Those tiny networks quickly grew from hobbyist projects to global systems, servicing people from all over the world — people living in the United States, Japan, Western Europe, and even parts of the Eastern Bloc could all connect with each other. Back then, social networks brought people closer in ways we’d never seen.
Today, they’re tearing us apart.
Social media has crept into every facet of our lives at an alarming pace. Facebook grew from a microcosm of university life to a digital hegemon in less than a decade. In that same time, smartphones have become ubiquitous. They’re almost extensions of ourselves. How many times have you reached for your phone only to panic when it isn’t there?
That constant connection to the rest of the planet comes with downsides.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, and even LinkedIn are all organized to feed users a never-ending stream of content. If the user leaves the app, they’ll quickly get a notification and come back for more. Getting likes gives a quick dopamine rush, encouraging users to create and post even more content.
That drive to produce forces creators into a dilemma: they can either create highly engaging long-form content or quick bursts of media that are consumed within a minute. Content creators have by and large adopted the latter.
One could argue that — without high engagement — bad content creators will stop posting, and the best creators will be the only ones left. However, the content being produced is just what we’ll consume the most of, not necessarily what’s best for us to consume.
That’s the core issue. We’ve inadvertently trained ourselves to consume the worst possible content. The negative effects of false and sensational content go way beyond the individual. Social networks allow these effects to be amplified into full-blown societal issues.
Take the 2016 election cycle, for example. False news articles were shared by millions of Twitter and Facebook users, influencing the context and outcomes of the elections. Those articles weren’t produced just to swing the election, but were created — with sensational titles like “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president” and “Wikileaks confirms Hillary sold weapons to ISIS” — for more shares, more clicks and more ad revenue.
It took Facebook until April 2017 to formally respond to calls for better policing of misinformation. Twitter still hasn’t made any visible effort to fight fake news.
A more dangerous example you’ve probably already heard about is anti-vaxxers, people who are skeptical of the well-established health outcomes of vaccines. The anti-vax movement primarily uses Facebook to spread fake articles and harmful home remedies. Facebook has opted to stop recommending anti-vax content rather than banning it outright. Shouldn’t they be taking health threats a bit more seriously? Or are high engagement rates worth sacrificing lives?
And this is just what we’re seeing on the surface. While there’s no out-of-pocket costs to using social media platforms, you pay with your information, which companies leverage to make advertising more effective. Sometimes, this data is used for more than just ads. In 2018, Cambridge Analytica came under fire for using ill-acquired data of 87 million users for political purposes.
Overall, none of these problems are quite as bad as the most obvious one — we’re spending more time on social media and less time socializing in real life. The issue is not that we’re not experiencing the world around us, but that we’re experiencing a world that doesn’t exist.
Everything on the internet goes through a game of virtual telephone, and what comes out at the end is sometimes unrecognizable. Our friends post only the best snapshots of their lives, but that isn’t how they always are. The flashiest headlines find their way to the top of our feeds, but they aren’t always indicative of the truth. Anecdotal evidence and factual data become indistinguishable as they spread across the web.
The genie’s out of the bottle. It’s nearly impossible to change the way social networks operate. If we don’t like it, we can’t just ask them to change their content, because they’re serving exactly what we want to see. If we don’t want to see any of it, our single choice is to use their services less often.
If social media doesn’t work, the only way to win is to stop working for social media.
Jack Waters is a Senior from Avon, Massachusetts, majoring in physics and economics.