Is Social Media a Crack House?
Every day, someone quits social media. Comedian Taylor Tomlinson joked about how these noble announcements usually come via Twitter or Instagram. Luckily for me, I am old enough to remember life without social media, and I never picked up the habit. I have managed to stay away from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and I won’t ever use anything called “Meta,” out of fear/principle, although admittedly I could be using it right now and not even know.
When Twitter was released in 2006, everyone was supposed to post what they were doing, but I didn’t understand the concept. Wasn’t everyone, at that particular moment, simply #tweeting?
In the world’s first-ever tweet, former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey wrote, “just setting up my twttr.” Exactly. Jack totally gets me.
I’m not a technophobe. I own cryptocurrency that isn’t Bitcoin and I almost understand how the blockchain works. My problem is with social media specifically. We have been forced into a grand experiment, and nobody bothered to develop a hypothesis. Or rather, some dudes in California developed an incomplete hypothesis — that social media leads to more connection — but they didn’t finish the sentence. Connection and revolution? Fear of speaking freely? Bullying? Disinformation? And on and on. To borrow a term from Cal Newport, these “nerd gods” were not well-equipped to predict the outcomes, especially since they were invested in the success of social media, not in the success of society.
Social psychologist and professor Jonathan Haidt wrote in a recent Atlantic article, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” that the addition of “Like,” “Retweet,” and “Share” buttons in the late aughts changed social media for the worse. What was formerly used to share baby pictures and pet videos became something else entirely.
“Facebook developed algorithms to bring each user the content most likely to generate a “like” or some other interaction, eventually including the “share” as well. Later research showed that posts that trigger emotions––especially anger at out-groups––are the most likely to be shared.”
He goes on to say that this new dynamic — one that encourages users to maximize the number of likes, shares, and retweets — drives people to post content that triggers anger:
“Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action. This has created increasing vitriol on social media over the past decade.”
In addition to the increased vitriol, getting likes and retweets made social media even more addictive by hijacking the reward centers of our brains. In his book Digital Minimalism, Georgetown associate professor Cal Newport writes,
“The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking."
Someone once said that social media is a crack house. With the advent of engagement buttons, we get a hit of dopamine — the pleasure and reward hormone — every time our post is liked or shared. We can’t stop, even though the pleasure is fleeting and we eventually feel like crap.
I don’t judge people for using social media. Like vegetarianism, I agree with not using social media in theory. I will complain about how the meat industry accounts for 15 percent of global warming while eating pork ribs, and I don’t fault people for using social media even though it is causing the collapse of democracy.
Plus, I wasn’t completely honest about using social media. I use LinkedIn, although I’d argue it’s not like other social media, because let’s face it, no one feels jealous when someone gets an award for Institutional Investor of the Year. There is no FOMO happening when we miss the (shockingly) popular Audit and Income Tax Conference. Maybe in this way, LinkedIn is the marijuana of social media addiction. After using it, you just feel tired and in the mood for Cheetos.
No one knows what the future holds, but our understanding of the harm social media can do seems to be growing. And you know what they say: Admitting we have a problem is the first step in recovery. As former Buzzfeed journalist Ryan Broderick wrote in his newsletter,
“People don’t enjoy websites anymore because there’s only 5 left and they all realized that it’s more profitable to piss people off. And this is especially true for Twitter! Twitter has ruined more lives than any other website that has maybe ever existed…”
It’s been a long time since Jack set up his Twitter account. It’s taken me a while, but I think I finally understand how social media works.