Wow. This is a really long piece. This is one entry in a series I’m working on called Poiesis. If you want to know more about the series, pop over to here.
If you’re more inclined to listen to this long piece rather than read through it, please scroll to the bottom of the page to find links to my podcast of the same name where I quite literally read this to the tune of some very engaging background music.
Every day, billions of people interact with each other — sharing their thoughts, feelings, and hopes and dreams. Information is abundant in our modern, industrialized society. Each person can be imagined to interact with a variety of different people on a day-to-day basis, forming connections that, on the macro-scale we might call: a network.
While communication has existed since the dawn of civilization, no other technology in our history has so drastically changed interpersonal and societal relations as has the advent of the digital social network — commonly called “Social Media”. Thanks to the unimaginably vast information hosting, and light-speed sharing capabilities of the Internet, Social Media now stands at the forefront of the digital media landscape as the premier forum for discussions ranging from personal anecdotes to intense, passionate discussions of politics — even going so far as to aid in arranging full-blown popular rebellions.
It’s no secret that in the past few years, Social Media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have come into the mainstream political spotlight as alleged tools of manipulation by interested parties. Social media around the world is frequently controlled by governments in order to censor or silence certain voices on the networks. The fact that so many people are constantly plugged into these networks, and reliant on the information they convey — even to the point of addiction — sets up a precarious balance of power between the individual, and the platform with which they interact. Scholars of technology have warned of the potential dangers of Social Media for some time, but now for the first time in its short lifespan, the public is becoming wary of the risks posed by over-reliance on such technologies.
Though it’s true that Social Media exists as a concept in itself, it too represents an umbrella that contains several implementations of different digital social mechanics. Each implementation can purport different sets of rules and regulations that vary the format of communication — sometimes drastically. We’re going to attempt to analyze each set of nuances that different platforms allow for, and hopefully uncover some non-obvious truths about Social Media platforms and social relations in general that can help us become more enlightened and aware users of such a powerful technology.
There are many subjects within this area that beg for discussion. The effect of social media on the individual user, the wide-reaching changes it has made to society through altering everyday communication, how our societal values could be argued to have changed to reflect the values present in social media, or even the nuances of recommendation algorithms in relation to censorship and freedom of speech all have equal necessity to be analyzed and discussed. For this article, however, we will simply focus on an introduction to the broad concepts involved with Social Media in general. That way we can have a solid foundation to reference when discussing and further exploring the nuances of different platforms.
A History of Social Relations
Before we analyze Social Media as it exists today, it will help us to take a look back into the history of technological communication. For example, how did people in the 19th century communicate with each other? Have we, as humans, always interacted in large groups, or was it more common long ago to have a smaller social network? These questions, and others, will provide us with important context going into our analysis of modern Social Media.
As it turns out, anthropology has revealed to us that there have typically been two ways that societies have managed themselves throughout history: as nomadic civilizations or as sedentary civilizations. We need to look at both in order to grasp how our ancestors, for thousands of years, lived their lives: what worked and what didn’t. Let’s begin by transporting ourselves back — way back — to a period of our history where nobody was thinking about selfies or maximizing likes on their latest post: ancient Mesopotamia, around 2300 BCE.
The oldest records we have ever found lie in stone tablets inscribed by ancient Sumerians. We have been able to construct a very accurate depiction of Mesopotamia because of how obsessed its citizens were with writing. Joshua J. Mark, former part-time professor of Philosophy at Marist College in New York, and general history professor, writes that Mesopotamian cities were immense (for the time): spanning populations of 10,000 in Uruk, to 50,000 in Mari. Society was divided into typical social classes that included Kings and Nobility, Priests, Priestesses, an upper and lower class, and a class of Slaves. It’s fascinating to observe that, even though Sumerian civilization existed as far back as 2300 BCE, their social structure is not that different from a structure we observe in 17th century A.D. England — or even 18th century America. For the most part, Mark indicates, social interactions in Mesopotamian cities were constrained to the scope of the family, friend groups inside of one’s social class, and any that arose from economic relations such as trade or craft. Merchants interacted with their potential customers; royalty and nobility interacted with each other and the religious class; and even slaves would interact with both their masters’ families and sometimes with those who were affiliated with their masters’ occupation. You could almost imagine existing in an ancient Sumerian civilization because, at least socially, it’s not that different than how our societies are structured.
Simultaneously, other civilizations were living their daily lives in a much different manner. For millennia, societies have gathered and organized themselves in a way that, at first glance, seems entirely foreign to us — even a bit barbaric. Sedentary civilizations have historically feared these haphazardly-formed groups, and for some good reasons. Their tendency toward warfare and conflict, amorphous networks of social ties, and ability to change leadership and direction seemingly at the drop of a hat, clashes with what many civilizations labeled as being “civilized”. To examine these groups further, we’ll jump forward in time to 100 BCE — to the steppes of Eastern Asia, home of roaming, nomadic civilizations.
For millennia, scholars have been studying and commenting on the behavior of nomadic civilizations; trying to untangle their mysteries. Nikolay Kradin, an anthropologist, archaeologist, and research fellow at the Far East Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok, lends his highly distinguished, expert opinion to the puzzle of the East Asian nomads of the steppes. He explains that it was common for these groups to roam in what’s called an “ail”, or a group of five to ten families. Families were related by blood, and united under common households and property, such as cattle. At first glance, the nomadic people don’t seem too different from those of sedentary societies like ours — albeit except for the notion of shared property, and all the moving around. Simply surviving in the steppes was an exceedingly difficult task, so it’s no surprise that familial groups shared as much as they could in order to help this core social group survive in the face of the harsh environment, where there may be little to go around.
Kradin explains that social groups expanded beyond the familial unit: forming communities, lineages, or clans. These higher-order groups were different than familial groups because their relations could be based on entirely fictitious kinship rather than blood. Often, seasonal labor cooperation, the necessity of defending fellow tribesmen, or the performance of common rituals brought groups together.
In general, communities did not enjoy when conflict arose between different smaller groups. Conflict hurt the potential economic prosperity of all groups involved, so relatives of the conflicted parties sought to reconcile any issues before the conflict could escalate. The political and social structure of nomadic groups appears as if it was quite fragile, so it stands to reason that these people developed social practices to curb their more destructive tendencies — the same way law does so for us, but much more situationally oriented.
Though it does seem to be true that nomadic groups tended toward more frequent warfare and political change, some aspects of their societies — such as shared property and emphasis on mitigation of internal conflict — are truly progressive, even for today’s standards.
Unfortunately, it seems that conflict was frequent for the nomadic people of the Steppes. Kradin cites fellow scholars David Sneath and Christopher Atwood’s analysis of the origin of “tribes” and their structure. Their respective work points to evidence that the entire concept of tribes — being defined as clans with a secondary structure of chiefs, elders, and public gatherings — was born from colonialism. Sneath argues that the notions of tribes or clans are entirely constructions of colonial anthropologists, while Atwood points out that the Chinese word for tribe, “buluo”, actually directly translates to a “military settlement”. These findings can lead us to believe that one main function of nomadic clans was to wage war with each other. This notion will be important to remember later on.
While the main takeaway of typical Western histories — told from the perspective of sedentary civilizations — is that nomads were barbaric, unprincipled, or wild, the truth is that these types of civilizations were able to survive for thousands of years. Though it does seem to be true that nomadic groups tended toward more frequent warfare and political change, some aspects of their societies — such as shared property and emphasis on mitigation of internal conflict — are truly progressive, even for today’s standards. Unfortunately, nomadic empires typically would not exist for longer than 100 to 150 years — for reasons ranging from natural phenomena, including disease and agricultural infertility; to foreign policy mishaps like war or lack of success in trade; to even internal problems such as loss of unity, or weakness of administration.
Obviously in the end, sedentary, highly structured societies won out in the long-term. New civilizations continued using the model set forth by the Mesopotamians, and everyday methods of social interaction didn’t really change much for a long time. If you think about it, this makes sense. Sure, as society progressed, it became more common for people to leave their hometowns or villages in order to do certain things like work in a city, or attend university. However, the main form of communication remained largely the same: verbal speech. It would be some time before any sort of technology came along to alter the way that people communicated.
Time relentlessly marched on, and technology improved steadily across the centuries. Eventually, people began to innovate around communication technology. Brian Winston gives an in-depth and fascinating retelling of the history of these technologies in his book: Media, Technology, and Society — A History from the Telegraph to the Internet. Close to the end of the 18th century, the Chappe Semaphore become popular in France before spreading throughout Europe as an efficient way to communicate with visual signals across a distance. Before long, the telegraph came onto the scene; allowing communication over much larger distances, and much faster than before. For the first time in history, light-speed communication was possible — even if it had to be reduced to simple short or long tones. Just as modern societies adapted to using the telegraph ubiquitously, the telephone broke through the barrier of efficacy and became a de-facto mode of communication between businesses. Industrialized society proved to be an innovation machine, and soon led to the invention of the radio, television, and finally the Internet. This is obviously a very simplified history of these technologies, so I really do suggest checking out Brian Winston’s book if you’re truly interested in the details.
With each technological innovation, the common modes of communication across society were altered. The telegraph and radio were mainly used to allow individuals or groups, such as government or corporations, to broadcast information to the masses. Television too fits under this category of broadcast technology. While the amount of information that broadcast technologies allowed to be — well, broadcast — is enormous, the mode of communication is still unidirectional: it only goes to listeners or watchers without an opportunity for immediate response.
The telephone, however, was a communication game-changer. After its adoption spread from the business sector to the homestead, ordinary people could suddenly maintain a social network across distances. Linking phone lines together to host a group call was an extraordinary way for groups of friends or family to interact together in real-time no matter where they were.
This mode of “abstract” communication absolutely exploded with the advent of the Internet. As long as someone was at their terminal, they could communicate with as many people as they wanted. At first, billboard systems similar to a forum were the dominant form of internet communication — and mostly only for tech savvy users. Electronic mail and chat systems quickly followed, and were adopted by everyday computer users. Innovation of those systems continued until we arrived at video chat, multimedia messaging, and of course: social media platforms.
An Explosion of Communication Technology
We’ve come a long way since the days where the most advanced communication technology was writing on stone tablets. Social Media allows us to express our thoughts and feelings more or less freely online. We can form groups with friends or strangers, use platforms to try to date or find the next hookup, or even read the thoughts of revered leaders across the world. The power that Social Media lends to communication is immense. At no other period in human history has such a large part of the world been able to be connected by instant, and enduring, communication.
People everywhere carry their phones with them, and the moment they feel bored, check one social media platform or another.
Adoption of Social Media has occurred on a scale and rapidity never before seen by any other types of technology. Back in the day (2006), MySpace, which was the dominant social media platform at the time, boasted a staggering 100 million accounts. To imagine that anything could dethrone something that 100 million people use must have seemed impossible; but of course, Facebook was next to take the mantle. As of January 2018, Facebook has an estimated 270 million users in India, 210 million in the United States, and the list continues in the tens of millions. Twitter too touts an incredible number of users: pegged at 336 million — in the United States alone — as of Q1 2018.
These numbers are mind-blowing, and it shows in everyday life. People everywhere carry their phones with them, and the moment they feel bored, check one social media platform or another. I’m completely guilty of it too (Reddit is my vice). When a technology is so ingrained in millions of lives, it stands to reason that its real and potential effects should be analyzed. Researchers and technophiles alike have been warning of certain dangers related to Social Media for the last few decades, but those spaces are usually too niche to reach the majority of users. It took a truly momentous event — the alleged manipulation of Social Media networks to influence global politics — to bring the warnings of the skeptics into the sphere of popular discussion. Even then, the discussion regarding Social Media can be twisted by conventional media, lost in the purposely distracting news cycle, or even too shallowly discussed to be useful to most people without some more digging. Aside from the dangers of manipulation by foreign powers, what are some other potential negative or positive effects of these systems? Have they changed our society in any way that we may have simply missed? These types of questions reveal some truly fascinating answers that paint a picture of our reality that, I would argue, most people don’t even realize they live in — like a fish not noticing the water that it swims through every day.
How are Individuals Affected?
We can imagine the effects of Social Media being split into two distinct categories: small-scale positive and negative effects, and large-scale positive and negative effects. Small-scale effects are those that most directly affect the individual as they use Social Media. Large-scale effects, on the other hand, are usually the result of an accumulation of small-scale effects that are only visible as emergent properties of the entirety of all Social Media use. Another example of an emergent property that comes from a lot of individual constituent parts is a country or society: it wouldn’t exist without all of its individual participants, but exhibits slightly different characteristics than any one of its parts. Let’s take a look at the ways that social media has positively transformed the individual’s social experience day-to-day.
Some of the most compelling positive effects of Social Media arise from its nature of connecting so many users who can come from vastly different backgrounds. The spread of ideas is greatly increased and benefited by the structure of large social networks. In the days of the Enlightenment, where an explosion of ideas characterized the time period, something like Social Media would have been a dream come true.
Finding novelty information to incorporate into anyone’s worldview is an incredibly valuable benefit of social networks. Studies conducted during the early days of Social Media sites like Facebook show that individuals are much more likely to continue their education outside of traditional educational contexts due to their constant exposure to new ideas. A study done by the Australian Government, along with a few intellectual and corporate partners, titled The Benefits of Social Networking, showed that at least in younger people, deeper learning was promoted outside of the classroom by supporting peer-to-peer collaboration and expression. The same study showed that teens who used Social Media were able to learn creative skills by creating different types of media to share on the platform. This type of collaboration can exist and flourish best in the purest type of Social Media — a kind that has no limits on the nature of information that can be shared, and does not nudge users towards information of one kind or another.
Nicholas Christakis, in his TED talk about the influence of natural social networks, describes the notion that ideas, while being able to be spread directly through a conversation, can also be spread indirectly. For example, instead of a friend telling you about how they’ve recently benefited from running more often, you could see from their physical appearance that they’re enjoying some kind of health benefit. If you see your friend running, you can put two and two together to get the idea that running has made them healthier. Similarly, on social media, you can see photos of your friend running, looking fit and happy in general, and understand indirectly that your friend has benefited from running more often. The potential end result of you trying running because it looks to be beneficial can be achieved in different ways. The difference between the two types of idea sharing — directly or indirectly — is termed “induction of ideas” through, respectively, lifestyle or norms. Our digital social networks have the ability to influence our thinking or broaden our perspectives just by showing us photos, videos, or written statuses. This effect has also been noticed in individuals being able to understand and internalize complex ideas, such as sexual identity, that are typically harder for many to understand. In some cases, teens who use Social Media are more likely to find cultural or sexual notions of belonging in the expansive variety of profiles depicted on sites like Facebook.
While allowing for a great deal of information sharing across a network, obviously social media would not be able to do so if a network didn’t exist in the first place. The act of building a network — being able to organize with others from diverse backgrounds whom you may never have met otherwise — is an incredibly powerful feature innate in the platforms. Jim Rawson, Chair of the Department of Radiology and Imaging at the Medial College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University, speaks about his experience with Social Media at radiology conferences. He explains the joy he felt in being able to connect with some peers in his field who would have been totally inaccessible to him without using Twitter. He ended up establishing connections with some prestigious names in his area of study, and continues collaboration with them digitally. The best part about social media being open and free is that anyone can grow a network of beneficial connections.
Continued social contact is another enormous Social Media benefit to the individual user. Researchers who studied the effects of Facebook on college students in 2007 determined that the network serves to increase the user’s amount of, what they call, Social Capital. Just as monetary capital is spent by individuals on various economic benefits, social capital is a way of imagining an abstract quantity that can be spent on creating, maintaining, or strengthening social relationships. By their nature, social media sites grant users a large amount of social capital — allowing people to chat, view photos, keep up with life updates, or connect with groups. While results of the study showed that deepening relationships was not very effective over Facebook, it did show that maintaining relationships — say, with high school friends — was aided by the site. Even though the study focused on Facebook, as that was the most popular social media site in 2007, we can easily imagine that Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media sites serve this purpose too.
This notion of belonging, and finding others like yourself, is also taken to more of an extreme on Social Media sites that encourage users to search for others in a romantic or intimate sense. If ever there was a time period where the Romantic era ideal of finding a “soulmate” could be realized, it would be in the age of Social Media. A host of dating sites such as OKCupid, JDate, or even Tinder, have boasted successful relationships facilitated by the platforms. While using social media for relationships can be viewed as one of the most extreme forms of social bonding these platforms enable, an analysis of how most social media platforms designs these experiences reveals perhaps one of its greatest flaws.
A Simple Thought Experiment…
Let’s imagine that it’s Friday night, we have no plans, we go on Tinder to try to find someone to go out with tonight. What does the process look like? We open the application and are presented with some photos of someone — they look attractive. The photos show this person having fun with friends, out on exotic vacations, or maybe posing in a sexy way in front of the bathroom mirror (as one does). We can read a bit about this person in their bio, and we notice that they have recently moved from London to our city, they love cats, and are really into Harry Potter books. Well, it seems like we know enough about this person to deem them worthy of a Friday evening or not — let’s swipe.
We truly don’t know anyone else’s flaws as well as we know ours, and when we’re bombarded with other people’s highlights, we tend to subconsciously develop the notion in our heads that other people are not as flawed as we are.
Wait, wait, let’s hold on a second. What did we just learn about this person? Well, they seem pretty great to us — attractive, maybe has a British accent, loves magical cats. That’s really not a lot of information. If we think about it, those facts are probably also just the highlights of this person’s life. If we really think deeply about it, each other person on this planet is just as complex as we are, and have lives filled with as many — if not more — events as ours. We each know that we’re very complex individuals — filled with nuanced and subtle thoughts, emotions, and opinions, so it stands to reason that everyone else is just as complex as we are. Social media is just presenting us with a tiny portion of what we could know about any other person; maybe even too tiny of a portion.
Across all social media platforms, these complexities — both of personality and of thought — are lost to the appeal of brevity. In the not-too-distant past, this has played into the main focus of criticism aimed at social media. Cyberbullying came to the forefront of popular discussion since it became enabled in a widespread fashion with the advent of social media platforms. The Pew Internet Research center, collaboratively with OnlineHarassmentData.org, has published data showing that 40% of online adults have experienced online harassment. Even more shockingly, 73% of survey participants stated that they have witnessed online harassment. Psychologically, it is much easier to harass or abuse someone else when they are abstracted away from you. Any would-be cyberbully doesn’t really know that much about their victims on social media sites, so it’s easier to ignore the fact that there is a real person with vulnerabilities on the other end. As abusers, we feel the effects of abuse less viscerally when we’re distanced from the results, and social media allows users to harass others from behind the veil of their online persona.
Nowadays, since Social Media forces us to limit what we display about ourselves, over time, a norm has developed where each user displays what some researchers call a “highlight reel” of their lives. The highlight reel consists of our most glamorous vacations, only the most attractive selfies we find out of the hundreds of possibilities, or descriptions of success without acknowledging any of the more uncomfortable sides of real life. While it’s fine to put your best foot forward, in the long-term, this leads to our individual selves having Social Media personas that can be far removed from our real selves. This difference in perception can cause anxieties if we’ve built up a profile for ourselves that is so heavily edited that, when we return to real life, we find that we’re not as perfect as our digital selves. This also has an effect from the other side — viewing other people’s “perfect” social media profiles — in that we feel insecure because we compare ourselves with other people’s highlight reels. We truly don’t know anyone else’s flaws as well as we know ours, and when we’re bombarded with other people’s highlights, we tend to subconsciously develop the notion in our heads that other people are not as flawed as we are. It’s almost as if a new form of Internet abuse has developed where we’re abusing ourselves in a smaller, more frequent, and also more subtle way.
In the early days of social media, there was less of an emphasis on this type of posting that attempts to make others like us by presenting only the blatant positives. In fact, there was less emphasis on “liking” anything in the Internet’s earlier incarnations of social networks. Whereas the original purpose of sites like Facebook was to connect college students, or even slightly later on, to keep up with high school friends, we can see that the most popular social media platforms today all incorporate some judgmental quality in the form of “likes” or “hearts” or “swiping right”. Bailey Parnell describes this phenomenon in a talk relating social media and mental health; calling these “likes” “social currency”. Relating “social currency” to what marketers refer to as the “economy of attention”, we are essentially selling ourselves when we engage in social media platforms that incentivize accumulation of likes. We pare ourselves down to our most attractive qualities, and put those on display to advertise ourselves in a way that makes others click the like button, or swipe right on our profile.
Why do we strive so resolutely to gather as many of these made-up rewards as we possibly can? After all, they really mean nothing further than the fact that someone glanced at something we’ve shared, made a split-second decision that they enjoyed the content, and clicked a button or tapped on a piece of glass. We don’t even know to what degree the person really liked what we posted. It could have even been an accident. Well, behind the scenes, whenever we receive a like, our brain interprets this as if we were given a reward for a behavior. The chemical that we’ve evolved to facilitate this cue-to-reward interaction in our brains is called dopamine. You may have heard about it in relation to various types of addiction — and that’s for a good reason: the chemical processes in our brain that pat us on the back for receiving a like on a photo are the exact same that occur when someone injects themself with heroin or does a line of cocaine. These hard drugs stimulate a much stronger response, and higher levels of dopamine, but the chemical is exactly the same in each scenario.
The YouTube channel, “What I’ve Learned” has an incredible, in-depth video concerning Internet addiction in general, so I highly recommend checking that out. However, specifically, social media is designed in a way that encourages users to engage with it. Whether that’s by posting a piece of content, or simply by opening the platform and viewing content social media is taking advantage of a piece of neurological evolution that we all possess: our reward center. This is the part of the brain that remembers behaviors based on a dopamine response. In the past, the reward center was key to our survival by rewarding “good” behavior such as finding food. Chemicals such as dopamine make us feel good, and thus incentive us to repeat behavior and reinforce neural pathways so we’re more likely to be able to find food again later. In 2018, however, those same mechanisms are triggered by simple acts — such as swiping our thumb, or clicking a button. We get a small bit of dopamine over and over when we engage with social media. Many people live in a constant state of slight dopamine elevation because of their frequent social media use. Even when we simply scroll the page to view new content, we get a small hit of dopamine because our brains have evolved to value novelty — especially when it’s unexpected. As if this doesn’t seem effective enough already, on top of being chemically rewarded after taking an action in response to a stimulus, even the anticipation of the stimulus itself will flood your brain with dopamine. That means that every time we think we might see a new piece of content, or think we might get a notification that someone liked our photo, we get the same good feeling. In fact, anticipation has been shown to produce more dopamine in our brains than the actual reward.
You may be wondering what the harm is in being slightly addicted to social media. After all, you’re not addicted to cocaine or heroin — substances that actively harm you. Social media can’t harm anyone, right? Well, unfortunately, research has shown that as we develop a tolerance based on heavy drug use of any kind — in this case, social media use — it becomes harder for us to motivate ourselves to do anything else because our brains have strengthened the pathways that lead to easy rewards more than the pathways that are associated with willpower and long-term motivation. Our prefrontal cortex houses connections that are essential for doing work that seems hard or daunting, and after sustained reward center stimulation, studies have shown that prefrontal cortex dendrites (signal receptors in the brain) become misshapen and deformed. In fact, internet addicted individuals share the same impulsiveness and prefrontal cortex degeneration as do alcohol-dependent individuals.
This is getting a little more serious than we previously thought. Being able to create and maintain social connections so easily is incredible, but at the cost of being addicted to social media and harming capacity to be motivated to do hard work? That seems like a heavy price to pay. It seems like social media sites are taking advantage of our biological systems of addiction in order to get us to use their platforms. In fact, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya and ex-Facebook president Sean Parker have both come forward since leaving the company and explained that Facebook was designed to be addictive. This all fits within most social media sites’ monetary scheme. Of course, since sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat are free to use, it’s well-known that they make all of their money off of advertisements. The more times someone sees an ad, the more likely they are to remember that product, or even click the link because they’re interested. Therefore, free-to-use social media sites have every incentive to try to drive as many visits to their sites as they can by addicting users to their platforms. These companies have been able to make enormous sums of money because they are near-perfect advertisement machines that also happen to let us talk with each other (which we had the ability to do before social media).
The final truly potent effect on the individual that is facilitated, really only by a fairly recent development in social media technology, is that the information that users see on most sites is no longer free-flowing and unfiltered. What I mean is that in the past few years, the information that we see on feeds like Facebook or Twitter is filtered by a recommendation algorithm that matches it up against our personalities (that have been gathered by seeing what pages or people we like or follow) and shows us items that it deems we would be predisposed to like. For example, say I’m a dog-lover, and a hobbyist astronomer, so I’ve liked a handful of pages about dogs and space. My social media feed is more likely to show items that are also tagged as being related to dogs or space (or astronaut dogs).
This enormous potential for manipulation is completely enabled by social media in a way that was not possible previously.
This makes sense from social media companies’ perspective, as it would make users more likely to engage with their platform because they see a lot of content that seems to fit their personalities and beliefs. However, this has an incredibly negative effect on individual users due to the fact that it directly combats one of the most positive effects of social media that we listed earlier: a diverse flow of information from peers. In fact, the flow of information is so non-diverse that it serves to reinforce people’s biases — whether they’re social, intellectual, or political. Confirmation bias is a well-studied phenomenon that shows that, unaided, we’re predisposed to seek out information that confirms our preconceived notions, and even interpret neutral information in a way that supports those same preconceptions. If we naturally confirm our own biases without the aid of recommendation algorithms, the effect must be nearly out of control when accounting for recommenders.
The United States and the UK have recently been the center of this kind of confirmation bias controversy as it was revealed that social media was used as a tool to manipulate voters leading up to the 2016 presidential election and Brexit, respectively. Many individuals, who had in the first place been unwittingly coerced into social media addiction, were manipulated into believing false stories that appeared on their social media feeds because the stories already agreed with their biases. The power to determine what type of content users will like can be combined with very targeted advertisements to feed false or skewed information to specific types of people at a very granular level. That type of targeted advertisement was shown to be used by private firms, who partnered with politicians, in both the Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential election. This enormous potential for manipulation is completely enabled by social media in a way that was not possible previously. Before social media implemented recommendations and paid advertisement targeting, individuals had to be manipulated the clunky, old-fashioned way through mass media. Now, it’s truly frightening to think that our usage habits could be used by wealthy or powerful groups in order to sway our thoughts and beliefs without us knowing it.
The potential for manipulation of individuals is a perfect example of a feature of social media that, when accumulated over many individuals, can have a society-wide impact. In fact, there are many wide-reaching effects of collective social media use that become obvious after drawing conclusions naturally from scaling up some individual effects. Let’s take a look at some of these larger effects.
The Bigger Picture
Often, some of the large-scale effects — either real or potential — of systems that we observe on the individual scale, can be extrapolated from individual effects. This is only possible because social media is so encompassing of popular, technological society, that it can be argued to reach a significant enough number of people to have cultural and societal impacts. For example, when we think back to one the positive benefits to the individual from social media use: access to a wide swath of information, we can generalize spread of information at a societal level. If we take the effect of “access to diverse, voluminous information” to a generalized level, we can see effects of diverse education across society. Of course, not all the information is strictly academic, but even mass exposure to sites such as Reddit creates a societal trend towards being informed in some fashion.
Another trend that we can observe in the macro is the tendency for members of the younger generation — having grown up with social media — to have a higher capacity for empathy and acceptance of a wide variety of sexual preferences, relationship formats, and racial identity nuances that older generations lack. Older generations may typically not exhibit such acceptance of social differences simply due to a lack of exposure at a formative age. We saw on the smaller scale, teens who used social media were able to build and acquire a more complex personal identity from interacting with their peers freely. It makes intuitive sense, then, that we frequently see reference in the media to how many labels the younger generation has for their sexual identity, or how different, nuanced types of relationship structures are more popular with younger people. When we see this referenced in traditional media, it may be portrayed as something that is unnecessarily complicated, as compared to when people defined themselves as simply male or female, or gay or straight. Of course, this is a reaction that we’ve seen generationally across a variety of social issues. If anything, social media has helped cultural development in terms of empathy progress at a much more accelerated pace than would be possible without the technology.
The power of social media to allow individuals to find others who share their interests, or are alike in other ways, is also found at the macro scale. One of the most staggering examples of this was the Arab Spring in 2010. In a truly moving TED talk, Wael Ghonim, one of the orchestrators of the Egyptian protests, describes his experience using social media to speak truth to power. In June of 2010, he was browsing Facebook and saw a photo of the tortured, dead body of a 29 year-old Alexandrian named Khaled Saeed. He was killed by the police. Moved by this experience, Ghonim created a Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Saeed”, and in 3 days it had over 100,000 fellow Egyptian followers who shared concern over the Mubarak regime’s abuse of police power. After the Tunisian Revolution, Egyptians on social media were wondering, “If Tunisians can do it, why can’t we?” Ghonim followed up by creating a Facebook event called “Revolution against corruption, injustice, and dictatorship” — set for January 25th. Over 100,000 people confirmed attendance. Social media allowed the Egyptian people to organize, make their voices heard, and after 18 days of mass protest, Mubarak was forced to step down.
Strength through groups, and the efficacy of joining people together cannot be understated. Throughout history, the most significant actions and changes have occurred because people were able to organize under a common belief, and exert strength in sheer numbers. Unfortunately, Ghonim continues by illustrating how the ensuing power vacuum brought out some of the worst in people via the same tool that helped orchestrate this whole event. He describes the intense polarization in social media discussion that followed after the people failed to build consensus. The spread of misinformation, rumors, echo-chambers, and hate speech were all facilitated by Facebook during this time, and Ghonim describes the environment as “purely toxic”. These same problems have been at the forefront of criticism of social media over the past few years, as the effects have been felt all over the world.
…social media companies like Facebook have a lot of power over us when we use them to form our opinions about important topics such as politics or economics.
Some of the smaller negative effects of social media contribute to these larger issues. For example, recommendation algorithms combined with the collective, shallow presentation of others aid in fueling hate speech. It’s well known anecdotally that comment sections on the internet are full of trolls and incendiary posts. As we mentioned, being able to harass someone behind a screen, rather than in person, is much easier — especially when we know little to nothing about the person we’re criticizing. On the large scale, this is exemplified best in the posts created by fringe groups: people who are wildly anti-Semitic, xenophobic, racist, inclined towards extremism, or even by a group like the “flat-Earthers”. These types of groups that seem to be on the rise lately have historically been subject to death by obscurity. Certainly something as niche and out-there as believing the Earth is actually flat must have been incredibly obscure in the recent past. Since it is such a fringe-theory, the likelihood of someone in the pre-internet age physically finding another believer to reinforce their beliefs is quite slim. Linguist and widely-known dissident Noam Chomsky occasionally discusses the nature of free speech in relation to hate speech. He too illustrates that hate speech historically dies due to obscurity in favor of more popular, rational beliefs. However, in the age of recommendation systems on social media, these obscure fanatics are much more likely to find and connect with others who share their toxic beliefs. It has been documented that extremist groups use social media deftly to try to recruit new members to their cause; in general, people who feel alienated or detached from society.
Groups with access to this kind of data have enormous power over a huge amount of people. We are truly at the mercy of groups like these because we, as a collective user base, have a frighteningly poor ability to determine what is true or false, and what is aimed at manipulating us.
This is a topic that has found its way into the most contentious debates among scholars and public alike: How do we tell what’s true and what’s false in a space where anyone can pose as an authoritative figure? One unfortunate side effect of the freedom allowed by social media is that anyone can create an account that poses as a figure of authority. In reality, this account might actually exist to propagandize and spread false rumors. Facebook has recently attempted to come up with a solution to this problem; allowing certain organizations to flag certain articles as “fake news”. This action results in a notification being sent to every user who has shared that same article alerting them that the story has been tagged as such. This may seem like a good solution, but the problem is that this is a powerful tool of censorship given to just a handful of people. When so few people have this kind of power to influence millions of others, there is clearly an imbalance in the system. Recently, this censorship tool was used by a conservative organization, The Weekly Standard, to mark a progressive news story from ThinkProgress as “fake news” purely for semantic reasons — citing that the story’s headline was misleading because it stated that the subject “said” something whereas he truly “implied” it. More instances of abuses of power like this are sure to come in the near future as long the system remains the same.
In a society that gets its news primarily from social media, each user is subject to censorship like this, or even on a more severe scale. The ability to dole out censorship powers on a forum that hundreds of millions of people rely on for news is staggering. However, The Weekly Standard is hardly the first organization to apply censorship to Facebook news feeds. Facebook itself has been revealed many times to use this power of censorship on a regular basis. The Intercept has published stories illustrating this. One states that Facebook has been deleting Palestinian accounts after being asked to by the Israeli government. Another claims that Facebook hid their own pages that cited statistics showing how the platform contributed to voter manipulation in favor of Florida’s Governor Rick Scott. Yet another cites that Facebook suspended a Latin American news network, Telesur, from the platform on grounds of “suspicious activity”; only to reinstate it a few days later when they somehow figured out that Telesur’s activity must have been fine all along. The bottom line is that social media companies like Facebook have a lot of power over us when we use them to form our opinions about important topics such as politics or economics. Since social media companies are unregulated by government — most likely because they are so rich that they have the ability to exert enormous influence on government itself — they can influence power over their users in an authoritarian style. Nobody has been able to stop these networks from doing what they do. Or perhaps powerful institutions like government haven’t tried hard enough.
Philosophers often write about the dynamics of control and power; drawing inspiration from, or even inspiring, works like Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World. Subtle manipulation through means of providing complacency, or wide-scale monitoring and repression of suspicious individuals, is truly not that far from what we see exhibited in the most disturbing cases of social media use. Michel Foucault, a French philosopher who famously authored Discipline and Punish, describes a world in which we are conditioned to follow social order — in a prison of our own making — and surveillance systems secretly makes examples of dissidents by imprisoning them under unclear circumstances. When we fail to understand the rationale for imprisonment, he argues, we are more likely to avoid punishment by conforming to a model of citizenship that is outlined for us by those same systems. Even if the reason for imprisonment is faulty, or unlawfully motivated, we never get to know because the enforcement system also controls the flow of information.
Frighteningly, social media companies can be viewed in this light. A company that has the attention of most everyone in a society, writes its own laws in the form of Terms & Conditions, imprisons “wrongdoers” by shutting down their pages or censoring certain articles, and only gives justifications such as “we observed suspicious activity”, has a tremendous amount of uncontrolled power to entice us to conform to whatever the company wants us to conform to at the time. There are no systems in place that allow users to exert influence on the company; such as electing officials to the company as we do to our government. Theoretically, our government representatives should legislate on our behalf to control social media giants, but so far we have seen nothing of the sort. This dystopian view of social media, of course, is entirely dependent on the nature of the company that has this type of power to exert. We could argue that no small handful of people should have that kind of power regardless of intent, but that might drag this discussion out much further than anyone would be willing to listen to.
Just as interesting is the recent study and discussion of group dynamics and how they play a part in communication. When we’re engaging with social media, it can be very easy to imagine ourselves and others as part of groups. It’s easy to label people like this because the amount of information we’re presented about their personality or character is really very small. Putting a blanket descriptor of “feminist”, or “Muslim”, or “cis-male” is much easier than diving into their profile and investigating what kinds of things they value, or if they are kind or typically malicious. When we, as people, work in groups, there are some interesting characteristics to our interactions that emerge. Mina Cikara discusses how her research has observed that groups tend to act more aggressively than individuals. In general, she shows that groups allow us to reframe immoral behavior as being critical to achieving our own group’s goals; that groups allow for the diffusion or displacement of responsibility or harmful behavior; and that groups tend to cause us to lose touch with our individual moral compass.
When we so constantly use social media platforms, we’re acting as part of a group, and placing others within generalized groups all the time. This type of behavior, scaled up over hundreds of millions of users, could have an impact on our societal behavior. We have observed lately that different political groups seem to be much more aggressive towards those who fall on the other side of the spectrum. We tend to judge these groups based on shallow understandings of them, without acknowledging the individuality of each member, as if we’re clicking a dislike button on a collection of millions of people. Impulsive habits like these also should tend to spread, as Nicholas Christakis demonstrated in his analysis of social networks. We tend to cluster into groups, and then exhibit these aggressive tendencies towards outsiders because we don’t take the time to try to understand them. This seems a lot like the nomadic tribal behavior that was outlined in our history of social communications.
Perhaps since our digital communications are, for the most part, very free and self-determined, we can view our digital selves as a nomadic society whose opinions and loyalties are easily swayed by charismatic leaders, and who tend to wage war (in the form of online aggression) with neighboring tribes. The similarities are quite striking in my mind, and are useful in showing how people historically tend to behave when given complete freedom of organization. It’s really a shame, however, that while the nomadic people of the Steppes deeply valued conflict resolution as a matter of immediate survival, our societies tend to underestimate the effects of conflict because they are so abstracted from our immediate lives. We feel fine insulting someone with a view opposite to ours because we don’t know this person, and there’s hardly any way they would find us to physically retaliate for the insult. We don’t see any problem with large groups of us acting in an aggressive way towards those we don’t understand because the result is not immediate, violent war where we may lose friends or family to the fighting, but rather slow, deliberate political change that may well see the loss of friends or family due to a change in one policy or another.
In truth, most of the consequences of our aggression towards others isn’t felt by us, but rather by the people we subjugate overseas, or those who we deny entry into our affluent world because they seem too different from us and would inevitably change our culture. A tribal war may have resulted in the death of at most hundreds, but our passive wars have resulted in thousands of deaths, and millions of lives changed in a way that is very hard to reverse.
We are allowing social media to shape our society into one that favors appearance over substance, judgment over understanding, novelty over reflection, and offloading our thinking over being motivated to find truth. While it’s true that technology is, in essence, amoral — meaning that just as something like a gun could be used for an equal number of morally good or bad purposes, so too could social media — the way that social media is designed doesn’t lend itself to being used in a way that helps advance our most noble human goals.
Removing any form of real or potential censorship from the platforms would do a great deal of good while maintaining the hugely positive benefits of increased social understanding. Things like the ability for young social media users to communicate with peers and comfortably find their identities at a crucial developmental point make the use of the platform very appealing. Maintaining these feature while eliminating suggestion algorithms feeding into confirmation bias, group aggression, echo chambers, and hate speech, or removing manipulation through targeted advertisements would be a huge step in the right direction. Sure, this might make the platforms less immediately gratifying as all the content may not match our personalities and beliefs, but that loss seems like a small price to pay in order to combat some of the most negative effects seen from social media use.
Social media could also be designed in a way that is more likely to foster understanding of fellow users, rather than showing shallow depictions aimed at garnering troves of likes. David Brooks, long-time editor for the New York Times, discusses in a talk that 90% of our human communication is nonverbal. The platforms we post on could do a lot by designing our communications to truly simulate something more like an open forum, where we can see others talking, or interpret their intentions and body language. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this would be an incredible technical feat — but wouldn’t it be a better use of Facebook’s billions of dollars than manipulation of politics, or trying to put out public relations fires?
These platforms could also take an active step in teaching us how to be better citizens of the digital world. There could be a stronger emphasis on using the applications with empathy rather than contempt. In general, we must understand our natural impulses and inclinations before we engage in the use of technologies as powerful as social media. Out of all of the communication technologies that have been invented, social media has been the first to connect so many people all over the planet in a near instantaneous, multi-directional way. The existence and use of such an influential technology must be balanced with equal understanding of the ways in which it might be used, and systems that allow all who have a stake in the platforms to be able to influence change in the technology — rather than a unilateral decision-making system such as a corporation.
Perhaps the trickiest part of all of this is that we would be oversimplifying things if we were to try to blame one, or a handful of people for these problems. If we’re being honest and empathetic, nobody can blame those at companies like Facebook or Twitter for realizing that a good way to generate more revenue is to recommend people content that they’re more inclined to enjoy. If we’re to be even more generous, it stands to reason that those at social media companies truly were aiming to bring joy and prosperity to their users by suggesting them content that would delight them, making interactions very simple, or allowing people to receive a lot of compliments through likes.
Nobody is really to blame for this type of problem, but we must acknowledge both that a problem exists, and that there are circumstances that exist that led to this problem, and will most likely lead to repeat occurrences of it. Based on the way we’ve set up our world, through our economic systems, of course engineers and product managers at social media companies are incentivized to come up with features that make the most revenue in the shortest amount of time. This is the nature of competition that everyone takes as a given when they live each day of their lives. If we can hope to gain anything from this discussion, it would be that maybe the systems of intense competition that exist — especially in digital technology — should be reworked to incorporate studies of potential long-term effects in order to mitigate them before they come to pass. Of course, we wouldn’t be able to predict everything, but trying to gain the most profit in the shortest amount of time from a technology that touches hundreds of millions of people is a pretty low bar to start from. Trying to anticipate anything would be better than blindly sprinting towards profit and market domination.
There are also ways that we can address some of the shortcomings that social media gives us by default by changing our usage habits. Bailey Parnell also discusses what she calls her “4 Steps to Social Media Wellness” — step one being what we’ve done here, which is to understand the problems. She suggests auditing your social media diet: taking note of what kinds of feelings pop into your head when viewing content, how often you check social media, and honestly evaluating the results. We can take steps to create social media experiences that benefit us; deleting profiles with personal information, and creating new profiles where we link only to those few friends or pages that would really benefit us. We could make sure that when we post or comment online, we do so with empathy towards the complex person that we know is on the other side. We can even stop using social media, if we’re concerned about our profiles being used to manipulate us, and collectively suggest that social media companies make changes that will benefit society rather than damage it. Just as Wael Ghonim used social media to level criticism towards an oppressive government, we can use the same type of organization to ask for changes to our social technologies — remembering that doing so from a place of anger or aggression is less likely to allow new consensus to be settled upon.
Even something as simple as learning about these problems and sharing that information with others is incredibly important. The more people know about these dangers, the less likely we are to allow similar mistakes to be made. As always, we must share what we know with others, shine light on problems obscured by darkness, and in doing so, create a world that works for all of us.
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