The Shadow
Published in

The Shadow

Privatize the Profit, Socialize the Pain

To deal with the challenge of social media, we’ll all have to suffer

The writer and activist Rob Spillman recently wrote in Lithub about the wanton theft of his Twitter account and its 11,000+ followers by a hacker in Kuala Lumpur. Spillman is circumspect, describing both the immense social and professional value of the account and the dual agonies of violation by the hacker and abandonment by Twitter, the company. He writes:

With so much in flux and in danger — democracy, global health, the environment — Twitter felt like a stable ecosphere, where I had a stable, evolving home, one I’d steadily built since July, 2009. But this home was an illusion. The digital edifice could be and was taken away with a quick, clever hack.

He gives us a cautionary tale (don’t expect anything from a robotic tech behemoth like Twitter), but also an experience (11,000+ people are now following someone else while he, Spillman, begins the arduous task of rebuilding his online community).

Spillman’s trial, and the candor with which he writes about it, came to mind late on a recent Sunday morning. Like a lot of people, I spend most mornings staring at the screen of my iPad. Most days, I’m reading the national and local papers or the online versions of magazines. I could just as easily be holding a broadsheet or a saddle-stitched glossy as a mobile device. But this particular Sunday morning was different.

A text from a writer friend led me to set the iPad aside and pick up the phone. The text pointed our tight-knit group from writing school to a piece in the Point by historian and philosopher Justin E. H. Smith discussing lockdown psychology, humanity’s place in the natural world, and social media. This led to a text-string riff on vocabulary, which led me to a thesaurus app, and since I had my phone in my hand and we’re all dopamine addicts these days, the little Facebook bell and its magical number circled in red sucked me in next.

There I found out that a friend had had a poem published, that someone in the Fender Play group was getting frustrated with his chord-change practice, and that someone in the literary fiction group was having consternation about flashbacks. Advice, accolades, and likes ensued (dopamine, baby!), followed by more likes, and I gradually found my mind goosed with creative energy.

Buried in there was an exchange between two of my writing school friends about the Neo2 devices they use: essentially old-school electronic typewriters with a few minor enhancements: you can upload the text you generate to a file on your computer, but the device itself is completely disconnected, and you can only see a few lines of text as you type.

So, in the course of two cups of coffee, I had experienced both the value and the evils of social media to which Spillman alludes. Friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers informed, stimulated, and affirmed one another, but I was also distracted from deeper reading and thought by byte-sized stimuli, even as two friends were fortifying their defenses against such distractions.

We now know that distraction alone is not nearly the half of it. In the era of our former president, the Twit-in-Chief, those same distraction impulses led legions to consume and embrace conspiracy theories and disinformation, and to radicalize. Ubiquitous and controlled only by the individual — whether that be a PhD candidate, a reclusive incel, or a 10-year-old schoolgirl — social media reared its ugly head in 2020 like never before.

Consider Spillman’s life-altering ordeal or my distracted Sunday morning against the immense scale of social media: Twitter has 330 million monthly users and Facebook has 2.7 billion. (By the time you read this, those numbers will have increased by tens of thousands.)

And consider the millions and billions of experiences people are having on these platforms — from expanding one’s sphere, to feeling inspired and affirmed, to learning new things, to being mercilessly hacked from half a world away — and consider the millions and billions of people who are having those experiences and the massive range of both kind and nefarious behavior humanity is capable of, and you realize pretty quickly that we’re all in a devil of a fix. No news there.

And as is often the case, the fix has a dollar sign in front of it. Jack Dorsey of Twitter has a net worth of $12 billion, and Mark Zuckerberg’s is a whopping $102 billion. (By the time you read this…yeah, you get the idea.) Both Dorsey and Zuckerberg try to convince us that their companies are hiring legions of fact-checkers and legal minds armed to deal with the disinformation razing our national consciousness and slaughtering entire societies, but they know that the size and scale of the problem are far beyond their capabilities. Reducing the scale would require that they forego some of their riches, which they will never do, so — absurdity of absurdities — Zuckerberg is now calling for government regulation to solve the problem. Hey, world! We’ve acquired obscene riches creating a problem beyond human imagining. Want to fix this for us, please!

Spillman talks about his personal experience without wandering into commentary like this. He’s just a guy who uses Twitter as it was intended: a writer and activist who derives both emotional and practical benefit from a community that is a logical extension of his IRL community. My Sunday morning experience shows the same thing: social media intertwined with enough of the people I know, the interests and passions we pursue, and the problems we grapple with, as to be indispensable.

But as higher powers pursue monopoly complaints and social media regulation, and as our online experiences start to distort and suffer as a result, it’s important for Rob and I and all users to understand that the insight is in the experience. Substitute inspiration and affirmation with grievance and radicalization; savvy, seasoned users with naïve newbies; and supportive platforms-of-choice with algorithm-driven rabbit holes, and you quickly realize that long-term positive change in social media is going to require short-term suffering from all of us.

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