Internet Growing Pains and “Social Media”

In my previous post I spent a few minutes reminiscing about my early time on the internet and my webiversary. While I was out for my walk yesterday I was pondering how I used to think of the internet, say, in 1998. The web was just emerging and I, an anarchist activist in my Memphis community, thought it would eventually prove to be an important part of the democratic process. At the time it seemed the roadblocks to a more meaningful democracy were ignorance and apathy. I thought that as the footprint of the web grew, that it would become a tool that would inevitably lead to a better informed citizenry which would lead to a less apathetic citizenry.

Oh how wrong I was.

Of course at the time “social media” did not exist, at least not in the modern, popular form. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, no YouTube. LiveJournal would be the first to gain a foothold in 1999. Others soon followed, Friendster in 2002, MySpace in 2003. But none had the reach of Facebook in 2019 which for many people is the web.

Rather than a diverse web we have a web largely dominated by a few huge entities, Google and Facebook being the best examples. I’m not going to do a deep dive into the many problems that might be explored here. Suffice it to say that the pervasiveness of Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter (in approximate order of influence) have arguably increased ignorance as they have decreased apathy. The dynamic that has been put into play is a citizenry that is emotionally manipulated away from understanding or even attempting to understand present day social, political and scientific facts. Rather than a more informed citizenry engaging in a more active democracy, based upon knowledge and reason, social media, as the face of the modern web, has led to an increasingly fractured and hostile social experience based on rumors, conspiracy theories, pervasive misinformation. I’m using the term social experience to encompass our digital social interactions as well as our “real life” interactions, which is to say, the experiences we have face-to-face in our families, with friends and co-workers.

By chance I came across this post Ryan Murphy at Fulcra which, in a way, touches on some of this dynamic but from a different direction. He starts with a quote from Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World. I’ve mention this book by Sagan before and this quote fits well here too:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…

Murphy, in his post, mentions a thread on Reddit about the growth of anti-intellectualism and conspiracy theories. I confess I’ve not read through that thread yet so I’m not sure what ground it covers but Murphy ends his post with:

People in the Reddit thread point out that these seemingly recent trends have been taking root for a long time. While this is true, it’s also true that (just like seemingly everything else) these phenomena have been moving much faster and growing much larger in recent years. Which leads to a curious tangent: how do accelerated scales of change play on our biases? Does the interaction between these biases and our accelerated experiences change our perception of the world?

I think the answer to his last question is yes. The accelerated experience is a part of the dynamic. I deleted my Facebook account in 2015 after being on it for 5 or more years. Almost every family member and friend that I can think of are still using Facebook. According to Statista, there are 190 million active users in the U.S. Wikipedia’s Facebook page provides an excellent overview of the influence that Facebook has had including its rapid rate of growth and the many issues/scandals/controversies that have surfaced.

It seems obvious that the processes of modern social life have, in just 10 years, become deeply influenced by social media, specifically Facebook. What is less clear are the long-term implications and effects as well as the response to this new dynamic. As of 2019 there have been numerous serious scandals that have been broadly reported by the media and thus far the company seems immune with the user base seemingly uninterested. From the 2016 elections and likely to the 2020 elections we see far reaching affects in U.S. electoral politics but also on family and community relations.

We’re just over a decade into the online social media experiment and while we seem to have shed some of our apathy, our new-found enthusiasm for engagement is less informed. We’re allowing ourselves to be tweaked by algorithms designed to manipulate us so that our attention and our data might be sold at great profit. Why? We say it’s for baby pictures. We like the fun memes about animals, the clever jokes and pranks. We tell ourselves it’s our way of staying connected. But the social media software engineers behind the scenes will tell you that your engagement, your attention is more about dopamine and social reward.

Rather than a diverse World Wide Web that leads to an informed humanity and better democracy, we have a comforting interface that is designed to stimulate the chemistry of our brains into a range of emotions that will keep us clicking and tapping, consuming but not actively thinking. A tool for keeping us entertained so that we can be sold and, to some degree, controlled.

I’ll end with a modification of Sagan’s quote updated for 2019:

…when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our smart phones and nervously consulting our social media feeds, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…