Corbett Barr
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What’s wrong with social media?

It’s a kind of prison experiment, where we’re just roping people into the matrix, and harvesting all this money and data from all their activity, to profit from.

–Tristan Harris, The Social Dilemma

We want to psychologically figure out how to manipulate you as fast as possible and then give you back that dopamine hit. We did that brilliantly at Facebook. Instagram has done it. WhatsApp has done it. Snapchat has done it. Twitter has done it.

–Chamath Palihapitiya

I intended to write this weeks ago, before Twitter and Facebook banned the current President of the United States following the storming of the US Capitol, due to the risk of further incitement of violence.

Following those moves, if you asked people what’s wrong with social media this week, you might hear a lot about free speech and censorship. Many thousands of words have already been penned about the ramifications of a private company being able to censor the president, and this issue will be debated for a very long time to come.

This week also saw Apple, Google and Amazon come together to effectively kill another social platform called Parler that conservatives were flocking to in response to the booting of the president.

I’ll not comment further on the political impact of the past week’s events, other than to quote the electronic frontier foundation: “unless we dismantle the increasingly centralized chokepoints in our global digital infrastructure, we can anticipate an escalating political battle between political factions and nation states to seize control of their powers.”

My intent for this article isn’t to try and settle any political or free speech issues today, but to grapple with how social media (and the massively wealthy companies who own the platforms) manipulates us and threatens the fabric of society and democracy.

And, obviously less importantly but still top of my mind is figuring out whether I personally am better off using social media at all, given all the issues I have experienced and come to understand.

As someone who has built businesses on the internet for the past 15+ years, I initially saw social media as a tool to reach potential customers, and to have conversations about topics before pursuing them deeper elsewhere.

But over the years, I noticed that social media didn’t feel like a neutral tool. Using social media often brought up feelings and emotions that I didn’t expect from technology, like insecurity, discouragement and angst.

As I learned in The Social Dilemma (Netflix link, highly recommended), social media isn’t a tool at all. When something is a tool, it’s just sitting there, waiting patiently for you to use it to accomplish something. Social media isn’t a tool because it demands something from you. It’s seducing you. It’s manipulating you.

Social media has been expertly engineered to be as persuasive as technology can be. It has been engineered to use our psychology against us, to accomplish its own goals, which is to keep us glued to the screen for as long as possible so it can sell more ads.

We’re all lab rats. We’re just zombies and they want us to look at more ads.

–Sandy Parakilas

It turns out that the feelings I felt shouldn’t be surprising at all. As Dr. Anna Lembke, Director of the Stanford School of Addiction Medicine explains, ”Social media is a drug. We have a biological imperative to connect with other people that is directly connected to the release of dopamine in the reward pathway of the brain.”

That need to connect with other people, to be accepted and liked, is exactly what social media uses to keep us coming back. Every time we use social media, we’re putting our feelings of self worth and identity at risk. When we post, the insecurity we feel comes from a worry that people might not respond with likes and comments. And if they don’t respond, maybe that means we’re no longer accepted or loved.

We all have different levels of sensitivity to feelings of insecurity. For someone like me who tends toward feeling more insecurity, social media can be an especially emotional (and addictive) experience.

And this is all coming from a (relatively) mature and well-adjusted 44 year old white American male. I can only imagine how social media is experienced by people of different backgrounds.

What social media is doing to kids is even more concerning. Imagine what it does to your sense of self worth and identity as a teenager, or when you’re even younger. It seems to be having a profound impact on the rates of depression and anxiety and suicide among young people.

I don’t have kids, but I feel for parents who have to wrestle with all these complicated issues, on top of wrestling with them yourself.

The way social media manipulates us individually is incredibly powerful. It’s so powerful that it goes far beyond our own feelings and emotions. Social media may actually contribute to an existential threat to society and democracy.

As Tristan Harris explains, when persuasive technology exceeds and overwhelms human weaknesses, it is at the root of addiction, polarization, radicalization, outrage-ification, vanity-ification. It’s not that technology itself is an existential threat. It’s that persuasive technology can bring out the worst in society, and the worst in society is an existential threat.

This is partly because social media has no knowledge of what is truth. It only knows likes and interactions. Because fake news spreads six times faster than real news, it is used by the algorithms to keep your attention. Then, we’re all presented the information we want to believe, and we don’t see what others are seeing in our customized newsfeeds.

Jaron Lanier, author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now tells a story in The Social Dilemma like this: When you go to Wikipedia, we all see the same thing. It’s one of the few things online that we all share in common. Now, just imagine if Wikipedia said, “we’re going to give each person a different customized definition, and we’re going to be paid by advertisers for that.” Wikipedia would be spying on you, calculating what it could do to get you to change on behalf of a commercial interest. That’s exactly what’s happening on Facebook. Reality is customized for each person.

And so, conspiracies online have become as rampant and dangerous as the wildfires that are now consuming the west coast every summer.

“We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented.” – Christof (Ed Harris) in The Truman Show

Clearly when you understand how social media is manipulating us, and the risks it carries to our emotional state and society, it should give you pause, or make you consider not using it at all.

But as an independent creator, someone just trying to earn a living partly by reaching customers on the Internet, it’s hard to make a case for throwing out social media entirely.

Plus, there are amazing things that come out of social media. Some of my closest friendships and business relationships started over social media. I’ve been exposed to so many interesting ideas and viewpoints. Many important social movements have gained momentum over the past several years because of social media.

Also, memes.

So, what are the solutions to the problems of social media?

The solutions need to be broken down into two parts: the individual/personal part, and the technological/societal part.

On the personal side, first, you may decide not to use social media at all. Life existed for millennia without it, and it is possible to enjoy a rich and full life without being glued to your phone every day.

Barring that, most of us need to decide how we’ll use social media in a way that benefits us and minimizes the manipulation, addiction and insecurity.

Here are some ideas of how to accomplish that:

Personally, I’m also carefully considering which platforms are less problematic for me, given my insecurities and tendencies. This means Instagram/Facebook are likely out for me, while Twitter is in.

Consider your own experiences and choose the platforms that you have the best chance of having a healthy relationship with. You don’t have to “be everywhere.” It’s your life and your time is more precious than anything.

If you’re running a business, there are other considerations as well. It’s never a good idea to put all your eggs in one platform. If you rely on social media for customers, make sure you funnel them off to open protocols, like email, RSS and/or a podcast feed.

On the technological/social side, the questions and potential solutions are more complicated.

Social media is such a threat to the fabric of society is because we’ve allowed these enormously powerful and wealthy companies to place profit above the interests of humanity. They treat our attention like a commodity to be mined as efficiently as possible.

Unfortunately, mining attention with unbridled efficiency has meant using human behavior and instincts against our best interests.

This is where we circle back to politics.

Many will argue that social media and persuasive technology needs to be regulated, just like other industries are regulated to prevent them from harming social good. This is a good start. Of course, finding the collective and political will to do so is the first challenge, while defining regulation that actually accomplishes its goal is another.

Regulation is an enormously complex topic, and many groups and experts will make proposals and recommendations (for example, this one from the Forum for Information and Democracy). These should be discussed, studied and tested thoroughly before being adopted.

Others will argue that social media should be decentralized, perhaps using a blockchain-like technology. This idea is appealing to many, but also has many hurdles and potential downsides. The Internet itself is decentralized, as is email, and Bitcoin, so there is precedent for technologies to not have a single central owner.

There are already social networks that are decentralized to some degree, like Mastodon (now with 4.4 million users). Even Jack Dorsey announced that Twitter started developing a decentralized standard for social media.

Despite social media’s sloppy attempts to police themselves, the real solution probably lies in protocols, not platforms. I would welcome a globally connected social network free from corporate control and manipulation, if it was truly able to minimize the impact of trolling, hateful speech, and large-scale disinformation efforts.

Whatever the future holds, it’s clear that leaving control of our digital social networks in the centralized hands of a few tech elite is not a sustainable or desirable long-term solution, nor is it working well today.

I’ll leave you with this. Clearly I don’t have all the answers, and likely neither do you or anyone at this point. There are too many unforeseen consequences to the choices we make, at this point in the evolution of technology. Even the best of intentions might be proven wrong over time, so adaptation will be critical.

Social media is far too popular and far too important to let it continue down the current path. Everyone from individual users to society itself has a vested interest in making sure we do better.

As for me, I plan to continue using social media, but in a more intentional and careful way, despite my digital reboot. I also plan to close some of my accounts entirely on platforms that are of little benefit, whether socially or to my business.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts, including if you think I’m wrong on any points. Come tell me what you think on Twitter 😉

Published January, 2021

About the author

Hi, I’m Corbett Barr. I write about the creator economy 🧑‍🎨 digital minimalism 🧘 and tech for social good 🙌.

I’ve been self employed online since 2005, earning a living from blogging, podcasting, online courses, memberships, SaaS and more. I’ve bootstrapped, freelanced, consulted and raised venture capital.

Recently, I started over to refocus on writing, and to reevaluate my digital self.

I’m a big fan of digital media and techology, but I believe we should all be using it more mindfully and that technology itself should be a force for social good.

I write a weekly-ish newsletter for people who make things on the Internet. I hope you’ll subscribe:

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