The Unusual Suspects
April 28, 2019
On Social Media and Living a Normal Life: Part 4—
They’re invisible and inscrutable, intangible and insidious. Of all the characters I’ve dealt with in the digital world (myself, people I know, people who know people I know, trolls, hucksters, and all the other regular users) none of them frustrate me as much as the ones I can’t name or even picture. Once they are let out into the digital world. they don’t exist in any one place. They might be created by people, but as they act out, it’s clear they are not real people at all.
One has iterations that work to streamline life.
The other was created to break down a way of life.
Obviously, I get that algorithms do more than mess with my experience of social media. But my frustrations with it don’t stop at how it affects me, it’s more like–because I see how I’m affected, I already have a sentient understanding of other negative implications. I think about the impact of outsourcing perception and understanding to algorithms. I just did a light read of “Code Dependent: Pros and Cons of the Algorithm Age” at the Pew Research Center site, so read that for more fun info about possible scenarios of algorithms gone awry. At the top of the piece, it reads:
Algorithms are aimed at optimizing everything. They can save lives, make things easier and conquer chaos. Still, experts worry they can also put too much control in the hands of corporations and governments, perpetuate bias, create filter bubbles, cut choices, creativity and serendipity, and could result in greater unemployment.
As for me on social media, I want autonomy over how I see other people’s posts. I want to see things in their natural posted order, and if what I see isn’t what I want to see, I want to have an active part in re-arranging my experience. But the sites aren’t made for my optimal experience. Rather than the free social service each claims to be, we are the resource (our data and attention) being harvested for corporate profits. Our data is sold, we are sorted in categories so our attention can be delivered to marketers, and the less we know about this, the better for them.
My use of their product is an act that makes me the product, and as I try to use their tools sincerely, I have to navigate environments that were not ever really intended for me. It keeps me attached by offering sharing tools and even important social services like fundraising and safety checks. The former is harmless and the latter is really important. I’m sure the developers who coded those projects made them for the general good. But the real goal of social media isn’t building community, it’s about making money for advertisers under the guise of social service. And with its regular use, I can’t shake the sense that I’m an unwitting cog in their machine. And I don’t like that at all.
If it was “just” my frustration with social media algorithms, plus people’s lapses into pettiness, meanness, and anger, plus times when current events trigger stress, if it were just these incredibly uncomfortable aspects of social media, I might still manage to use it dispassionately. But it’s so much more than that.
The information by us and about us is being used—at the very least—when marketers want to sell us products. Increasingly, it’s being used by political manipulators who want to access whole populations so they can sow discord, target vulnerable citizens, and weaken democracies. I can’t stand that it is all consuming and addictive in a neurological way that I don’t want for myself or the people around me. I can’t stand the way social media use increases political polarization, loneliness, and anxiety. And I especially can’t ignore the ways that Russia’s Internet Research Agency used social media to sow discord among an electorate that’s already pretty divided, starting back in 2014 before Trump announced his candidacy, then actively pushing Trump and Bernie over HRC. They continue today with no let-up. After seeing what some of their memes were, I’m pretty sure my own friends and family were affected by those trolls. I hate the hate.
We opened ourselves up on social media because we thought we were just connecting with each other, we thought it built community. We did good things together. But all along, from the information we shared to even our very connections with friends and friends of friends, we’ve been offered up to be served to others. I consider big tech complicit in this, if not knowingly, then because they’ve been blinded by hubris—a fascination with their genius and their creations. Because they sold themselves on their own goodness and “we’re here to change the world” mantras, they unleashed this thing that’s unmasking our human preference for defaulting to our base impulses; in a way, they actually have changed the world. Unfortunately, rather than seeing ourselves for what we’ve become and choosing a collective high road, we either say it’s not really happening (“fake news!”), or it’s not that bad (“look at the bright side: fun!”), or it’s inevitable and can’t be helped (“they go low, we go lower!”). While I see big tech as complicit, I think we’re all complicit. I think we’ve always been complicit. Because wherever and however we gather as human people, don’t we bring all of who we are to everything we do? And aren’t we all kind of messed up? I think the problems are deep and rather simple. I don’t have an idea for a global digital future world solution. But I know how I want to live my life. I want to use these digital tools, I really do. But I have a lot to consider as I make my way forward. Don’t we all?
Series: On Social Media & Living a Normal Life
Links for this series (*newly added)
- *Article at Reuters.com: “Megaphones and more: Mueller details Russian U.S. election meddling“
- *Article at Pew Research Center: “Code-Dependent: Pros and Cons of the Algorithm Age“
- Article Series at NYT.com: The Privacy Project
- Article at NYT.com after one of the biggest terrorist attacks since 9/11:: Sri Lanka Shut Down Social Media. My First Thought Was ‘Good.’ by Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode
- Article at TeenVogue.com: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Explained Why She’s Imposed “Little Rules” on Her Social Media Usage” by Lucy Diavolo
- Book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport
- Book, Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe by Roger MacNamee
- Video, NYT’s “Opinion Video Series”: Operation Infektion: Russian Disinformation from Cold War to Kanye
- Podcast, Vox’s “The Weeds”: Facebook is Bad, Please Join Our Facebook Group
- Podcast, Vox’s “The Ezra Klein Show”: Cal Newport on Taking Your Life Back from Technology
- Podcast, NYT’s “The Book Review”: Assessing the Facebook Problem
- Podcast, NPR’s “Morning Edition”: Facebook, Google Draw Scrutiny Over Apps that Collected Data From Teens