Social Media Promised Lots, but Delivered Little

What unchecked techno-utopianism can do.

With the advent of social media, we were promised a world where estranged souls would come together in the pursuit of a goal greater than the sum of their parts; a world where the differences between rich and poor, old and young, well-versed and inexperienced, naive and aware, would all equalize under the dominion of a new age where information reigns supreme. In retrospect, it looks as if all those aspirations were nothing but fodder for a narrative about a technological utopia that only exists in the minds of those removed farthest from its consequences. This is the story of technology in the modern age, and it’s one we’ve yet to grapple with the negative repercussions of.

Attention economy is a term often invoked to signal the way social media has been designed with the explicit intent of capturing our minds against their will, instituting a kind of instinct-adjacent response to engaging with it as opposed to it being fully dependent on our own volition. That isn’t just the way you’ll feel an urge to pull out your phone when someone next to you on the subway is scrolling through their Twitter feed–it’s also the way in which the very content displayed on our social feeds is a direct consequence of users choosing to engage with platforms that have historically privileged engagement above all else. The likes and reposts flow, just as a rush of dopamine overwhelms the mind into thinking it needs it to survive. In the event that something doesn’t hit, a statement of defiance against social media’s default mode of function, we’re made to feel bad because everyone else doesn’t seem so inclined to mind it.

Combine this coercive externality with an unwillingness by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Susan Wojcicki to acknowledge that this is happening to their users, and what you have is a recipe for a social experiment conducted on a massive scale, whose only measure of accountability is an act of rebellion by concerned shareholders–a prospect which under the firm grip of capitalism, is as unlikely a scenario as any. Zuckerberg, whose company’s motto was “Move Fast and Break Things”, may have ended up breaking not only the fabric of global democracy, but the very norms by which we assess speech’s innate value. Whereas before, we were bound by an expectation of mutual respect lest one of either parties is to catch an errant fist, lots of bats are being swung at what is deemed “bad”, with little introspection on what that actually entails.

Capitalism, is an all-encompassing system in all meanings of the word. Just as it is partially responsible for the erosion of social welfare to the benefit of private enterprise, it has posited the notion that engaging with ideas online is akin to that of a market transaction–the theory goes, that just as products and services get naturally sorted by the public where the best triumph above all, ideas will behave similarly in the free marketplace of ideas. Social platform holders are essentially relying on the public to moderate the potential ways in which a free-for-all system could be badly abused–the problem is that not only anger, frustration and discontent are easier emotions to weaponize, it’s also that the perpetual nature of their spread ensures they endure a harsher beating than any idea on the opposite end of the spectrum would. Social media as such, is not particularly conducive to empowering “good” on more than a superficial level.

Ample work has been done to diagnose the issue. Whitney Phillips thinks much of it has to do with the actions of the well-meaning, in that as much as they try to stave off the spread of harmful rhetoric, they end up inadvertently amplifying it in the process; Andrew Marantz took special aim at identifying the faults in purporting an absolutist view on freedom of speech on platforms that exercise their own forms of quite blatant censorship; Jia Tolentino attributed much of social media’s ills to a natural tendency for humans to don a different mask depending on setting, with social media being the least-restrictive of all; Becca Lewis argued it was more about opinion-shapers getting radicalized by the recurring demands of their audiences; and on the all-encompassing political theory of our current context, Ezra Klein thinks this is a metastasization of political polarization, in which the perspectives of the whole are shaped by those on the fringes of society.

But that’s all the media can do. It can try to pinpoint the source of the issue, or try to converge different views on what the best remedy might be to reach a healthy equilibrium, but ultimately, the solution to be enacted is one that has to come from the upper echelons of power–tech executives and lawmakers alike have to agree that this is a state of being we cannot allow to persist unless we’re keen on irreversibly tearing apart the fabric of modern society.

Ground that social media’s unconditional march towards growth has claimed would be hard to reclaim, but as individual citizens concerned about the collective good of our communities and the larger context over which our politics preside, the best that can be done is to inform and make others aware of the ills of technology before they embark on making it an integral part of their lives. Some can’t help it — including myself — as a part of their job, is to analyze and keep abreast of developments in this space at the risk their remarks become dated and irrelevant. But to most citizens? Waging conflict whose battlefield are screens, and weapon of choice is a keyboard, isn’t the best use of their time. It is worth entertaining that social media remains a guiding light midst this current moment of tenebrous confusion, but given how its design has been perverted to attenuate the forces of that light, it is hard to argue there’s much use in engaging its conflict-maximizing antics at all.