In 2007, a handful of coworkers talked me into joining Facebook. I liked the prospect of reconnecting with old friends and family, but in the beginning, I joined for the games. I recall enjoying Mafia Wars, Heroes, and a little bit of Farmville.
Not long after that, one of my coworkers was talking about Twitter and how much fun they were having following some celebrities, but micro-blogging sounded lame to me. I didn’t join Twitter until 2011.
I remember thinking Google+ would be cool and played with it until it shut down. I never really had a lot of interest in Instagram, and I wound up creating an account there by accident a few years ago. I still haven’t posted any pictures. I even remember joining one a few years ago that was trying to be a Twitter replacement. It had an elephant for a logo, or something like that.
It’s fair to say my entrances into social media platforms have all been reluctant. With that in mind, you can take the following criticisms about social media with as much salt as you like.
In short, I think social media is the Internet’s biggest mistake, and it’s never going away. This is not a controversial opinion, which is weird considering how many of us are still using Twitter, Facebook, and the rest.
They Make Money Selling Our Data
You can create an account on these platforms and post information for free, but this is not a free service. As you upload your personal data, you go into a database, and algorithms using the pages you view and the words you post extract specific and detailed information about you. This information is then sold primarily to marketers, but it can wind up with anyone with enough capital to buy this information.
Facebook went so far as to buy a company that specialized in spyware and made it part of their mobile application. We have Apple to thank for cracking down on that, but Facebook continues to use unscrupulous methods to attain information about you. The Facebook app came installed on my brand new Galaxy Note 9, and unlike other applications, there is no option to uninstall it, which I find fascinating.
When the company you’re dealing with is making money off of you by selling your data to a third party, you’re not really a customer. At best, you’re a product. At worst, you’re a victim.
We Engage with the Worst Aspects of Humanity
If we only clicked on cat videos and harmless memes, social media wouldn’t be as much of a problem. I think some people actually do manage to avoid the worst of it, so all of my criticism of these platforms must seem out of place. Melissa sticks mostly with recipes and funny videos on Facebook, and so by avoiding Twitter, she’s not in constant danger of having her day ruined.
For example, earlier today, one of the trending subjects was “Bean Dad.” Do you know what Bean Dad refers to? If not, consider yourself lucky. In fact… if you’re unaware of the problems with social media and you don’t know anything about Bean Dad or why I’m bringing this up, click away and enjoy your day. I am not interested in bumming you out.
If Bean Dad sounds familiar, though, and you’re curious, it refers to a man that had a hungry 9 year old daughter. This little girls asked the Dad for lunch, but the Dad was busy putting together a puzzle, and told his 9 year old daughter to make some beans. The girl asked how, and the Dad said open a can of baked beans and put them in a pot. The girl didn’t know how to open the can and asked her Dad to do it. He told her to do it herself. She struggled to get the can open for 6 hours. She finally figured out how to get the can opener to work.
Maybe it was a good opportunity to teach the little girl how to make baked beans. But this little girls was hungry, and struggled for hours. Obviously the Dad is a tremendous asshole, and did his daughter no favors that day. She probably learned how to open the can on her own, but what she learned about her Dad is going to stay with her.
This happened in January of this year. Why is it trending today? Because some woman on Twitter said today that in order to force her 7 year old son to eat, she burns the boys Pokemon cards. Twitter became obsessed with this, and compared this woman to Bean Dad from 9 months ago.
I just talked about 2 extraordinarily bad people, but the behavior of the parents isn’t the point. The unfortunate truth is that there are lots of bad parents in the world we don’t know about. My Mom was inappropriately mean to me in a similar way, threatening to cut off my fingers in order to try and motivate me to clean my room when I was 4 or 5. Bad parents hurt their children, and those children grow up with scars, both physical and mental.
We on social media are also behaving badly, because we reward these bad parents with attention they have not earned and do not deserve. They get nicknamed things like Bean Dad, and for better or worse, they get their 15 minutes of fame. For some people, it ruins their lives. Other people somehow turn that attention into profit. This is how we end up with Ben Shapiros, Glen Becks, and Ann Coulters — monstrous people saying monstrous things and retaining a following by remaining in the public eye.
Perhaps you think I’m making a big, politically motivated stretch by mentioning those three after talking about the first 2 terrible parents. I haven’t given you the final bit of information that brings this all home. The woman that said she was burning her son’s Pokemon cards? It’s fake. She said it specifically to get attention. She’s a political communications strategist that’s worked for people like Rand Paul.
To summarize this point, we engage with the sensational, so the algorithms show us the most sensational news. Media outlets are encouraged by our behavior to post clickbait titles and slanted stories, because that’s what gets people to click their links. If people land on their stories, they get ad revenue. The way we engage with social media encourages the growth and prosperity of “fake news.”
Dirty Political Money and Lies
There is monetary incentive to sell ad space to Russians and foreign agencies that want to influence our election. These are sensational messages that get clicks. Facebook continues to spread a lot of propaganda, and there is no reason for them to question it, let along stop.
With the way social media works, we group ourselves into comfortable corners, sheltered from reasonable, opposing views. We’re continuously fed information from extreme perspectives, and we’re actively discouraged from trying to find any sort of common ground to work from. This results in greater polarization and widening gaps over topics that should not even be political.
In the middle of a pandemic, masks, social distancing, and the use of vaccines has become a political issue. Social media is a large part of why these matters remain political, because it acts as a megaphone for people with exceedingly narrow and extreme views.
It is reasonable to be concerned with injecting a virus into your system that is new and untested. It is reasonable to want to have a conversation about the vaccines, in order to assess that the cure isn’t going to be worse than the disease. 98% of people survive Covid, right? What if the virus has some long term effect that’s worse?
I can appreciate these concerns, and I can even address some of these in a reasonable fashion, with empathy. The truth is that these mRNA viruses are not new. They were started in the 80s as a way of fighting HIV. We have long term data, and Covid can actually be worse than the vaccine, because we know how the vaccine works, and we know that even if you survive Covid, you may have severe health problems for the rest of your life. Also, every time Covid spreads, we increase the likelihood of a new variant that will be more deadly, more resistant to treatment. Getting vaccinated is safe, and it is the kind thing to do because it reduces the chance of other people dying.
Matters of health and science should not be subject to sensationalism or political messaging, and yet the way we engage with social media encourages politicizing these subjects. For that matter, law shouldn’t be sensational, either.
Social Media is a Mixed Bag
For every good aspect of social media, there is one or more downsides. I like that I can use these platforms to stay in contact with friends and family that are socially and geographically distant. I like that I can connect with other people that have shared interests. I have enjoyed meeting other writers through Twitter. Some of these connections have turned into genuine friendships.
On the other hand, a lot can be lost in translation when we’re conveying our thoughts through text. Context can be lost. Emotions misread, which can lead to hurt feelings and unnecessary conflict. This is true in other mediums as well, but for all of the reasons I have already listed, social media magnifies and rebroadcasts simple conflicts, because nothing draws a crowd like an online fight. In fact, because of the kind of attention it draws, we’re sort of encouraged to pick fights online.
In addition to everything else I’ve described, I just don’t think social media is healthy. One moment, I’m reading about the passing of an old friend’s father. I’m filled with grief for my friend and their loss. I scroll down, and I’m immediately presented with a legitimately funny joke. The context switches are too fast. I’m not given a chance for my emotions to catch up. I read the joke and I laugh, and I feel like a monster for so quickly shifting from the grief my friend is going through.
There’s more I could talk say on this subject, but it’s all so exhausting. If we were wise, we would not engage with the extreme views, and focus on the things that matter. We would stop scrolling after finding out our friend lost their father. Or, we would skip over the individual that’s posting vile behavior to garner attention.
As a whole, we’re not wise enough to do these things, and so things will continue as they are until something finally breaks.