Introducing Superbloom

The poppies come out every March in Walker Canyon, an environmentally sensitive spot in the Temescal Mountains seventy miles southeast of Los Angeles, but the show they put on in early 2019 was something special. Thanks to a wet winter in the normally arid region, seeds that had long lain dormant germinated, and the poppies appeared in numbers not seen in years. The flowers covered the canyon’s slopes in carpets of vivid, almost fluorescent orange — the shade you get on hunters’ vests and caps. On social media, word of the so-called superbloom spread quickly. First on the scene were the influencers.

So begins my new book, Superbloom: How Technologies of Connection Tear Us Apart, to be published in January 2025 by W. W. Norton.

Fifteen years ago, when I was finishing up my book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, I knew that I was telling only part of the story of the net’s effects. The book focused on the personal consequences of our entry into an artificial environment geared to agitation and distraction —  the way it shapes our thoughts and perceptions, our ways of reading and sense-making. What it didn’t cover is the social and political effects of the technology. Back then — this was 2009 — smartphones were brand new, app stores had only recently opened, and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were just beginning to draw a mass audience. TikTok wouldn’t appear for nearly a decade. The social world we live in today, in short, didn’t exist. As for psychological and sociological studies of online socializing, they were few and their results were mixed.

We know a lot more now. Although we socialize through social media more than ever today, our attitude toward the experience has, for many good reasons, shifted from enthusiasm to wariness. Our view of the companies running the platforms, meanwhile, has pinballed from celebratory to contemptuous. There’s talk of warning labels, breakups, outright bans. But even as public opinion shifted over the last seven or eight years, I sensed that there was something important missing from all the debates and discussions. That sense, which strengthened in 2019 when I taught an undergraduate seminar on social media at Williams College in Massachusetts, inspired me to begin the research that led to Superbloom.

In the book, I try to put the phenomenon of social media into a broader context, one spanning the history of communication technology as well as the psychological and sociological evidence of how mediated communication works on the human psyche and influences people’s relationships. At the center of the book is a paradox that was summed up well by the Canadian scholar Harold Innis in a 1947 lecture: “Enormous improvements in communication have made understanding more difficult.” No one paid attention to the idea back then, but I think we need to pay attention to it now.

Superbloom is available for preordering. I hope you’ll read it.

photo: cultivar413 (cc).