Is Social Media Broken Beyond Hope?
Many people seem to agree that social media has become incredibly toxic, but it didn’t have to be.
Outlining The Situation
Lately and for a little while now I have been hearing a common refrain. It comes from people of different ages, but perhaps skews more 30s and up. What is the refrain?
People are saying how social media was never a good thing (in general) and it particularly that it has ruined people’s ability to have a conversation if they disagree politically, or at all really.
There’s a lot of cynicism, and perhaps rightfully so.
What these people almost never seem to acknowledge, is that social media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Social media is not the same thing as an open public space like a park where people can go and encounter and talk to strangers. In that hypothetical public park situation, social etiquette and common decency are usually adopted by default. You may be strangers, but you’re also real people.
These digital social platforms were also created by people, but those people have specific motives beyond just a parent letting their kid get some exercise while they get some fresh air.
The people who create these digital platforms could — if they really wanted to — manage and moderate the platforms they created, to both help protect users, and help facilitate healthier interactions. Note — there is a difference between moderation and censorship, which a lot of people are also in a tizzy about.
Of course there is some built-in moderation but not nearly enough. And that moderation is biased, with of course ‘both sides’ feeling that bias is against them (more on that later). And before you say it, no I am not suggesting that social media get strictly locked down. But there is a difference between “free speech” and “harmful speech” that needs to be considered. I would argue that these platforms (and many of their users) often ignore this difference because it is inconvenient.
Higher user bases (both real people and bots) ultimately brings more negativity and vitriol, resulting in more people on the platform being angry for more time, thus more ad revenue for the stakeholders. That’s what the creators want — the increased revenue — they don’t care as much how they get it.
But Is It Ethical?
Years ago I read an article about ethical app development, the article focused on a man named Tristian Harris who was thinking a lot about the issue of how apps are designed specifically to gain and hold our attention for as long as possible. And while he was focused mainly on apps, the point is related:
“Harris surrendered his iPhone, a device he considers so addictive that he’s called it “a slot machine in my pocket.”
Harris is the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience. As the co‑founder of Time Well Spent, an advocacy group, he is trying to bring moral integrity to software design: essentially, to persuade the tech world to help us disengage more easily from its devices. While some blame our collective tech addiction on personal failings, like weak willpower, Harris points a finger at the software itself.
Harris is leading a movement to change the fundamentals of software design. He is rallying product designers to adopt a “Hippocratic oath” for software that, he explains, would check the practice of “exposing people’s psychological vulnerabilities” and restore “agency” to users. “There needs to be new ratings, new criteria, new design standards, new certification standards,” he says. “There is a way to design based not on addiction.”
I read that article years ago and while the idea was brand new to me, that was the moment its roots burrowed deep into my consciousness and started gestating. At that time social media hadn’t yet become the arguably negative force it is now, but having that seed slowly growing up from my subconscious while I lived through the evolution of these platforms, it was really serendipitous to give me perspective and to make me reconsider what was most important.
I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like if this idea of ethical software development became the standard, rather than a ‘radical’ new idea.
I think many of us are very much passive users of technology and the internet, probably even more so for people who literally grew up with a tablet in their crib. And when you grow up with something just being ‘normal’ and ubiquitous, it’s a lot harder to recognize the problematic aspects of it.
This is part of why so many Baby Boomers (and some Gen Xers) are frustrated by “PC Culture” because they grew up with that harmful language as normal and can’t entirely understand why it’s ‘bad’ all of a sudden. Similarly if you try and tell a teenager right now how TikTok is Chinese Spyware or that WhatsApp contains several security vulnerabilities, they will likely just shrug because to give them up now would be unthinkable.
Another example — privacy is a concept that many have simply stopped really worrying about. We’ve been forced to accept that we will never have as much privacy as we might want, at least not without some major sacrifices. For example — in order to have the level of privacy we used to, we would essentially need to no longer own any “smart” devices at all, which is an understandably dystopian idea to most people in this digital age.
I grew up just early enough to use the internet a fair bit before our privacy really started being stripped away in the name of “connection”. I was online up to a decade before Facebook was even a thing. I remember when MySpace was the ‘new hotness’. Nowadays kids literally grow up with a digital fast food menu of distracting apps to choose from, and many of them are ordering the whole menu daily.
Sure, message boards in the 90s were clunky compared to what we have now, but you can definitely still have good community there. And while reddit isn’t exactly a paragon of positive online discourse, it does prove that an “old school social media site” can still be very popular, active, and functional, even if the interface is very simplistic and ‘archaic’.
I have watched this transformation from the days of Web 1.0 to the age of All-Apps-All-The-Time. have been on Facebook since around 2007 when it first opened up to all post secondary students. With every iteration of the Facebook interface, most of the user base seemed to agree that the platform wasn’t as good, as fun, or as easy to use anymore. It was slowly becoming more and more commercialized. Slowly, more and more content that we didn’t really want or ask for was being piped into our feeds at the expense of what really mattered. And we were told this was ‘for the best’ by our Silicon Valley overlords.
Facebook ‘captured’ us with the promise of connection and community, and over a decade, slowly pulled that rug out from under. They still “control the market” in a sense (virtually everyone is there), and we’re fish in their barrel. Your choices are to stay and be discontent, or leave and become socially exiled, although now that most social apps have private messaging and group messaging, isolation is less an issue.
Like many, I have been waiting with a mixture of frustration and grave impatience for a truly viable Facebook competitor to come around. The platform has been steadily going downhill for years, even before they ended up helping Trump win in 2016, but certainly more since. Younger people are either spending far less time on FB, or they’re not on it at all.
There is unquestionably demand for an alternative, so where are the suppliers?
The social media market is already quite fractured and over-saturated, but if a new platform came around that was truly secure (and didn’t sell our data), and actually moderated out the hate, and gave us the functionality we need and have come to expect, I don’t see how they couldn’t topple Facebook fairly easily. At least for younger and/or “woke” users.
Personally I like Slack as an alternative — it is functionally very similar to Facebook, the biggest downside being that it’s expensive so the only real viable way to go is to get a free slack to share with a group of friends. There is Mastodon, a twitter clone of sorts that is open source. There is Diaspora which came onto the scene to minimal fanfare a long time ago but just never really seemed to take off. There are others, but they always seem to be lost in the shadow of the giants.
A Few Bad Apples Becomes A Lot Of Bad Apples
Back to my main point — people who think social media was designed to break our brains and devolve us into beings who don’t know how to talk to each other anymore. I’m not quite that cynical. Certainly I can see the evidence — the results of ‘the social media experiment’.
But I don’t believe it has to stay like this, and I don’t think it even had to be like this in the first place.
Along with Harris’ idea of ethical software design, I very much believe that if all social media platforms had been created by ethically-minded developers, social media could absolutely have been a much more positive force. Instead, in most cases these platforms, apps, and networks were created ultimately by privileged white men, “code bros” as some would call them. I dare say that the ‘incel’ mindset was there too in some cases.
Facebook was developed essentially for bragging rights. Twitter was designed to be a platform for free flowing thought, ‘microblogging’, and free speech (it just let itself get hijacked by Nazis, misogynists, racists, transphobes, et al). Instagram apparently started out as more of a pure artist/photographer’s tool, but then Facebook bought it and bastardized it.
Did you know that former twitter employees admitted that the platform could easily ban white supremacists and Nazis but if they did they’d end up banning too many Republicans as well? Then of course there were claims during the initial stages of the George Floyd protests that twitter was suppressing certain hashtags, essentially hindering antifa and Black Lives Matter supporters and to aid police and white supremacists. Twitter has previously admitted to ‘burying’ hashtags.
Know thy enemy.
Social media isn’t just toxic because people have forgotten how to communicate. These platforms have been actively cultivating hate and vitriol. It’s lucrative for them.
Specifically looking at the issue of dismantling our ability to talk to each other, first of all, communication by text only over the internet has always been subject to misinterpretation. Even non digital text only communication can be misconstrued.
As these platforms let in more and more rotten apples and refuse to keep an eye on them and yank them out (ban them) when they start to stink up the whole party, people start to subconsciously realize they’re encountering a lot of negativity and it doesn’t make them feel good. Of course they can choose to disengage, but social media and smart phones have already primed us to be more engaged, not less. If you don’t have good emotional intelligence, you’re primed for social sparring on the digital battlefield.
Combine that with the algorithms at play — algorithms that it took us a while to learn just how much they were actually shaping and influencing our world — and you’ve got a recipe for digital social disaster.
People are being “locked” in a digital room with Nazis and covert white supremacists (but many of them don’t know this), and then the only metaphorical TV in the room (social feed content) is not playing family friendly programming.
But have people actually forgotten how to talk to each other, especially if they don’t align politically?
“It’s hard to hate up close.”
Things may be more tense, but as a wise friend of mine put it “it’s hard to hate up close”, and if you’re in the same actual room as a person, you can stare them right in the eye as you talk, unless you’re a bonafide psychopath, you’re going to have some degree of empathy for them and not want to just call them stupid and evil. You’re going to want to connect and relate.
I think we are living in anti-intellectual times, and that this is evident across the political spectrum. The quickness of social media allows for forms of vitriol that do not exactly support thoughtful debate. We need to cherish the longer forms. (Judith Butler, 2020)
So no, I don’t believe that we’ve forgotten how to talk to people we don’t completely agree with. Some of us have gotten worse at it no doubt, but it’s not entirely our fault. We have been herded into electronic sheep pens (amplified even further by pandemic lockdown life), manipulated, and primed to be angry and reactive. It’s evil and unacceptable and these companies absolutely know better but don’t do better. Because we don’t make them.
Because we would have to make major sacrifices and lifestyle changes. We would have to become less dependent on technology and more dependent on neighborology.
With that said, it’s generally a good practice that when you’re complaining about something, you should also have solutions to offer. And I do:
So what are the solutions? It’s going to take a few things:
- Ethical software development is definitely important, and we need to push for more of that.
- We need to make the conscious decision to seek out healthier alternatives. That means spending less time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc, and spending more time on smaller/alternative platforms like Mastodon or Discord to help them grow and shift the power away from the big guys. This will simultaneously show others a better way so they know what they can have and ultimately what we deserve.
- We also need to learn, understand, and recognize the ways that we’re being manipulated by these existing platforms, and then work to unlearn those social programmings. ie if you determine that a particular platform is especially bad for getting you worked up and arguing with strangers (or worse, bots) then you have to be disciplined and limit your time on that platform, and work on de-training the impulse to debate strangers online. Twitter allows you to mute people, words, names, and hashtags. There are also browser extensions that allow you to mass block troll and bot accounts. It’s all helpful.
- Call, write, email, and pester your local, state, and federal representatives to demand more and better regulation and breaking up the digital monopolies. These companies have our government in their pocket and it’s the reverse of what the situation should be.
- Get to know your neighbours and get involved in your community. More in person, real-world connection is never a bad thing. Less screen time is often a good thing. Start or join “Mutual Aid Networks” to help each other out.
- If you’re so inclined, go read up on general ethics, business ethics, digital and software development ethics. Be aware, be informed. And while you’re at it, if you haven’t already, also study up on social justice, power structures, privilege, the Dunning Kruger Effect, logical fallacies, biases that are often baked right into the code of the apps and programs that you use, accessibility, social mobility, and socialism. Knowing more about all of these things will both help inform you of why the moderation on Facebook and Twitter is socially unjust (not anti-conservative), as well as just what is so bad and wrong about these ‘tools’ we’re told are good for us or that are supposedly everything we need and we should just be grateful to have.
These things can always be improved, refined, reformed. The best place to start is with #5 above — start talking to your neighbours again. Get involved in your community. We all have to try not to rely so much on these digital platforms that we don’t control.
I hope I’ve given you some good food for thought.