I’ve had a topsy turvy experience with social media in the last decade or so. I initially embraced Facebook with open arms (we used it to send out our wedding reception invites back in 2009, and shared pictures of my son’s first weeks & months there). Living far from friends, it increasingly felt like the only way to keep in touch, to know what was going on in the lives of my friends, and the only way to share what was happening in mine.
But it fucked me up. Despite knowing on an intellectual level that all I was seeing was the good stuff, with the tough parts of life filtered out, I couldn’t stop comparing my life to the shared fragments posted on Facebook. It became a very effective tool in dragging my self esteem down, setting myself yardsticks I could never measure up against. Going through my timeline would bring up envy, exasperation, annoyance, anger and, ultimately, self-disgust at my inability to walk away from something that clearly wasn’t doing me any good. But oh, that FOMO! The fear of cutting off the only means of communicating with friends.
Twitter and Instagram triggered slightly different reactions, less personal but more despairing. I came to think of Twitter as the Outrage Engine, a never-ending comments page, with less of a personal aspect to it (few of my friends post tweets any more). It fed my hunger for news and information like a never-ending buffet, widening my Circle of Concern to a massive, planet-encompassing extent while my Circle of Influence remained tiny, useless, the result a constant low-level sense of helplessness and anxiety. The good stuff on Twitter – the wit, the links to decent columns, the Japanese mascots – was good, but it increasingly felt like it existed within a swirling, broiling vortex of anger and intolerance, communication through seething soundbite. This excellent piece from Helen Lewis in the New Statesman nails it far better than I can:
Twitter is the logical extension of 24-hour news: there is endless space to fill, and nature abhors a vacuum, which in this case is filled with people procrastinating from work by indulging in petty rows. […] Why is everyone always angry on the internet? Because it’s the simplest way to make a living. The perpetual outrage machine prints money.
As for Instagram, I would either be envying the perfectly presented lives of others, or looking at the work of artists I admired and thinking “christ, why should I even bother? I’ll never be as good as them!” I would look hungrily for likes and faves of my own work, and the little dopamine hit they would bring, followed by the come down of not getting more – surely my drawing deserved more than that? And no matter how ridiculous I knew such feelings were (in a 40 year old, for goodness sake), they wouldn’t shift.
And neither did I. For a good while I kept using them despite recognising the deleterious effect they were having on me. For a procrastinator like me it was even worse than the heady days of Google Reader – at least there was a finite number of posts on an RSS feed; social media, by design, is an endless stream; just keep scrolling, imagine what you’ll miss if you don’t! It took Cambridge Analytica for me to actually deactivate my FB account, although even then I couldn’t bring myself to permanently delete it. I faded off Instagram because I had no new artwork to show, and my low mood felt lower faced with a line of seemingly perfect lives and art, but I stuck around Twitter, albeit as a lurker, a retweeter.
It’s against this experience that I picked up this book, purely on the recommendation of – the irony! – a tweet from Marina Hyde. It’s a fast read, and is exactly what the title describes. The perspective of the author, Jaron Lanier, is fascinating – a long time denizen of Silicon Valley, there since the early days, he’s not some luddite urging an end to smartphones and online communication. Rather, he argues that it is the current model of social networking, with a business model that turns users into product, that is so toxic.
The issue isn’t only that internet users are crammed into environments that can bring out the worst in us, or that so much power has concentrated into a tiny number of hands that control giant cloud computers. A bigger problem is that we are all carrying around devices that are suitable for mass behaviour modification. For example, with old-fashioned advertising, you could measure whether a product did better after an ad was run, but now companies are measuring whether individuals change their behaviours as they browse, and the feeds for each person are constantly tweaked to get the desired result. In short, your behaviour has been turned into a product – and corporate and political clients are lining up to modify it.
[…] The problem isn’t any particular technology, but the use of technology to manipulate people, to concentrate power in a way that is so nuts and creepy that it becomes a threat to the survival of civilisation.
His arguments are delivered with passionate urgency, the content persuasive and often enlightening. I hadn’t realised how outdated my idea of Facebook’s business model was, nor given so much thought as to what all those billions of dollars pouring into the company are getting for their money. The book’s scope widens, from considering the possible negative impact on you personally (YMMV, as we used to say) to looking at the wider impact of social media – on empathy, on politics, on society, on the economy, on the ability for civilisation to progress. Potentially heady stuff, dealt with at a brisk, enjoyable rate in less than 150 pages.
The best aspect of the book for me was how Lanier shows the current approach to social media has its roots in the early days of the internet (ah, text-based browsing!). An initial ideal that everything should be free, open source, subscription-free, has ironically led to these near-monopolies which have to generate income from the service without actually receiving any income from those service users. We’ve come to think of social media as being similar to commercial television, but Lanier (and recent news) argues it’s very different and altogether more insidious. It’s not that the people behind Facebook or Google are necessarily bad, but that the business model they operate under cannot help but tilt towards the negative.
Ten Arguments… is an enjoyable and compelling read, written with an informal yet informed passion and vigour. And, who knows, its lessons might make you a happier, nicer person? For my part, even while I miss aspects of going on social media (oh, those exquisite dopamine hits! The external validation! The feeling that I was doing something even when I wasn’t!) I don’t miss those bad feelings it triggered in me. That time in the evening previously spent scrolling down down down is now better spent painting, drawing, reading, writing or catching up on TV. I create more and compare less, and feel all the better for it. When I do intermittently log back on to Twitter – so I can excitedly enthuse about a 2 hour dance mix – it feels almost quaint, something from my past, and it’s easier to ignore the endless outrage. I’m off Facebook and Instagram, and trying to cut down the number of Google products I use (when it comes to searching, I’ve become oddly fond of Bing and DuckDuckGo, but shifting off Gmail is going to be tough). Like Lanier, I hope that one day a different business model will take hold around social media, addressing and solving the problems inherent in current practice, shattering the existing hegemony. Until that comes, Lanier’s book is a welcome and persuasive call for global action, one account at a time.