A Case Against Social Media Pessimism
02 April, 2021
Problems are inevitable, problems are soluble. This is the shiny dime of David Deutch's work at The Beginning of Infinity. Besides the pandemic's current problem, there is another epidemic that is looming over humanity for quite some time now. The epidemic of social media. It has taken the front row on the stage of the human condition in the contemporary outlook.
Social media giants have established themselves as omniscient beings. The oracles and their algorithms have captured our conscious and unconscious states and perfected them to the most accurate decimal number possible by the binary computing machines.
Now and then, a documentary comes along showing us how social media is destroying the fabric of society. But no one seems to be providing any decent solution. The popular and most agreed-upon stance by default against the problem is that we should minimize the use of it as much as we can. The latent assumption here is that these giants are too big and powerful to fight against. To me, this seems to be a parochial way of solving a big problem like this.
But do we have to fight it? Do we have to resist it? Is social media bad for society in its essence or is it just another scapegoat? Here I will try to riff on some ideas to think about this burgeoning issue with optimism rather than merely a pessimistic and a parochial approach.
When people attack these social media giants, there is an attack on the technologies that empower these platforms. We automatically assume that these technologies are evil in themselves which is incorrect.
The real issue lies in the legacy business models and corporate incentives that were created for the television era. While the internet swept the world by storm, our behaviors couldn’t catch up. That's the weakest link that these giants take advantage of.
We often wonder how the people at these companies feel about their work or the decisions they make. What we miss to realize is that an organization is a complex structure and the kind of business it does is an emergent output of the collective. From the point of view of an individual employee, they are just trying to do their work in the best possible way.
So, it's not right to question the morality of any individual. Humans are limited in estimating the second-order and higher-order effects of their actions and decisions.
Until we agree to rethink the existing market structures and modes of operation which has largely remained the same for tech companies as it was for previous businesses. This involves digital native laws, economic policies, incentive structures, and ethical externalities which are often missed by most of the discussions.
It's sad enough that the leading solution to this issue seems to be to recede from the use of social media in popular opinion. It's sadder to see this coming out of people who had helped to build these platforms. It smells like giving up. That kind of ideology runs counter to Deutch's optimism that problems are inevitable problems are soluble. Also, it poses the question of cognitive dissonance. You don't need any data set to know that the use of social media is increasing with each passing day. So, that solution is simply a utopian one.
On the contrary, the one thing that can help us out of this mess is the technology itself. The issue is pollution and control of information in the hands of central authority and power. Even any kind of governmental intervention takes a lot of time since technology especially computing by its nature is still spared by a lot of laws. Technology is a raw material for essential innovation. Rather a very efficient one by its nature. If it can be exploited for unethical means, it can also be used to counter the same.
We already have the tools to try different models of social media. Technologies like Blockchain are being used to build decentralized social networks. They solve the problem of incompatible overlap of human behavior and technological virtue. The only barrier and a very big barrier indeed is the network effects created by existing social networks. So, the problem becomes one of awareness and persuasion. Next time, if you see some building something like that, stop to at least think about the idea and its implications.
When we talk about the bad influence that social media is impinging upon society and ripping its very fabric apart, we automatically presume that the previous setup of society is good enough. We also presume that the previous media and communication channels were already perfect and any new mode of media shouldn't be tried upon. That indicates that we don't want to improve by correcting errors but via stopping what is not adherent to the existing structure of society.
This point of view also indicates the same behavior that any technology that received when it progressed too fast. In the same vein, we succumb to reject the infinite opportunities and modes of expression and creativity that social media has enabled.
Rather than confronting the bad actors, we fall prey to thinking that the very existence of the idea of social media is wrong for society. That's another aspect of parochialism that's ingrained in the current culture. It's the same kind of thinking when people discard their material lives to go live as a monk. But those cases are exceptions rather than norms and most of those decisions don't turn out to be good anyway.
There is this recurring theme in mainstream media that shows only the negative aspects of social media. Even the most popular documentaries on the subject are coincidentally (or rather purposefully) produced by an internet media company whose own business model depends on the notion that sleep is its biggest competition. Bear with me here. I like streaming services and enjoyed a lot of content over the years. My biggest strife with them is they can do much better than making the overly cryptic and dystopian shows around social media and technology in general.
Legacy newspaper companies have made their mission to launch targeted attacks to defame the technology ecosystem. Whatever their ideological differences are, it’s not doing any good for the general public.
It can be understood why they are constantly bashing someone or the other. Because these giants pose an existential threat to these entities’ business in one way or the other. The idea of news itself has become obfuscated in the age of free flow spread of information. People don't want anymore to feed on one-directional news anymore. They want to engage with the dialogue.
The same is true for television and other media entities. In this age of infinite leverage through digital media and assets, a TV show or a movie has become a big commitment of people's time and mental energy. That's where platforms like YouTube and TikTok shine.
Conversely, if these entities try to engage and look at the problem from the perspective of solving it through technology itself, people might listen to them. Their main trick is to lure people into believing how everything was perfect before social media came along and ruined society. The comparison with previous times is in itself parochial. Social media has given so much advantage and hope for people to break away from the industrial revolution-led work culture that it doesn't ring a bell with people what these entities are always trying to purport. It's always an effort in vain.
It feels like different media entities are always talking past each other, while the leaders of these giant companies are busy creating more engagement tools for people. Because it’s the people who are their biggest asset as well as threat. In the economy of network effects, the masses are the free-wage workers for these entities. The most that these powerful leaders have come close to answering anyone is to the people in congressional hearings who don’t have much idea what the heck are they speaking in their technical jargon.
At this point, there's a war going on between the giants and the entities who have made their business of outright canceling the existence of social media from our lives. Bashing social media by making spooky shows and the likes have become a profitable business of sorts. They are using the same sensationalization tactics which these platforms support to maximize profits. Because talking about the real issues is boring and due to the sheer complexity of some of the issues, most people are simply not ready to tackle it head-on.
One aspect of this which is less talked about is that this is not a global phenomenon. These arguments don’t make much sense to most of the population in the developing world. In countries like India where hundreds of millions of people came online for the first time since 2016, social media IS the language of digital life for them. Their whole sense of creating knowledge and opportunity for themselves revolves around the potential of social media. They are too busy upgrading their way of living. So, it's a bit ignorant on part of these media outlets to always be pessimistic.
Once power gets instantiated, it's very hard to dismantle it. At that point, no single person has complete control over it. Social media is that kind of power. So, it's in vain to bash upon a few people who are just the public faces of these companies. The decisions are made collectively. To make social media to our advantage rather than the opposite, technological power itself has to combat it. By the analogy of the principle of the Bitcoin protocol that until malicious nodes have less than 50 percent of the total CPU power, the network is safe, similarly until the internet protocol exists on the principle upon which it was originally founded and until every country doesn't build an internet firewall, we have hope to release social media through the chain of a few powerful entities.
I believe that social media is another natural resource that should not be controlled by a few powerful people just like other natural resources have been in the past. The good news is that we now have the technology and willingness to address these issues. The most challenging problem is to persuade people in an optimistic direction. Maybe we can use memes for that since memes are the most efficient replicator of ideas that have been invented in the internet age.