I watched ‘The Social Dilemma’ a few days ago, the Netflix semi-dramatised documentary exposing the business model behind social media, and what it’s doing to world society.
I wasn’t surprised; the social outcomes have been clear for a while. The ‘confirmation bubbles’ to which social media reduces people are a function of the way in which it’s been geared to make money. But the documentary didn’t go far enough. There’s also the nature of social media as a tool for interaction. It’s a limited and distorting caricature of the ways people interact in person, but it’s being used as a substitute for the real thing.
How limited? The documentary looked at the way photo filters are distorting self-image – highlighting the way it’s damaging children, particularly; and at the way ‘likes’ have become a mechanism for validating self-worth. But there’s also the nature of the comment system. Usually these are composed quickly. They are short. And they are written, which gives these transient words greater gravitas than a passing remark in conversation. One outcome is that the reader usually fills the gaps with their own content – in effect, projecting themselves on to the commenter. You know:
Commenter 1: I prefer grapes to bananas.
Commenter 2: So you don’t like bananas?
Commenter 1: I never said that.
Commenter 2: You did. And what about all the other fruit? Banana-hater! You must be a socialist!
If anybody is wondering how so many Facebook discussions end up descending to abuse in three milliseconds, this is the mechanism. It’s also how ‘cancel culture’ works. And it provokes very real issues. People end up hating each other for no actual reason, other than being triggered by what they’ve, themselves, projected into somebody else’s words. And people who don’t follow along risk being ostracised.
That same reductionism is also how memes work. And it’s how matters are swiftly stripped of nuance and reduced to polemic. Of late I’ve been seeing memes that manage to combine both the false-cause fallacy AND the false-premise fallacy, all in two lines laid over a photo of someone who never said those things. When that’s mixed with the ‘business model’ the result is a self-reinforcing cycle that confirms an ever-narrower set of beliefs.
What I am getting at is that the business model alone – the way that social media has monetised itself – isn’t the sole issue. There’s also the way that this style of communication works, mixed with human nature.
All of this is an anthropologist’s dream, of course, because the direction it’s taken tells us an awful lot about humans and their real nature. The fact that false information spreads far more quickly than fact, for instance, is intriguing. The ease with which hate emerges and the way kindness is so often lost is telling. What does that tell us about how people think? But the opportunity to better understand human nature doesn’t reduce the fact that the way social media has been monetised, structured, and operates, is leading society down a very dark path.
Could things have gone differently? Quite possibly. The business model is, without question, a function of the neo-liberal framework around which economies, and economic thinking, has been wrapped for the past two generations. Profit at all cost – profit without limit, by any means. Add to this the way – as the documentary mentioned – that regulation has fallen behind, and the result is a neo-liberal wet dream: a system that has no restraints over its corporate conduct, free to make unlimited sums of money irrespective of the human consequence.
To a large extent, I think, this is one of the main drivers behind that dark path. But to this I’d also add the nature of the medium, which – in effect- offers a reductionist framework for people to interact with each other that distorts those interactions in insidious ways. Is there a way around this? Sure. But society has to get out of the hole it’s dropped into first. That will be the challenge – and just now, as I watch the insanity spread over immediate issues such as Covid-19, unleashing pent-up hate and anger that has been bubbling away for a raft of other reasons, I have to wonder whether our civilisation will survive. Thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020