Time to outgrow social media
Its little rewards aren't worth the social pain it causes; we need to adjust our behavior accordingly
You would think, in our era, that people would be quite comfortable with the idea that technologies which are valued by many people can also generate large social costs, such that we need to work, collectively, to use them less and/or more sensibly. That is the story of our fossil-fuel technologies, which provide us with a high-standard of living but which also contribute to public-health problems and climate change. There is broad—though far from universal—agreement that we need to reduce fossil-fuel emissions and that getting there will require a reduction in use of certain technologies. And we generally accept that this will involve at least some behavioral change on the part of individuals. The way people feel about this varies; some people are annoyed and resentful, or in outright denial. But I think most people recognize that we have some sort of ethical responsibility to others to do something about climate change, even if we don’t relish the prospect and hope we can accomplish what we need to accomplish without too much sacrifice.
Social media is in many respects a comparable problem. Lots of people seem to value it; certainly lots of people use it a lot of the time. But it generates large social costs, and we need to work collectively to use it less and/or better. And while there will inevitably be people who reject this assessment, it should be the case that most of us feel an ethical responsibility to moderate our use, for the sake of others.
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And yet this is not a particularly popular way to talk about social media, and there is not anything like a consensus across elite opinion-makers that social media causes broad public harms which need to be addressed through collective action. There are notable exceptions; Ezra Klein’s latest column, which is the impetus for this dispatch, is one example. But an awful lot of leading pundits are pretty heavy users of social media, and most don’t seem to think there is anything wrong with that.
Why don’t they? One possible answer is that they’re not convinced that social media is bad. There is a massive effort underway to document social media’s effects, much of which is described in a public file maintained by Jonathan Haidt and Chris Bail. As Haidt describes here, there are plenty of research findings that are at least a little troubling. But poring over the results, it is hard to find any smoking gun which has the power of the cumulative work demonstrating the powerful link between carbon emissions and global warming. But this does not excuse us from taking an appropriately critical view of social media, for a couple of reasons.
First, the ills that social media researchers often study are not necessarily the most worrying—and the most worrying ills are not the sort that are easy to grapple with in quantitative social-science research. A lot of research questions address things like echo chambers and the way they contribute to radicalization, or focus on the prevalence and effect of misinformation. If you love social media and don’t want to be confronted with its negative effects, these sorts of papers make for comfortable reading; they often suggest that these problems aren’t as big as is popularly imagined, and in any case elite power-users probably reckon that they are savvy enough to avoid such traps in their own social-media engagement.
But as I discuss here, this way of studying social media misunderstands what is most dangerous about it. The problem is not so much that people are being exposed to bad information and are thus changing their views on particular issues in destabilizing ways. It is, rather, that social media dramatically changes the way we interact with each other, alters our perception of prevailing norms and values, and thus plays havoc with our capacity to cohere and reason as a society. Because social media disrupts our collective capacity to process information and make judgments, studies of how individuals are affected inevitably fail to capture the problems of greatest concern.
Second, you don’t need research to see some of the really horrific things about social media; you just need to be able to temporarily step outside the perception-altering social-media milieu and exercise critical thinking. As Haidt says, in a quote in Ezra’s column, “People talk about how to tweak it — oh, let’s hide the like counters. Well, Instagram tried — but let me say this very clearly: There is no way, no tweak, no architectural change that will make it OK for teenage girls to post photos of themselves, while they’re going through puberty, for strangers or others to rate publicly.” We have just thoughtlessly allowed this state of affairs to emerge, even though no one in their right mind would argue that this is a good and appropriate way to help young people learn to navigate the world and live within it as capable and confident adults. We just shrug at it. And share away on Instagram without feeling personally complicit in what the service is and what it does to us, even though we are very much enabling its harms.
But third, we correctly feel a moral urgency about climate change even though empirical work concerning the broad social effects of climate change is also extremely tenuous. We know what causes climate change, and we have a pretty good sense of how climate change is likely to contribute to shifts in extreme weather, in crop viability, in sea levels, and so on. But we have no idea what global climate change will do to a highly complex global society, for the simple reason that there is no past experience to draw upon. It could be that societies will be far more resilient in the face of climate shifts than we expect. Or it could be the case that our complex modern world is far more fragile with respect to climate variability than we understand, and that near-apocalyptic effects are much more probable than we appreciate. Most of us, rightly, feel an ethical responsibility to try to limit climate change despite this enormous uncertainty.
So it should be with social media. We don’t get to divide 100 complex societies into control and treatment groups so that we can see how often social media leads to major social crises. But we don’t need to have that to perceive its harms and to recognize the responsibility we have to reduce them.
But perhaps many people are prepared to accept that social media is bad in many respects, but do not feel that this awareness translates into a personal responsibility to use social media less. And yet individual responsibility, on the part of all users, is precisely what is required given the nature of the beast. Everyone who is in a media business understands network effects. People use social media because people use social media. If there were fewer people using a network, it wouldn’t be as valuable or essential to be there, and fewer people would feel the need to join while more people would find it easy to quit. The more time each of us spends on social media, the more we contribute, the more we validate use of the networks as good and appropriate, and the more we enable its negative consequences, even if we think we’re the good ones who aren’t engaging in this or that bad behavior.
This is a question of personal responsibility, and we need to face up to it. Ezra closes his column by writing:
Attention is contagious. What forms of it, as individuals and as a society, do we want to cultivate? What kinds of mediums would that cultivation require?
This is anything but an argument against technology, were such a thing even coherent. It’s an argument for taking technology as seriously as it deserves to be taken, for recognizing, as McLuhan’s friend and colleague John M. Culkin put it, “we shape our tools, and thereafter, they shape us.”
There is an optimism in that, a reminder of our own agency. And there are questions posed, ones we should spend much more time and energy trying to answer: How do we want to be shaped? Who do we want to become?
Is what we’re doing now really how we want society to work? Do we think it’s a good and appropriate thing, people just scrolling away for hours on their phones? When we imagine a well-adjusted adult living a rewarding life, do we picture them reading social media and posting all hours of the day, or cultivating an online following for their little kids? Are we happy with a world where our leading figures in politics and business feel like they have to out-meme and dunk on each other?
Because to me, this stuff is all pathetic and terrible, and as much as I enjoy a good meme or a sublime bit of internet weirdness, it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it.
As Ezra notes, complaints like these read a little like crankery. People have complained about new technology and warned of its corrosive effects forever. When we were growing up, we got constant lectures about video games, about the “idiot box”, and so on. And hey, look at us.
But hey: look at us! With the benefit of hindsight, it certainly does seem that television may have had some negative effects on our capacity to function effectively as a society, the many wonderful things about TV notwithstanding. And furthermore, it seems like the efforts our parents made to keep us from watching too much television, or to at least be savvy and restrained consumers of it, probably did some good. Thinking about the potential harms that can come from immoderate use of a technology, exercising self-restraint, and working to cultivate the value of self-restraint in our children is what responsible adults do. Is it what we’re doing now?
We don’t need to be reflexively anti-technology, and we should be cautious before jumping to more extreme approaches to the problems created by social media: like getting the government to shut them down. But this is our world, and it will be a good one or a bad one depending on the actions we take. To feel the world change as it has, to see the role social media has played, and to just keep scrolling? We can do better than that.
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For a very interesting study of the impact of the shift from print media to television, see Joshua Meyrowitz, "No Sense of Place" (1985). He applies Erving Goffman's dramaturgical framework of social situations. In a social situation, we behave in a certain way "on-stage", relying on a "backstage" area that's unknown to the audience. Television has opened up the "backstage" area: for example, there's now much less distinction between what children know and what adults know, compared to the era of print dominance, and there's much less of a gap between expectations for children and adults (e.g. everyone wears jeans).
Similarly, the Internet has created new social situations. This seems primarily structural rather than dependent on individual behavior. If we don't like the results, we'll probably need structural remedies (e.g. self-restraint on the part of platforms, or government regulation) rather than changes to individual behavior.