You wake up early, fumble blindly for your smartphone, glance at your notifications, and begin the familiar morning routine; Facebook, and/or Instagram, Snapchat, Linkedin, Pinterest and perhaps music.ly - all before brushing your teeth. You'll repeat this routine multiple times throughout your day, filling the gaps in your schedule with your phone, occasionally colliding with other addicts on the sidewalk, until just before you turn off the light and fall asleep. No worries, you're not alone; Americans check their smartphones more than 150 times and spend over 5 hours using them every day. The most used apps are the social media ones, with Facebook being the number one by a huge margin, attracting way over a Billion daily users globally.
Addicted and dependent on our junk feeds, we, the Billion, hit our touch screens time and again, hungry for our dopamine hit like mice in laboratory cages, driving our mental health to record lows. Social media has been repeatedly demonstrated to increase Anxiety, Depression, Narcissism, eating disorders, FOMO, excessive multi-tasking, and inducing negative consequences on girls' ability to develop a healthy sexual self-image - amongst other illnesses. Social media generates and widens the painful gap between our real selves and the idealized image we feel obliged to project to our "friends". It teaches us to forever compare ourselves and our lives to the endless stream of spectacular vacations and Haute-Cuisine meals, enjoyed by carefully posed and shot selfie pictures of beautied people. This comparative and narcissistic epidemic replaces our primary relationships with superficial connections, and destroys empathy and intimacy, resulting in contagious loneliness and misery on unprecedented levels. It is a modern-day Werther Effect, on steroids. The social media platforms are not only fully aware of their impact, but actually leverage it to make sure this addiction is maintained and increased, not hesitating to use psychological levers and biases to guarantee that we, the Billion, will keep coming back. The 2014 Facebook Emotional Contagion Study is an example of their knowledge and willingness to actively influence our psyche.
Almost all social media platforms are actually advertising companies. They claim they connect people and democratize access, but when looking at their business model, one sees that all their revenue is generated from Ad dollars. By using their technology to sell us stuff we don't need or even want, social media has also become the epitome of consumerism and of the dark, manipulative aspect of advertising; they turned us into their product. Our every choice, habit, video, text and click are being monitored, analyzed, packaged, and sold to advertisers with the goal of growing our Lifetime Value for the platform. Every product feature has but one goal; to make us come back. Again and again. It's the tobacco industry, free of charge, and to the power of the internet - only this new industry damages our mind, soul and culture, not our lungs. We might, from time to time, become aware of this incredibly huge and sophisticated machine, always with us but unseen. Sometimes we get a sense of its presence when we experience a Deja-Vu from an ad that we already saw or a piece of content that statistically should simply not be there. Most of the time, it is easier to deny it, and move on to the next post, picture or filter, unbeknowingly sold a million times to a million advertisers, bundled with people that are similar to us. They call it "Lookalike Audiences", and it's a core tenet of their advertising technology; bundling us with people with similar purchase habits, to be targeted by products and services we're more susceptible to buy.
This industry, led by the technology, operations, and business acumen of Facebook (all others are wannabe clones of the powerful capabilities of Facebook as a company) are achieving our dependency with the help of a few strategies, while at the same time creating a formula that leads to cultural destruction:
+ The Bubble Algorithm: In order to increase our "engagement", social media learns who we are and what we love and hate, and keeps providing us with content that suits our opinions so we won't leave. It's like an endless ghetto of people that are just like us; White, Black, Libertarian, Progressive, and yes, Racist. We can even join the Contrarian and Troll ghettos, and argue/bully other people, satisfy our need for confrontation, and eventually be bundled with other contrarians and perhaps get served with ads for a secret new conspiracy website.
+ The Big Equalizer: our opinions times our level of provocation, our dedication to the platform and our number of friends and followers, determines our power of distribution. Facts do not matter, education and experience don't matter, Intelligence? Forget it. If we can generate a better social graph than a Nobel Prize Laureate, our opinion will become more important. Don't like Joseph Stiglitz's post on your wall? Just scroll down, like and share someone else's, a Trump supporter perhaps. You'll see much more of their thinking in the future.
+ Garbage in/out: Little curation or filtering is supplied by social media (unless it is for the optimization of advertising). Informed choice and consent? Quality control? Not in this school of thought. The platform is massively biased towards high engagement (aka addiction) and towards better results from advertisers. This is unethical design by design. The platforms know very well what's happening, but are careful to position themselves as merely an innocent "software platform", and fouls are countered with "It wasn't us, it was our algorithm". Right, they are not responsible for the few (million) bad apples that abuse the best highway ever created by metaphorically driving at 200mph and randomly shoot at passers by. See under Milo Yiannopoulos.
= The Hate Machine: Bubble algo + Big equalizer + Garbage in/out all lead to an ever lowered common denominator that's needed to consistently produce a stronger social graph and get enough dopamine rushes. This is a one way ticket to hate and fear based communication (and to billions of videos of very young pets). This garbage is proliferated in zero time, with zero resistance and cost, creating the largest and most successful hate distribution machine in history, and inventing a new language, all its own; "Crooked Hillary", "TL:DR", "Delete your account" etc.. Not sure? Create a hateful fake profile and a piece of hate content, quoting someone telling a horrendous lie, and see how quickly the algo spreads the bigotry. Let's Make America Hate Again.
Social media, in continuation of similar but far less effective distribution platforms such as Fox News, is responsible for accelerating and tipping over a major transformation of western culture and perhaps even of the species itself. Our ideas and values and how we form and choose them, the quality of the information we consume and make decisions upon, the power of our family and community to educate and support us, the way we form and maintain relationships, the way we fall in love and hate, and even the way we die and life after death are all being fundamentally shifted, and it's almost entirely for the worse. I am no Luddite, I love technology, aka tool-making, and think it is part of what makes us humans. I also do appreciate some of the upsides like the democratization of connections, and seeing how your High-School Alumni ages, but if you take a closer look at the cost, it is currently not a very good deal.
Not all was picture-perfect before Social Media, but we now all live inside a massive social and psychological experiment that accelerates and amplifies the decline in culture and values eroded by decades of aggressive capitalism, consumerism, and anti-intellectualism, and distributed by commercial TV, advertising, and all the hear, see, and the more recent click bait. All these trends now finally meet the ultimate distribution network that takes us all at warp speed straight to cultural hell. Trump would not be here if it was not for his intuitive and cruell willingness to trade pure hate as his major currency, perfectly distributed by the hate machine. Brexit would have probably never happened, not only because Cameron isn't exactly a Churchillian figure, but because demagoguery and fact-free journalism a-la Boris could not find such traction pre social media. It is so obviously destructive, that I personally believe that In a few years time social media would be looked at like we view cigarettes today; Future social media should probably arrive with a federal warning message popping up whenever we log in, and a higher premium on our healthcare insurance.
What can we do? I'm not sure anyone knows the answer, but if I had to suggest an approach, it would be based on Awareness, Curation, Limitation and Regulation. We must see social media for what it is and what it does to us and to others, and with awareness comes action. Let's begin with that, and let's stop idealizing the social media companies. Yes, they are bright, and truly believe they're creating a better world. They are also for-profit corporations with more money than the Robber Barons and Wall-Street combined, and a 1984-ish power over what we think and do.