I like social media. I’m grateful for: friendship indicators, selfies, “likes” (called “vind-ik-leuks” in Dutch, literally meaning “I find this nice!”), little anecdotes from your lives, event announcements, anniversaries, and so on. I like that so many of my people were here for so long, but I also realize that there is a dark side to all this and that many folks in my circles already left Facebook and similar sites, for good reasons. I fully support them, and I don’t think it will be too long before I figure out some transition plan and do the same.
The problem isn’t that people are spending “too much time on their screens” these days. The problem is not any algorithm, nor that “likes” are becoming a form of social currency. In it of itself, the problem isn’t even that our personal data is getting tracked, stored, and sold.
The main problem is that almost all social media we’ve ever known are privately owned, for-profit businesses whose goals are to maximize the conversion of our attention into revenue, and this typically happens at the expense of our mental health. We got seduced by their premise that these are spaces where we are valued, where we’re safe, where we’re in control, but more and more this is turning out to be a scam, since the business models of these companies are not sustainable if we are truly healthy and safe.
Our attention has become the most valuable currency of the digital era and, like most finite resources that man ever came across, this one is also recklessly mined and traded without much regard for ethics or sustainability.
I basically grew up on the Internet. Maintaining various apps and technologies in the digital world was my whole profession for the past 15 years. I remember Twitter from when it was still an SMS service, Facebook from before it turned into a totalitarian online government, Google from when it still held the motto “don’t be evil,” and Instagram from when it was just a tiny app about making quirky art with your (then-crappy) iPhone camera and when it didn’t even have a web site.
None of these services had ads back then. I doubt that any of them even had any kind of business model. The modus operandi of Internet startups hasn’t changed since early 2000s: make something trendy, get a bunch of people to sign up and start using it, get investors to pay for the operational costs, and figure it out from there. Initially, these services and apps were all optimized exclusively for the joy and ease of use and to be rewarding for us, the user.
What would inevitably follow for each of these “businesses” is the realization that they really don’t have any sustainable business model and that their only chance of paying back investors is to figure out how to gradually start cramming ads down our throats. They do this carefully, avoiding being noticed, so at first there is a tiny ad every once in a while, then there is another, then some start to look like user’s post but are actually promoted content, and ultimately we end up with what feels like there is more advertising than actual content that we were originally here for.
Over the years, the design and purpose of these apps is no longer primarily to give us joy of using them, but to maximize “engagement”. Engagement is generally: views, comments, likes. It doesn’t matter to them what the engagement is about, just that there is more of it.
What this results in is that the more mature these apps are, the better they are at exploiting the addiction-prone aspects of our personalities and jabbing at our emotional response mechanisms. In other words, the business model becomes literally preying on our emotional vulnerability to sell our attention to the highest bidder.
This is why you can’t stop scrolling, or why you open an app to look up something specific and half an hour later you’re trying to remember what was it that you were actually here to do. The dark design patterns of these apps have a literal goal of disorienting you. The timeline is never read. You cannot ever catch up fully. The next video will auto-play less than a second after the current one you are watching. You are never given any time to process anything. You are bombarded with emotionally charged information until you are literally exhausted, and then you are shown an ad that promises you healing through consumerism. This is abuse.
It’s not your fault that you feel like control is slipping away from you while you use these services. It was never your fault. We are all victims of a parasitic money-making machine that latched on to spaces where we dared to come together to celebrate life and our personal connections.
So what is the solution? Do we just abandon social media?
If your immediate priority is to preserve your mental health and this is one way you could go about it, then absolutely, I will support you deactivating your account and go outside to a park to meet your friends. However, I don’t think this is a viable solution in general. Online presence has become an important aspect of our lives by now and this will not change as long as the Internet exists. Contrary to what some people believe, the world made of bits and bytes is not some “virtual” world; it’s populated with real humans, real emotions, and real ramifications to our lives. Given all that, it’s absolutely baffling that an equivalent of going to such public space as a park to meet your friends basically doesn’t exist in the online world, even though the technology of the Internet was built on the power of the commons in the first place.
Even though you manage to opt out of participating in social media, most people—especially those younger than you and me—will stay and have to deal with it. And because the networks they stay in specialize in drawing out “engagement,” they will keep prodding their users’ base instincts to draw our reactions and generally reward content creators who are skilled at generating shock and outrage. There is no platform where this is more immediately apparent than YouTube.
You might use YouTube as your personal music jukebox, to look up a how-to video when you need to, and to occasionally relish while watching yet another apology video by a crying teenage beauty celebrity, but it’s a site of immense cultural importance and where is has been estimated by journalists that its suggestion algorithm leads to radicalization of young people to fascism, anti-Semitism, “men’s rights” movement (misogyny under a different name), conspiracy theories, and right-wing extremism. In Brazil, YouTube played a massive role as a platform to elect Jair Bolsonaro. In the US, Trump got elected after he ran what was later called as a “single best digital ad campaign” which relied heavily on seeding misinformation on Facebook and appealing to our reactionary nature. Twitter will sit back and allow neo-Nazis to promote their views while it suspends accounts of liberal activists and other people from under-represented groups who get mass-reported as part of targeted harassment. And on Instagram, young influencers can be bought en masse to promote literally any view by anyone or anything with deep pockets, such as those of billionaire Mike Bloomberg, a real-world incarnation of Emperor Palpatine.
These places are not safe for us to be, but we barely have any alternatives that are better.
In the world of open source software there have attempts in the last decade to create decentralized social networks that belong to the people. In other words, these are networks that individual people—not advertising companies—would own and operate. Sadly, none of them have really taken off yet, and I do not fully understand why, but I think it has to do with them requiring a certain dose of tech-savviness. I hope that this changes over time and these solutions become more widespread, accessible, and eventually more adopted.
An alternative would be that we demand that there exist social networks that are an equivalent of a public park in cities: spaces that are not necessarily owned nor operated by us, but that are primarily meant for our well-being and that are funded through some equivalent of a tax program. Unfortunately, it’s apparently really hard to ask people to actually pay for most kind of online products or services, even when the cost of subscription is the same as getting two coffees, since most people seem firmly convinced that they are entitled to access anything online for free.
As long as we insist that social media should be “free,” we will continue to pay for them with our health, all while vulnerable communities and natural ecosystems around the world get ravaged by hate groups, corporations, and dictators we unintentionally gave power to.