With love and care, Prometheus moulded humanity out of clay. But, humankind was weak, and they suffered greatly. To empower us in our struggle against nature, Prometheus stole a divine technology from the gods and gifted it to us: fire. Prometheus had defied the gods in service of humanity; he challenged the strong to serve the weak. But defiance and change come at a price, and the powerful do not always submit without a fight. Prometheus was bound to a rock for eternity, after that, an eagle would descend upon him each day and eat his liver. In generation after generation, the spirit of Prometheus returns to us and brings us fire. The fire can keep us warm and cook our food, but it also can create weapons and destroy us. We continually have to learn how to master it and use it carefully, or we risk self-destruction. In today’s essay, we explore the latest reincarnation of this story: social media.
“The pen is mightier than the sword.”
— Edward Lytton
Ideas have greater potential at changing the world than force. It’s only in defence of our thoughts, or our beliefs that we choose to raise swords in the first place. For generations, ideas were limited to transmission by books. Books are limited in time and space. There’s a limit to how fast they can spread ideas. But, the internet travels at the speed of light. The rate at which ideas can now spread is unprecedented. If the pen is mightier than the sword, is the internet mightier than the bomb? And, if ideas genuinely are more powerful than force, we should use them constructively and not destructively — in so far as that’s possible. While the entirety of the internet is worth discussing, today we’re going to be looking at a more basic, yet universal, aspect of it: social media.
A report done by the Royal Society for Public Health states that social media usage is associated with increased rates of anxiety, depression, poor sleep quality, body image issues, and cyberbullying. In fact, rates of anxiety and depression in young people have increased by 70% in the last 25 years. Body image issues are a problem for both genders, but 9 in 10 teenage girls say that they are unhappy with their body. 7 out of 10 teens have experienced cyberbullying, and 37% say they experience it very frequently. The report found that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have an overall adverse effect on the well-being of the younger generation. For this reason, people are increasingly deciding to take a break from social media or walk away completely. The benefits are often not worth the costs.
But, social media also helps us express ourselves, connect with others, and get access to high-quality information. Youtube, for example, was found to have a net positive effect on well-being and even help those who feel anxious, depressed, or lonely. Although, it still has its fair share of downsides.
Social media also plays an essential role in activism such as in the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Oppressive regimes often try to prevent and control the flow of information so they can control the people. Social media can be leveraged to bypass this sort of totalitarian control. Whether you think social media is good or bad, you’re right. It’s a flame, and we’re still learning to contain and master it. But, the current dialogue about social media is a meagre resolution. People shouldn’t have to leave these revolutionary technologies behind, but they also shouldn’t suffer negative impacts on their well-being by using them.
Social media is often referred to as a tool, and it is. Tools are things that help us accomplish goals. But, this low-resolution comparison is actually pretty misleading. Social media is a tool, but it’s not a tool in the same way a hammer is. It’s much more like a city. Think about how much land there is on Earth. But, we choose to live in relatively small areas of land called cities. A city is a high-density container for social interactions; it allows us to get anything we need or want easier than we would if we had to do it alone. Cities are like living tools or organisms: they grow, evolve, and even die. Think about how many webpages there are on the world wide web.
But, we all choose to occupy a relatively small set of them called social media. Social media sites are also high-density containers for social interactions. So, if we want to understand social media, we should start by understanding cities.
A city is made up of two worlds: a world of ideas and a world of technology. The world of ideas is the world of culture. Culture contains stories, myths, or narratives that unite the people, describe what they value, and prescribe how to act. Take the founding myth of Rome for example. Most variations of the legend say that Romulus killed his own brother, Remus, to found Rome. One interpretation of this myth is that it’s a reminder to the Romans that the glory of Rome is more important than even the love for your own brother. The world of ideas and values manifests itself in the technology of the city.
The technology embodies the story and helps perpetuate it. Technology makes the story more comfortable to live out. Growing up in Sparta would have been way different from growing up in Athens. In one, the highest ideal was the soldier. The entire city was designed to facilitate the achievement of this ideal. In the other, the most top model is something like the well-educated citizen, and the town was designed to promote the accomplishment of this ideal. Sparta might have had more barracks and training grounds, while Athens might have had more schools. Of course, it’s likely that the authentic culture and technology of each city is more nuanced than I am making it out to be, but this is just to demonstrate a point: every city is built upon a story. Citizens that are born or live in that city learn this story, explicitly or implicitly, so that they can grow and thrive. A good story is useful to us; it helps us act beneficially. Technology makes specific actions easier. When certain actions become more natural, the story, they are a part of becomes more believable. The person who controls the story controls the people, and with the right technology, certain stories are easier to believe.
If social media is a city, what story is it built on? If Sparta is designed to produce soldiers and Athens to produce well-educated citizens, what is social media designed to produce? I think the answer is the consumer. Social media tries to produce individuals who watch everything, read everything, and click on everything — that is their highest ideal. This story is probably best embodied in a technology you’re familiar with: the newsfeed. Newsfeeds are designed to watch your interactions and maximise the amount of time you spend on them. They do this by adapting to you. To evolve, they continually have to give us novel stimuli and see how we react to it. In other words, they are always presenting us with the unknown. Humans have an interesting relationship with the unknown. We are drawn to it. We need to categorise it. The unknown always presents an opportunity for reward and growth, but it also gives a chance for punishment and death. You see, humans have an innate negativity bias. Negative things capture our attention more than positive things. This is because negative things can end us, while positive things can just make our lives better. Threatening things weigh heavier on our mind than the non-threatening. Because newsfeeds are optimised for attention, their default experience — over the long run — is often a negative one. When you’re continually presented with new information, the harmful and threatening stuff will always capture your attention more than the positive thing. What people find threatening varies from person to person. You might focus on whether people are better looking than you, stronger than you, smarter than you, work harder, are more talented, or you may be drawn to fake news. Since we often spend more time analysing and assessing the threat, we pay more attention to it, and we get recommended similar things more and more on our newsfeeds. As a result, our newsfeeds often become vicious cycles of negativity and comparison interspersed with the occasional reward. So, how do we solve this problem?
Because it was the only social medium shown to have a net-positive effect on the youth, I think we should look to YouTube for some answers. The one thing that I think makes YouTube vastly different from every other platform is its search capability. Before YouTube became the big social medium it is, it was first and foremost a search engine. To create a successful search engine, you have to take massive amounts of unorganised information and organise it. By doing this, YouTube made a much more ordered experience for us, the users. We could type in the thing we valued or the topic we were interested in and find a community based on that. I believe it’s the amount of control that YouTube gives us over our experience that makes it more positive. We search for a topic that we’re interested in and find a video that we like. We see that the channel that made it produces more content on that topic. We subscribe to that channel. We start to build a subscription feed that is purely based on our interests and values. Our newsfeed monitors our searches, subscriptions, and video history and offers us more recommendations based on that. The YouTube experience mainly revolves around our interests and values. It gives us a lot more control in directing our attention from the start. You can always search for new things, subscribe and unsubscribe, and restructure the whole experience around your unique interests and values. The YouTube culture has always been about creating community. This is way different from every other social media because most of your connections on those platforms are based on location, school, work, or other random variables. The default experience on most other platforms is being told what to look at, and the culture is often dominated by status and image. So, how can we apply this lesson to other social media platforms?
The social media sites are digital cities. Their workers are like governing bodies. And, as the citizens, I think we should have the tools to make digital homes. A digital home is an ordered experience that you’ve created for yourself based on your interests and values. It should be the default experience. When the chaotic novelty of newsfeeds is the default experience, without any tools to bring order to them, I argue that we’ll always have a negative experience in the long run. Newsfeeds are designed to create consumers. A digital home would be designed to further your development. Let me give you an example of building a digital home. On Twitter, I have everyone muted. My newsfeed is blank and useless. Instead, I have everyone organised into lists based on why I follow them. Some people I follow for art, some for philosophy, and some because of their friends. The default experience when I log into Twitter isn’t to have a bunch of things recommended to me based on what Twitter thinks will capture my attention; instead, it’s my choice to pick which list I want to read. The mute and list functions are incredibly powerful in bypassing the default newsfeed and constructing something like a digital home on Twitter. I think it’s essential to avoid the newsfeed as the default experience on every social media, as much as its possible, and focus on creating a digital home based on your interests and values. And, I think it’s essential that social media companies give us the tools to make this possible. Because, without these tools, we lose control, and without control, our attention no longer belongs to us.