IF SOCIAL MEDIA IS MAKING US WORSE: Can We Make It Better?

Author:Dunbar, Mark
 
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Exploited

Degraded

Divided

Distracted

Angry

Pre-angry

Jealous

Vain

Lonely

Irritable

Addicted

Paranoid

Tribal

Myopic

Dogmatic

Manipulated

Depressed

Dependent

Nervous

Social media is bad. It takes your worst parts--your vanity, your ignorance, your credulity--and makes them even worse. It weakens your ability to focus. It distracts you while you drive. It makes you hate people you should feel unity with and envy people you should find insufferable. It turns you into an addict, which, as Jaron Lanier emphasizes in his latest book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, makes you not only dependent on something outside yourself--something you can't control and that replaces your moral well-being as the center of your thinking--it also makes you more nervous, more panicky, more reflexive, more paranoid, and more distracted. That addiction is fed by fear, hatred, and contempt--the parts of you that fall for the cheap laugh, the cheap sneer, the cheap point, the cheap victory.

That so many books have been written about social media and make the same points above without drawing the obvious conclusion from them--that social media is a net negative on our lives--shows not the weak will or complacency of their authors but the recognition that however bad social media is, it's also here to stay.

As Douglas Rushkoff puts it in Team Human (due out January 2019), there's no way of returning to a pre-digital era: "We can't go back; we must go through." Even those with a reputation for being anti-social media (or even anti-internet) tacitly accept that social media is here to stay. Technology writer Nicholas Carr has called for a counter-cultural movement against the digital status quo, but counter-cultural movements only offer a degree of separation from the status quo and are eventually co-opted and com-modified by it.

In Ten Arguments Lanier encourages readers to delete their social media accounts for at least six months--so that you develop a fuller sense of self and therefore better "resist the easy grooves they guide you into"--and for social media platforms to change their business model from "behavior-modification empires" (free access so the platforms make money by spying on and manipulating you) to fee models the likes of Netflix and HBO.

With that fee model came what's called "Peak TV" and Lanier thinks with it we can get "Peak Social Media." And he's probably right. That business model would very likely make for a better social media experience. But it would also keep many of the worst things about the current business model and just make them less obvious. It would encourage the TV equivalent of product placement over commercials. Which is better than what we have but not qualitatively better.

Ten years ago it was a journalistic fad to write about how criticism of social media (and smartphones) was overblown. How everything we thought was bad about it was actually good or at least not that bad. Sam Anderson's frequently cited New York Times Magazine article from 2009, "The Benefits of Distraction" (which says, among other ludicrous things, that if Albert Einstein and The Beatles were around today, they would've been even more innovative because of new technologies), now reads more like a fatalistic surrender to the social and economic power of Silicon Valley than it does as a "hot take" against prevailing wisdom about digital addiction.

Conversely, nowadays almost no one--especially not social media users--would disagree with the assumption that social media is making people worse. Some might object that all social media platforms are equally culpable or give different reasons for why they think social media is having the effect it is. But there's pretty much no one left who dismisses criticism of social media as just another moral panic or just the latest fear-mongering about technology. However, even with the general agreement about the downsides of social media, there hasn't been a mass exodus from platforms. Why not? Because everyone has a reason to stay. Facebook is how we see pictures of our nephews. Twitter is our newsfeed. On YouTube we can find lectures on any topic we want and watch concert performances of the worlds best musicians and bands. Some people are straightforward and say they wish they could get off social media. But they can't, because social media is designed to be addictive--and it is.

There are plenty of good reasons for staying on social media. And most of them are true. Some of the previous examples are from my own life. I use Twitter as a newsfeed and watch old boxing matches...

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