Snap Decisions in the Age of Snapchat
Technology is Moving Fast — Can Good Decisions Keep Up?
Whenever see the inevitable question of how our addiction to social media apps and sites have negatively impact our society, my mind drifts to a cool, cloudy night in Michigan. A ragtag crew of Trump supporters had assembled, their fists urgently banging on windows as they chanted in discordant notes to stop the count. “I think it’s a terrible thing when people or states are allowed to tabulate ballots for a long period of time after the election is over,” former President Donald Trump said, insisting that votes that weren’t counted by election night not be counted at all. It was argued that speed — not representation —should be the measure of a fair democracy.
In our instantaneous age, speed is becoming a greater factor in shaping our attitudes of what is right and wrong, what is truth, and what is deception. Simply put, our decision-making process is being manipulated by the breakneck clip of social media.
Capitalism is a Stopwatch
I place an order for a bag of coffee beans on the Philz mobile app, and grumble when the real-time timer says it will take (Lizette) 20 minutes to hand it over to me. I then use that time to marvel that this is not how my grandparents or parents ordered coffee. The explosive growth of technology has been a tide which has risen all boats. Innovation in one sector has created new standards for all, as we expect things to be on-demand and instantaneous: banking, groceries, healthcare, dog-walking, the economy and more have experienced some form of “Amazonification” or “Uberization.”
As is the tune of Capitalism, these consumption-based changes have a way of altering expectations of completely unrelated parts of our lives, like our relationship to others. To accuse someone of wasting your time is a ready and valid complaint, for if you do not make good use of time, you have violated a prevailing civil standard. Those that society sees as under-productive — Millennials, the poor, the disabled, minorities and more — are derisively (and erroneously) chastised for being lazy and morally inferior. When time is money, we demand impeccable customer service and short wait times, tell people to get side hustles, and chide employees for “time theft.” This productivity-centric coupling of time and worth encourages us to think of speed as valuable, and anything (or anyone) slower as lacking.
The demanding relationship between time and Capitalism swings the other way, too: when brands were slow to condemn systemic racism following the murder of George Floyd, independent watchdogs tracked which major companies had yet to respond, so consumers could pull their support. For fear of being too little, too late, powerful hands were forced to act on what had become a public and time sensitive issue — lest they lose business for fence-sitting.
The Speeds of Social Media Feeds
A friend had recently become suspicious of a Tinder connection. After chatting breezily, he was suddenly taking too long to reply between messages. Her belief that a slow response was a red flag of chicanery may have been deeply intuitive: research shows we reply faster to texts if we are telling the truth. Unconsciously we’ve evolved to associate slow digital answers with dishonest ones.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that we’re conflating speed with truth when the answer to seemingly everything can be pulled up in the ~.04 seconds of a Google search. We rely on a “Breaking” 24-hours news cycle, and are fed a stream of new and emerging information from social media feeds like Twitter, which was the primary source for White House correspondence these last four years. As a result, we’ve developed a bias to value only the most recent of information: a whopping 85% of people say reviews are no longer relevant if they are more than three months old.
This inherent distrust of slow and non-immediate answers, however, can actually set us up to make poorer decisions.
The Human Cost of Being Wrong, Faster
A study from MIT found that false news spreads faster online, because humans are more likely to share (retweet) the false stories rather than the true ones. The study found “falsehood diffused farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.” We prize fast answers as true ones, but are also more likely to quickly share information that is false, which creates a vicious paradox: we get fast, wrong answers that we believe must be right, because they were fast.
Another illuminating study, published in Cell, concluded that the time it takes to get an answer correlates with what we perceive the difficulty of the decision to be. When something seems clear to us, for example that someone is obviously guilty or an act is wrong at face value, we can quickly snap to a decision to demand justice — even if we don’t have the whole story. This becomes a major problem in the narrow, curated narrative of social media. When an alleged noose was found in Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace’s garage, which was later identified as a common pull rope, the once supportive crowd shook their head at such faulty snap decision-making. Or, consider the woman who received death threats after a photo of her “annoying” Beyonce by speaking to Jay-Z went viral (the woman was, in fact, getting Jay-Z’s drink order). Similarly, in India, popular communication app WhatsApp has found false information and snap decisions spreads like wildfire, resulting in numerous deaths of innocents by angry mobs who believed they were saving children from traffickers.
The internet makes it so easy to share and spread our verdict on people and situations, quickly, and, in a never-ending habit loop, do it again after we’re “liked” for having done so. The cost to us is minimal — if anything, we feel quite valiant and moral for having responded so quickly. But those snap decisions, disseminated widely by social media, can have life-altering consequence for others.
Time to Rethink the Implicit Good of “Fast” Technology?
With so much data, perspectives and information in front of us, it’s only natural that we outsource the process of decision-making to save time. While countless articles extol the virtue of making fast decisions, research on the quality of those decisions — particularly when it comes to moral and value based implications — are mixed at best.
The fact of the matter is our reliance on fast-consumable filters, algorithms and feeds to tell us what to do is also hampering our critical thinking skills; which is major problem when those same features are susceptible to propaganda, echo chambers, and misinformation.
If we can ever hope for our decision-making to keep up with our mores, these are the questions we must ask ourselves, and often: are we falsely associating something or someone’s value to their speed? Is the fast answer just what we want to hear? If the answer is abstractly simple, could it be more complicated than what we see? And, most importantly, could someone be tampering with the quality of inputs we consider when we’re making our snap decision?
As the world continues its jaunty pace, it might be a tall order to ask us to pause before we lean on technology to make up our minds.
But maybe it’s worth our time to think on it.
Jess Watts is an award-winning advertising Strategy Director who writes on the intersection of culture and consumerism