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Is Social Media destroying our Civilization?

Friday TECHsays II with tracking and analysis of two tweets by Elon Musk asking this question

A man holding a smartphone with logos of some major social media platforms

This second Friday TECHsays started from two tweets made by Elon musk CEO of Tesla and SpaceX who is in the process of acquiring Twitter the social media that we know because we use it and because of all the past political events in which Twitter was introduced into debates with Reddit, Facebook, TikTok, Linkedin, and all other forms and brands of social media platforms. These two tweets are there asking what could be interesting questions, I think they are , to try to answer

Tweet by Elon musk asking is TikTiok Destroying civilization?

Actually when I started writing this friday TECHsays essay, this tweet above has 28K Retweets 7,504 Quote Tweets 336.2K Likes and the following tweet

Tweet by Elon Musk asking is Social Media destroying our civilization?

has 7,334 Retweets 943 Quote Tweets 155.9K Likes

They have been posted only for 17 hours from now that I am writing on Saturday, June 18, 2022 at 6:43 PM (GMT) here in Dakar.

These two questions are worth exploring and these two tweets are also worth tracking their evolution overtime because they could provide us with the opinions of people about these questions which form only one question that could be formulated like :

Is Social Media destroying civilization?

It sounds like a complex question for a small mind and little knowledged person like me because civilization is involved and civilization is such a broad term that I even don't know its exact meaning and definition. Then what I would first do before trying to answer this question is to try to understand what civilization means before trying to answer the above-mentioned question through the search and tracking of the opinions of people who will be involved in the discussion started by these tweets while hoping that you learn something useful for you because my first and foremost goal writing is for other people to benefit from my writings. I don't know if it’s the case for these 701 blog entries or articles down the road but the insights I am getting tell me that those who read my writing appreciate it and they are those like you who give me the courage to write again. To write about everything I judge as being important for all of you to read.

By writing about these Elon Musk tweets about social media what I’m doing is just adding some words to the discussion and aggregating in this Friday TECHsays essay the knowledge that I’ll be gathering through the billions of web pages that populate the internet and following the curse of this debate about the impact of social media on our civilization.

Our civilization is a term we like to use for describing our global conditions and states as a society or for identifying a particular period of time or set of people often geographically and politically connected like when we say the Egyptian civilization or the Inca civilization for describing these two past powerful empires. Notice that this two past and powerful empires that I mentioned are not existing anymore and I don’t know if one could say that they are destroyed civilization but I am thinking that maybe that’s what Elon musk means with his question. Will we disappear like Egyptians or like this economically fruitful civilization that occupied centuries ago this rocky place called petra

A couple of tourists are on top of a rock in petra looking at the building carved out of the mountain
Location of the ancient city of petra

Social media as we know it is exploiting the power of connections by being a place where people could connect, meet and perform social transactions like discussions or commercial transactions. Petra was like that a place where travelers coming from the four corners of the world used to pass by and they often used to stay there for some time transacting before continuing their journeys. Petra was a node of connections caravans of transportation of people and for commerce, a platform of connections, a node. This ancient city that we could assimilate with a social platform was hosting what was a small but economically powerful small civilization, if we could use the term civilization to describe petra’s past population, because of its location that made it a place for connecting with other people or reaching other location petra was a platform for connection. Petra is now a ghost city filled with tourists willing to see what it looks like. Its ancient host civilization is now gone like the Egyptian civilization. We could say that the civilization of petra is destroyed. If we look at religious books, Petra is said to be destroyed by a cataclysm because of the bad behaviors of the people who were living there and managing the city. My little knowledge tells me that that’s what Elon Musk is imagining when he asks is TikTok destroying our civilization or in a broader sense is social media destroying our civilization.

But in the local culture that I am actually plunged into (Dakar, Senegal, Africa ) if one tells you that you are not civilized, he means you are not behaving like a modern human being, like a homo sapiens sapiens, a smart person. That’s a biased meaning that may come from colonization because Europeans used to say that they were bringing civilization to Africa with colonization but Again I am not sure where this local meaning comes from but the point was to show you that there are some parts of the world where the word civilization can be used for qualifying a single person also not like how it qualifies a group of people like for Inca and Egyptians or the example of Petra I have provided above.

The preceding words are my first thought about Civilization without looking for external sources but just directly writing my opinions and little knowledge about it. Let’s look at some external sources and see what is said about Civilization. My mind for this first quest for knowledge about civilization was sincerely headed toward Wikipedia and I don’t know why but let’s look at what’s about civilization in Wikipedia.

here is what Wikipedia says about civilization or how it defines it.

A civilization (or civilisation) is any complex society characterized by the development of a political state, social stratification, urbanization, and symbolic systems of communication beyond natural spoken language (namely, a writing system).

what first caught my attention while reading this definition of civilization by Wikipedia are these four key terms that are political state, social stratification, urbanization, and symbolic systems of communication. These four are foundational blocks that we should use for answering our question because I am thinking that if social media is about to destroy our civilization if we take ourselves as being part of one human civilization or groups of civilization, that’s these four blocks that social media platforms will gonna impact if they have this disruptive power that we attach we attach to them.

The alteration of symbolic systems of communication and social stratification layers by social media platforms

The block of symbolic systems of communication is where I think that most of the impact will be because social media is mainly about communication and we are actually experiencing how they are shaping our ways and forms of communicating with others and their ability to create memes that are symbolic systems of communication build on top of our natural spoken languages. This block of symbolic systems of communication is a block that impacts the other blocks. In fact, these four blocks are all interconnected each one impacting the others. For digital platforms that we call social media the symbolic block is the most important because it’s from it that some kinds of social stratification emerge and these kinds of social stratification can in turn shape some political movements that can have the power of altering the political state of a particular location or the whole world until altering how we live physically which in part is about urbanization at some extend. Like a domino effect, the alteration of one block of this definition of civilization is tunneled to the next block, and so on impacting all blocks at the end.

Symbolism is a culture-shaping tool and with this definition from Wikipedia, you have seen that writing has been given as one example of the components that form the block of symbolic systems of communication of a civilization. If you were showing an Egyptian the term “LOL” will he understand what you mean? I think that it would have been simpler for a citizen of the past Egyptian empire to get the meaning of your message if you had to show him/her an emoji like these

Emojis displayed on an app likely being a social media or messaging app

because the emojis system is a symbolic system of communication that use pictograms like hieroglyphs did. it uses images to convey meaning. Both emoji and shortened written terms, let's say slang keywords, are manifestations of meaningful symbolic systems of communication created on top of our natural spoken languages. ….There are names and terms that were known in the past that are now extinct and even whole natural spoken languages that disappeared without their host civilizations being destroyed but transformed by the iterative flow of alterations of their way of speaking. If like me you consider and agree with the theory developed by professor Georges Lakoff you should know that languages shape our mind and thinking system from which come the signals that drive our behavior as human beings. Then if our way of communicating changes because of the symbolic systems of communication we put on top of our natural spoken language we could expect changes in our behaviors which in turn will change some aspects of our civilization. If social media is altering our way of communicating through the creation of symbolic systems of communication then it has the power to alter our civilization but the question is can these alterations lead a civilization like us to destruction?

The alteration of the Urbanization of our civilization by social media platforms

As an example of the power of social media as a tool of alteration of our way of living through alteration of our way of communicating we could take the reply comment of SolPiper Brain on this same Elon Musk’s tweet. SolPiper is giving us an example of how social media is impacting the urbanization of a particular location that he knows well. He is showing us that in his local place, a small city, people used to meet and connect face to face and certainly in public places like parks, bars, and restaurants but since the internet came along with its range of services for virtually connecting with others, he remarked that people are less engaging in face to face social activities than the level they used to. he gives us the example of an old town of 400 people whose urban dynamics have been transformed by social media.

What he is highlighting is a visible impact of social media at the level of the block of urbanization of civilization, society, or in this case a small local urban community.

In this example above, we have a clear example of the negative effect of social media on the block of Social Stratification and Urbanization but If we are professional scientists, we should always prove each theory we present with facts.

For example, to validate this urbanistic impact of social media presented by Solpiper we could look at the level of frequentation of public places like coffee shops, bars, stadiums, parks, and others and see if there is a decrease in the level of frequentation in these places since the increasing adoption of social media. I don’t still know how I will manage myself to provide you with some metrics about this level of frequenting of public spaces crossed with the level of adoption and usage of social media but I will try to get some proxy metrics that could illustrate them.

Social media are normally expected to increase the level of frequentation of public spaces of connections, meeting and people gathering like restaurants because social media increase the discoverability of people making us able to know many more people virtually at the level of willingness to meet them physically what will increase frequentation of public places like McDonald’s or King Burger or any other places like these what is very different from what the tweet reply comment of Solpiper is illustrating. This increase in the frequentation of public these face to face meeting places due to the increasing discoverability and connection of people thanks to social media is illustrated by these two google trends charts, one about social media and the other about dating apps that are also a particular kind of social media platforms.

google trends of Topics of Social Media and McDonald’s here

Even if correlation doesn’t mean causation we could both see how the level of interest in dating applications (in yellow ) is correlated with the level of people searching for restaurants near them (blue line) and particularly for McDonald’s near them (in red). Notice the break of the blue and red curves in 2020 likely caused by the pandemic.

My theory is that social media has this disruptive negative effect on the internal behavior of a local community as described by these two tweet replies above when the size of the community (society, civilization) is small.

In such kind of small size community, people know each other and meet frequently but the coming of social media made them eager to discover and connect with other people without living in their small local county. This negative effect of social media will not be seen in big cities where people use social media (dating apps also) for their first contact and follow up often with real meetings in public places like restaurants and others.

Then given this analysis we could say that social media and the internet in broad term is destroying the social stratification of small size local community in which almost everybody knows everybody while adding more layers of social stratification for bigger communities like big cities like New York or San Francisco (we human being like discovering new things).

The negative or positive impact of social media on the block of social stratification of our civilization could be known only if we aggregate these disruptions of the social stratification in small-sized communities and locations (negative impact, fewer layers of local social stratification, more layers of external social connections) and large size community and locations (positive impact, melting pot, more layers of local social stratification).

I was sincerely expecting social media to have a negative impact on places and brands of public places of meeting like McDonald's and Burger King and small and big restaurants. My first exploration of the impact of social media platforms on these places led me to this chart of the level of revenues of McDonald year over year from 1994 to 2020

McDonald’s Revenue by year from 1994 to 2020 source DMR

When I first saw the decrease in revenues of these big fast food brands since 2012 I thought that the causes could be attributed to social media platforms because that’s since 2012 that they got a huge audience size

New Twitter users by month from 2007 to December 2009 source RJ metrics
Number of monthly active Twitter users from 2010 to 2019 source Statistica

This google trends chart is also showing that Twitter and “extrapolatively” other social networks got to their peak of adoption in 2012

google trends chart of the Topic of Twitter source here

Looking further led me to the preceding google trends charts I showed you and they tend to disprove this first assumption I’ve made about the negative effect of social media on the public experience spots like restaurants but given the explicative theory about the effect of social media on the social stratification of small size and big size urban location, we could still believe that this effect hold for a small-sized location like this old place that solpiper is referring to.

The alteration of the political state of our civilization by social media

Many scientists studying social media and in a broader sense our world are saying that we are living in a media-saturated world. The first hearing of the term media-saturated world inspires a meaning of a world crowded with media consumption channels and content of any kind, social media platforms are one of these channels of media consumption. a channel that amplified and increased the amount of information about our world and about any topics of interest because it inverted the funnel of content and information production by giving people the microphone for them to speak, to make the media, to be media producers also rather than media consumers only what had the effect of increasing by an exponential factor the volume of information about us and our world.

We all are now producers of news from whom qualified professional journalists are starting to get what will be their news investigative story on which they will work and publish on the news outlets in which they are contributing. Social media users are sources of breaking news and trending stories interesting to cover by journalists. I don’t know if it’s the case for TikTok but social media platforms like Twitter are filled with journalists looking for relevant sources of news and stories to cover. It is easy to this characteristic of Twitter if we take attention to the number of journalists on Twitter and the portion of traffic that news outlets are getting from Twitter and from other social media platforms. General Media companies like Guardian, New York Times and specialized ones like TechCrunch have seen and noticed this shift of media consumers getting to their news content through social media platforms and are trying to act on this shift that introduced a middle entity and middle-process between them and their audience of news consumers. What came to my mind highlighting how social media as a global component introduced itself between news consumers and news producers are these questions that are has social media redistributed the power and reach of the media outlets that it found in place? Are there media outlets that exploited the revolution of social media for positioning themselves as major news outlets servicing a specific nonnegligible size of the audience of news consumers? My first guess answer to this last question is yes because I have seen, likely you also, the birth and rise of Buzzfeed like media outlets which surfed the wave of social media platforms with their abilities to make something spread virally for running news outlets (depend on your opinions of what’s news) consumed by millions of users.

The fragmentation of the media landscape is something that media experts and scientists have noticed and studied with some believing that this media landscape fragmentation is making it difficult for people to be better informed (information quality) because of the increased number of points of news consumption and the high volume of news produced. It is difficult for media consumers to find their way through this increased volume of content that’s why some big tech companies, as well as media companies, are trying to build filtering systems that help us navigate better this ocean of information this algorithmic approach is also raising some considerable issues like the filtering bubble and information discrimination and diversity issues. If the destructive power of social media is something that exists one could look at this filtering bubble that leads to information polarization and auto confirmatory bias that many scientists of social media are actually studying. that’s In the political sphere that the impact of this power of social media through the filtering bubble and confirmatory bias is most important but I am not sure if the impact of this disruptive power of social media on the level of this block related to the political state of our civilization can lead to its destruction. What we all know is that social media has been pointed at for manipulating people's opinions during elections but actually there is in my hand any kind of data that could prove it. For sure social media is shaping the political state of our civilization but I think not still at the point of destroying it but it is very likely that at some point in time major political changes mostly unexpected could come from this same social media.

You could see that my exploration of the potential destructive power of social media using this definition of Civilization by Wikipedia doesnt answer this very big question for my humble self that is is social media destroying our civilization but I’m hoping that this exploration of the disruptive power or social media through this Fridays TECHsays you read up until there helps you think about this question. If you want you could leave my words there and go know more about this question because the remaining part of this Friday's TECHsays is only about describing my process of writing this article and collecting some data about Tweets.

Analyzing the Tweets, A tiny tools and pattern of usage of social media

as a way of making this more meaningful and as a technical exercise for me I decided to take a scientific approach to analyze the opinions expressed by these two Elon musk’s tweets that form one question that is is social media destroying our civilization by collecting all the comments from people and performing some natural language processing for highlighting patterns and for classifying core groups of opinions this using only the available Natural language toolkit like python NLTK.

armed with my timer, yes a real mechanical time that for 0 to 60 minutes which I set to 55 minutes for it to ring, and every time it ringed I recorded the statistics of these two tweets that inspired this article that you are reading in this google sheet that could see being populated with data and charts

but writing this I thought that it could be interesting to build a tiny tool for manually tracking with a bit less effort tweet that could take as interesting to track their statistic in a more granular manner meaning a finer time interval person like for these two tweets of Elon musk for which I have used this timer for getting their statistic every 55 minutes and recording them on this spreadsheet above but I could also use this tiny tool that I am talking about.

Having a granular dynamic of the spread of a tweet for a personality may help understand better how people engage in social media over time for example on a particular day of the week or during lunchtime as it is very likely that use social media with a given pattern during lunchtime when they are at office restaurants or in a particular lunch spot. That’s this specific social media usage pattern that I have been trying to highlight in this tweet below that I made on May 23, 2022

A tweet about a possible pattern of usage of social media during lunchtime

In my mind, the ringing of this timer was associated with Elon musk because from Saturday, June 18, 2022, to now Wednesday, June 22, 2022, every time it rang I jumped on tweeter and recorded the metrics of these two tweets on this google sheet document and set it again to ring after 55 minutes. That’s actually 38 rows of data.

On Wednesday, June 22, 2022, I have even added this tweet below just for getting more tweet-independent insights about the atomic dynamics of a tweet of a tech personality like Elon Musk because it could be useful for studying the specific pattern of social media usage during lunchtime that I was referring to above. But broadly having finer metrics about a tweet of a heavily followed social media user be it a tech personality or else is also something that could be useful for a journalistic work on technology or any other industry or field of interest. That’s why I made this tweet this same Wednesday, June 22, 2022, after the timer rang and after recording another row on this google sheet document. here is the tweet I am referring to

This tweet was about showing that one could track the tweets of a person like Elon Musk but of course not like how I am doing it using a timer and inputting data every time the timer ring but with a bit of automation using some programming knowledge. For example, one could use python or javascript with selenium for getting the metric of these tweets in a finer time period and store them in a database.

Actually, I am doing it manually for the sake of the effort and to get myself more engaged and my hands dirty because every time the timer will ring I will not only record these data but I will also be forced to sit and use this computer I am using and often after I input the data in this spreadsheet, I get to do something else with this computer like tweeting of writing like what I am actually doing after I added the 40th row to this google sheet document. But before publishing this Friday's Essay I will also try to get these rows of data in an automated manner for trying to compute the deviation between what I have recorded manually and the data I will get with the automated system. This would allow getting the level of precision of my manual tracking of these two tweets from which I got the topic of this Friday's TECHsay essay which is about answering this question that is Is Social Media destroying civilization?

Along the way of tracking these two tweets, I added a third one still from Elon musk that is here

for this tweet, I used the Wayback machine for getting the first three rows of starting metrics and followed with my manual tracking. From the 8 rows of data recorded about this tweet above I have produced these two charts below each with a regression curve shown in red

what these two charts show is that when Elon musk tweets in less than 12 hours this tweet will be likely be liked by more than 400k tweeter users. This show how big is Elon musk’s audience but also how fast information spread in this wired world we are now living largely due to social media what’s a clear proof of the disruptive power of Social media, a disruptive power that could make the price of a stock goes up or down but I don’t know if it can destroy our civilization.



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Diop Papa Makhtar

Diop Papa Makhtar

​Papa makhtar Diop is before anything a geek or a nerd or both if you want. Geek and nerd are now overused but they used to name a knowledge driven person.