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Why I’m Wrong About Social Media

I reported in another essay that I am deleting much of my social media presence, and I think you should too. One of the things I like about my community is that not everyone agrees with me, and most feel comfortable expressing their disagreement. Following are the four major contradictions and concerns brought up by people skeptical about my social media advice.

Social media has done much good for society.

People rightly believe that by eliminating social media, we would be eliminating something that has done good for society. I can point to numerous global events, such as the Arab Spring and local or individual events that would not be possible without social media. I think it’s notable that when dictators want to continue to dictate, they put restrictions on social media. Social media amplifies human’s ability to share ideas and coordinate efforts. The ease and ubiquity of social media have removed numerous barriers to communication, even between individuals. Along with personal communication devices (i.e., cell phones), social media has facilitated countless interactions between individuals seeking and providing help and connection. Anyone could go on and on about the utility of social media and how it positively impacted their lives.

Unfortunately, I could go on and on about how social media has facilitated the opposite. I think it’s tough to be objective about social media. If you like it and want it to continue, you will pay attention to the positives. If you don’t, you’ll try to ignore it or rail against the negatives. The reality is likely that social media has created as many problems as it has solved. I don’t think it has had a more harmful or positive effect on society. Comparing its positive and negative impact is going to be an eternal activity. In response to the comment about its goodness, the point I would like to make is that social media is not only good. It is also not primarily good, or even 51% good. An intense examination of the evidence will always and only reveal that it does as much harm as it does good because there are an infinite number of good examples and an infinite number of bad examples. We should not keep social media because it is good. Nor should we reject it because it is bad. It is both, so we must evaluate social media by other means.

Don’t focus on social media; focus on the companies that mismanage our information. Social media isn’t bad; it’s the companies.

I agree that social media companies are the ones creating all the problems. It is their product about which we complain. They are the creators, so they need to change their creation to reduce our problems. It is not surprising that the main changes around privacy and data management made to platforms have come from litigation. Governments agree that social media companies need to do something about their product to make it more suitable for society.

These companies are for-profit businesses that originated from a capitalistic society. The function of social media was never to protect society or even to do good for society. Their primary function was not even to facilitate social interaction. The primary function of the platforms we call social media was and is making money. These platforms have never hidden this fact, and it’s a basic fact in this capitalistic society (even if we wish it were otherwise at times). If they cannot make money, then they go out of business. And there have been plenty of social media platforms that have gone out of business. The remaining ones have done so not because they had a good heart but because they made money. Making money is their primary function. So, again, I agree that if social media is going to be safer, it is likely because the companies make them safer. This shift will mean that they will divert their attention away from making money as their primary obligation and toward something else (like data security or privacy). Then they will go out of business and be replaced by a social media platform that has, at its core, the goal to make money. Expecting social media companies to change does not get us safer social media.

Likewise, it’s a user problem. Don’t focus on social media-focus on educating people how to use social media correctly.

Informing the public about safety on social media is where I have been spending most of my professional time for the past decade and a half. A review of my past work reveals this is the primary message I heralded on social media. If even a slim majority of people would steadfastly use social media properly, the remaining misuse would decrease and wither away completely.

There are at least two significant barriers to achieving safe and fair social media through the collective moral activity of individual users. First, I have discovered that people mostly do not want to be required to use social media correctly. Instead, most people prefer everyone else to use social media correctly. An example of this is the recent prevalence of the word “triggered” in social media. A trigger is something you hear or see, or otherwise inadvertently experience that causes a strong adverse emotional reaction in you. However, the thing to do about a trigger is to make sure other people don’t trigger you. Getting triggered is now generally considered someone else’s fault. When I state it this way, it sounds absurd, but it is the consensus of social media around the term. And, even if you agree with me that it is ridiculous, most people have accepted that this is the nature of interactions on social media. This example is just one, and I am sure there will be others in the future, where the consensus is that other people need to change if there is a problem.

The second issue is this: if you decide that you are the one who needs to change, you still have to deal with those who do not. Years ago, researchers tested the effect of billboards on traffic flow on highways. One finding was that a billboard that distracts one driver could cause a traffic jam later as people pump their breaks to adjust to the slight change in the movement of that original car. A similar thing happens on social media. For instance, in comments sections, one negative or offensive comment in a sea of positive or benign comments gathers the most attention. I think it’s likely the minority of people online who need to overhaul their behavior or leave social media entirely for the good of others. The effect of their negative behavior is genuinely profound.

In summary, I agree that the primary change with social media needs to come from the individual user. The user can cause companies to change their ways by restricting profits. The user can pressure legislators to create effective legislation. The user has control over their behavior to affect change. The user can even pressure other users to behave. But the user generally thinks that the problem is other users and not them at the core. This belief is a default I have had no success in affecting. Consequently, my leaving social media for primarily selfish reasons (e.g., I want my data back) addresses most effectively this problem with individual users. I am part of the problem.

Social media is everywhere and in everything. How will we proceed without it?

For some people, I just suggested that the best way to address greenhouse gas emissions is to stop breathing. Humans expel carbon dioxide, after all. We now have almost a whole generation since the proliferation of social media. Some high schoolers have never used a telephone, like the ones that hang on the wall, or hung out at the mall, or written an email (let alone a letter). Social media has reinvented how we communicate and relate to each other. The teen social landscape is unrecognizable to most parents. Deleting social media will mean hundreds of millions of young people and likely even more adults who will have to reinvent how they relate to each other.

But remember my assessment from above: I think social media is a zero-sum game. I think it does just as much good as it does ill. Deleting social media does not mean social media will stop having this zero-sum effect. Things will get worse, but things will also improve as a result. I have done the math for my situation, and I think it will be a net improvement. If I am correct, my deletion of social media will also make things better in some respects for others. Perhaps that’s how we get past this zero-sum effect. We agree that we are also other people’s problem, and then things can improve for everyone.

As alien as the post-social media landscape will be for many, it is less a journey to another planet than a return to our own. I saw an early version of Facebook in Fall 2005. It wasn't that long ago that we looked people in the eye, called them on the phone, and wrote them letters.

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