday I meet with a group of amazing people who I am fortunate to call my friends. The Zero Group. Each week we talk about everything under the sun. From our work and passions, to our deep personal struggles. We share our philosophies on life and offer each other a jagged knife to poke holes in our beliefs, all in the effort to arrive back to zero. I wish more people could experience groups like ours. Although we have only met once a week for a handful of months, I’ve learned more from them than I ever have from anything else. There is something to communal learning, surrounding yourself with a circle of people that don’t think like you but desire the same thing. Truth.

This was actually the conclusion I gathered from our topic last night. We don’t always have a topic, by the way. Sometimes, much like last night, the topic arises from the initial banter we have at the beginning of the call. In this case, the topic came by way of a question posed by the oldest member of our group. Although he doesn’t talk much, when he does, the wisdom he’s garnered from his years on earth, which is nearly doubles that of the next oldest person in the group, enthralls all of us. In this instance, however, he was looking to learn from us.

“Could you all define social media for me? I mean, what is it really?”

At first glance, this may seem like an easy question to answer. After all, everyone on the call has a social media account. Several accounts if we’re honest. Too many accounts if we’re really honest. There were a lot of opinions shared on the subject. Some claimed it is advertising at it’s finest, others suggested it was a way of connecting. Another said social was a way he upped his body count; I really liked that answer. Eventually everyone chimed in and gave their two cents about what social media is. But then the discussion took a grim turn and unfortunately, I think my answer had a lot to do with that.

red herring — A device used to catch the audience’s attention and maintain suspense, but whose exact nature has fairly little influence over the storyline. Something designed to mislead to divert attention. — WordHippo

Before I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in Marketing, I worked in marketing departments for two companies. One was a non-profit serving orphaned children in the local area. The other was the school I attended. At the non-profit, I was relied on for everything marketing related. Event marketing, funding, donor outreach, email, brand strategy, and of course, social media. They truly needed all the help they could get out of one employee, as they were always short staffed and barely had enough to pay my travel expenses. It was fulfilling work though, so I didn’t mind too much.

Working for my school was a different story. Not only could they pay me, I received class credit throughout the internship. All I had to do was manage the university’s social accounts. These benefits came at a cost, however. Although I loved the people I worked with, I struggled to justify collegiate marketing practices. I learned that each school within the university had a student quota to hit which would afford them things like bonuses and increased funding. Upon meeting with the chairmen and boards for each school, I sensed their motivation for recruiting new students was crooked and misplaced. Simply put, I experienced how social media could be used to manipulate people.

After my internships ended, I moved shortly after to New York and saw more of the same behavior. Companies would over promise and under deliver. Meanwhile consumers, real people, would be left hanging on to broken promises and false narratives that these brands would slang them. What was even sadder to me, as I consulted brands like Meta, AT&T, HBO, ABI, and the NFL, was although I saw through their bullshit, their audience was none the wiser. They ate that shit up, despite no real benefit coming to them. Their dubious loss was an unequivocal gain for these brand giants. Stakeholders pockets got fatter, the workers that made it happen were let go, all while customers enjoyed yesterday’s meat. And just as I was about to conform, accepting this reality for a paycheck, the best thing in the world happened to me.

I was fired.

My mom hates when I say that. “You didn’t get fired! You were laid off, Andrew.” I know mom, but saying I got fired gets more clicks. And if I learned one thing from social media…

Since my departure from corporate marketing, I’ve seen an uglier side to social media. As a substitute teacher, I’ve seen the addiction and dependencies kids are experiencing from their phones. During the first week of my time teaching, I saw a lot of kids glued to their phones throughout the class, doom-scrolling through TikTok and Instagram. After sitting in on real teacher’s classes, I saw the same behaviors there. When I asked a few of them why this was allowed, they agreed it’s not ideal, “But what can we do?”

This question has been ringing in my ears since I heard it. What can we do? I don’t claim to have the answers but I believe the Zero Group inadvertently discovered a piece of it. Ever since our first Mindset Monday call, my friends and I have done something that I believe is pivotal to ensuring social media becomes a social place again. We talk. Like really talk. Not just so people hear us, not for likes or followers, but for the sake of building community. We listen. Not to be influenced, distracted, or arm ourselves with talking points for a debate, but because we are curious.

A curious community is what I think social media, at its best, is all about. Social platforms should be a place where people learn from one other. Where they can share their experiences and perspectives in a genuine way and not have to worry about who likes it or gaining something in return. It should be an artform, a place of expression, a realm of knowledge and joy that someone can tap into any time they want and not feel like shit afterwards. Algorithms should be built, not to prey on attention, but to deepen the human connection. To show the things that really matter to us, on an individual basis. Social should be a place that inspires, supports, and strengthens our connection to each other and our world.

How many apps can say that? Some of them may have been able to at one time but now, they are just a shell of their old existence. They traded what really mattered for advertising dollars. Now their shareholders breath one way and these apps sway that way despite the fact that their shareholders never cared about what the app stood for. They only care about their own returns.

So what is social media, really? If you’re asking me, I think social can be something beautiful. One of humanities greatest creations. Giving voice to anyone with a stable internet connection. A tool that can hold a candle to corruption and light that bitch on fire. But before it can be that, it has got a long way to go. We have a long way to go.