Originally published as a standalone article in Paste Magazine (November 13th, 2018)
“Now the death of god combined with the perfection of the image has brought us to a whole new state of expectation. We are the image. We are the viewer and the viewed. There is no other distracting presence. And that image has all the godly powers. It kills at will. Kills effortlessly. Kills beautifully. It dispenses morality. Judges endlessly. The electronic image is man-as-god, and the ritual involved leads us not to a mysterious Holy Trinity but back to ourselves. In the absence of a clear understanding that we are now the only source, these images cannot help but return to the expression of magic and fear proper to idolatrous societies. This in turn facilitates the use of the electronic image as propaganda by whoever can control some part of it.” —John Ralston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards
It’s beginning to catch on in mainstream media outlets— though I suspect it’s been known by regular people for quite some time— that social media, in its current form, is bad for us. It’s bad for us individually and it’s bad for us as a species. The root cause of this begins, of course, with the question: what is social media? And the answer is not “A way to stay connected with friends” or “A way to expand your social circle”, but, when everything is boiled down, a way for advertisers to get information. At the end of the day, despite its progressive rhetoric of “opening up the world”, social media is first and foremost a tool for corporations to learn everything about you and everything about me (no matter how many times it cites the Arab Spring on its resume).
Why anybody would willingly sign up to have their data mined is a second question, and the answer is: we didn’t. Not at first. When I joined Facebook in 2007 at age 16, the site portrayed itself simply as a “social network”, and as I began to reconnect with old friends I thought I’d never see again, I felt like my experience mirrored the platform’s supposed intent (As a brief aside, how ethical is it that minors can unknowingly agree to have every detail about their lives surveilled by companies and brands before they can legally consent to sex, vote, drive a car, or buy alcohol and cigarettes?) But though everything on the surface appears consensual between social media sites and their users, as the years have gone by most of us cannot help but feel that we were lulled into a trap from which we cannot escape.
This is by design.
When you walk into a casino, you enter into a vacuum where time does not exist. In the casino, you have no obligations. In the casino, you are not judged by other casino-goers. In the casino, there is no sense of "before the casino" or “after the casino”, there is only an endless present. In the casino, colors and sounds overwhelm the senses. There are no windows in casinos. No clocks either. In casinos there is no outside world. Casinos are pleasure islands that float in empty space. It was only inevitable, then, that social media sites would seek to imitate and improve upon casino strategies for getting their users hooked, as The Guardian reported this May.
“Facebook, Twitter and other companies use methods similar to the gambling industry to keep users on their sites,” said Natasha Schüll, author of Addiction By Design, “In the online economy, revenue is a function of continuous consumer attention– which is measured in clicks and time spent.”
“There are whole departments trying to design their systems to be as addictive as possible. They want you to be permanently online and by bombarding you with messages and stimuli try to redirect your attention back to their app or webpage” Prof. Daniel Kruger, human behavior expert at University of Michigan, stated.
But of course the biggest fish commenting to The Guardian had to be Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook's former Vice President of User Growth, who in a separate piece remorsefully confessed that “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”
The health impact which results from the infinite scrolling, text bubbles, post “likes”, and push notifications, for many, is depression and anxiety. Our generation and the upcoming Gen Z are the first generations, in fact, to report more feelings of loneliness than the elderly. Yet while the mental effect of the commodification of our attention is something that can be solidly known today, the evolutionary impact on human beings is anyone’s guess; though this did not stop the New York Times from projecting an “optimistic” picture I can only describe as gleefully Orwellian: “Welcome To The Post-Text Future.” The piece, written by Farhad Manjoo, begins with a blown-up image of a child’s shifting eyes before the reader scrolls down and learns that “Writing is being left behind”, that “Reading prose… is out of fashion”, and that “There seems no going back now. For text, the writing is on the wall.” Apparently our audio/video-driven social media will bring with it a new phase of human evolution where words are not needed or wanted.
Upon seeing this very cryptic utopian message coming from an establishment paper that normally defines itself as carefully-reasoned and pragmatic (as well as defines itself by the use of words), I immediately wondered what it would be like to go back to the mid-1990s and show a person living then what the world in 2018 looks like; a world where, with our phones and iPads and portable gaming systems, nobody looks up. What would our 90s viewer call this current world? I think they would call it a dystopia. But we’re frogs in boiling water. We’ve been eased, oh so gradually, into our docile states. And we’re being eased further still.
Aside from concerns over addiction and the impact social media has on us, there is also the concern over social media censorship. It’s pretty obvious now that sites like Twitter and Facebook are the new public square. They are the places where most of us have our conversations on the controversies that occur within spheres of politics and culture, and yet, these sites are privately-owned companies who can— and have— determined boundaries of free speech which are more restrictive than the boundaries the constitution would provide us in a public space. This means that most of our conversations are, at the very least, open to the possibility of censorship. What’s more, those who sit at the top of this burgeoning technocracy make no bones about their willingness to sacrifice individual voices for the sake of “community values”. The former CEO of Reddit, for instance, had a rather peculiar idea of what freedom of speech meant when she told Bloomberg Technology, in the wake of the Alex Jones controversy, that Twitter protecting the emotional safety of its users (by shutting down the conspiracy theorist’s account) was required in order to have free expression on the platform. This idea, of course, isn't new that if words make you feel “unsafe”, the person saying them should be silenced, and that that silencing actually serves the cause of free speech— somehow— in the long run. But while Hanlon’s razor suggests we never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity, such a warped view of free expression is not mere ignorance, it’s a damned lie, and I suspect that those who spout it know they are lying when they do.
But nothing I have said about social media so far is anything new or surprising. Social media as a deliberately addictive process, and one with bad health and potential evolutionary consequences, has, at this point, as I said before, been well-covered by mainstream media.
I want to talk about what’s not being covered. I want to talk about what’s not even being noticed.
In a prior essay, Love: The End Of An Art?, I wrote about how modern capitalism required people to adopt en masse an attitude of conformity and to become addicted to consumption, and by extension, capitalism required people to adopt tastes and preferences which are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated. Capitalism required this because mass-production is only possible if a lot of people want the same stuff, and people only want the same stuff if a lot of their uniqueness is ironed-out early on. This is where I suspect we get our cultural concept of “basic” from. The “basic bro” and the “basic bitch” describe that insatiable pop culture-consumer who— lacking in any real substance— latches onto every fad and trend, and by doing so, normally repulses the rest of us. But to a very great extent, we are all meant to fall into a predictable enough pattern to where companies feel confident we’ll buy their mass-produced goods. And social media is now the biggest facilitator of this. Not television and certainly not radio. Social media. By serving as data collection sites where corporations can pick-and-pluck at will, the platforms are gradually making us all the same.
Somewhat paradoxically, at the time social media is making us uniform in our musical, cinematic, comedic, and fashion tastes, it is also simultaneously perpetuating the most odious, absurd, and dehumanizing modern idea of all: the “personal brand”. A weird corporate, self-helpy doctrine that tells us we must all become mini-celebrities in our own digital world, encouraged to think of ourselves as products meant for the consumption of strangers, “friends”, and worse, employers. Our personas are to be created and carefully curated.
The traditional Adam Smith/Wealth Of Nations view of capitalism and market competition was that man was the driver of capital and industry, and therefore markets would adapt to serve the needs of society at large. “It is not” after all, “from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner.” But nearly two decades into the 21st century, we’re seeing the beginning of the reverse. Man is no longer the driver of capitalism and industry, capitalism and industry are the driver of man; and this “driving” gets done through algorithms. Algorithms which are only successful because social media has successfully sold us the idea of ourselves-as-brands. Work no longer exists to sustain us, we exist to sustain work. And with what little time we get outside of work, we are still supposed to present a packaged “professional” exterior to our friends and family— especially on social media— lest, we are warned, our company masters perceive our lives outside of work to be “inconsistent with [x corporation’s] culture” and terminate our employment. The societal message couldn’t be more clear: Archaic personal goals like self-knowledge and rejection of materialism are for washed-up hippies and New Agers. Today's Man or Woman is, ideally, an individual who lives to consume and be consumed... with a smile.
A symptom of social media’s attempt to create a world of the corporation, by the corporation, and for the corporation, whether an intended or unintended symptom, is our increasingly shortened attention span. A 2015 study conducted by the Statistic Brain Research Institute using EEG scans and surveys found that the average human attention span dropped from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013, and that other recent research “has directly linked this increase to internet usage” (I’ve linked to a news report on the study because you have to pay to see the study itself). This means that our ability to grasp complex ideas, or even our ability to hear out complex ideas whose explanations are lengthy, is diminishing (as an anecdotal aside, when was the last time you actually met somebody who reads for recreation?) To put it more bluntly, social media is dumbing us down. Instant posting, sharing, liking/disliking, and responding hardly encourage platform users to take time to fully process the information we come into contact with, and this is because surveilling advertisers require us to react very quickly to each post we scroll upon in order to gather information.
It is reassuring, then, that more and more public voices are waking up to the built-in mechanisms of exploitation within social media, and calls to nationalize sites like Facebook and Twitter have, in the last year, been published at New Statesman, Tablet Magazine, and The Conversation, though the most thorough argument comes from Nick Srnicek at The Guardian. If the impact of advertising and censorship are a concern, then— the thinking goes— why not turn major platforms into public utilities like PBS and NPR, where the government can’t have a relationship with advertisers and where speech is protected by the First Amendment? But while this idea on the surface sounds incredibly appealing, I can’t help but shake the suspicion of “good in theory/monstrous in practice”. In light of the fact that the United States has become a post-9/11 surveillance state, both by means of the Patriot Act and through NSA spying, it seems a tad naive to entrust this same state to somehow be the protector of our dignity and privacy. And let’s not forget, by nationalizing Facebook and Twitter, the government would have the ability to spy not just on American citizens but on users from foreign states as well. It’s an ethical and legal minefield.
Far better, I submit— and far more ambitious perhaps— to turn major platforms like Facebook and Twitter into the world’s largest cooperatives. While this would still require regulators to step in temporarily, one, to ensure founders and CEOs actually step the hell away, and two, to distribute shares among each user, ultimately every user of the site would own a portion of the platforms they’re a part of and could vote on every platform decision (including questions of site censorship). Taxpayer-funded contractors could handle the technical aspects, like algorithms and maintenance. The plan to democratize social media isn’t perfect, though not because of any inherent contradictions or glaring flaws, but because it’s still in its infancy. One possible issue would be that once platforms are turned into user cooperatives and shares are distributed, the amount of users on any given platform would have to be limited so as not to continually dilute share value. But in the midst of an advertising barrage which is eroding individuality and intellect, and in the midst of current social media’s censorship of controversial (and even outright hateful) speech that is eroding the next generation’s idea of what free expression means, is it really too presumptive to say that the numerous issues that will inevitably pop up during such a radical transition can be ironed-out when we get to them? Vision now, specifics later.
I am not the first, it should be said, to come up with this idea of democratizing social media. To my knowledge, Evan Malmgren over at The Baffler argued the same just two months ago. But I hope that this piece contributes to a growing, yet still fledgling, chorus which understands the threat to free society that an unaccountable Silicon Valley poses. You cannot control all information and the order in which that information is seen (as Google does), monitor our rants, interests, life updates, and associations (as Twitter and Facebook do), possess our financial details and learn our spending habits (as Amazon does), and own the images of ourselves— intimate and ordinary— that we send out to others (as Snapchat and Instagram do in different ways) without being a de facto shadow government more powerful and more intrusive than the one we Americans have officially. Power must be returned to ordinary people.
To conclude though, a word of warning: Beware the “moral” arguments that are already present, but have yet to go mainstream. The first, that social media has given those in closed third world societies, who before had no means of communicating with the outside world, the opportunity to expose daily injustice (“Arab Spring! Arab Spring!”), and therefore to be against social media— as it currently is— is to display one’s Western privilege; and the second, that keeping your children away from social media (and electronics in general) is tantamount to child abuse, because by keeping them from devices and social media you are depriving them of the ability to function in today’s world. Prepare, reader, to be guilted for trying to escape your digital prison. Tech giants aren’t going down without a fight, and they will absolutely use faux-progressive rhetoric to justify a corporate takeover of everything.