The purpose of this post is not to delve into the discussion whether maintaining social media accounts, as most people have multiple accounts, is good or bad. The purpose of this post is to highlight one of the most crucial dimensions of human interface with technology. After all, an informed decision is better than an uninformed one.
The first question that one should ask in this context is: Why are we on social media (SM)? Because we were offered to be on the social media. Initially, it began as a means to keep in touch with people. Was it really the reason for coming up with these
“short term dopamine driver feedback loops”, as Chamath Palihapitiya, an early senior executive at Facebook, describes it? No. The reason for creation of social media was to get the people addicted and then further commercialize the same. The Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker has maintained that Facebook’s founders knew from the very beginning that they were creating something that would make people addicted to it by exploiting “a vulnerability in human psychology”. It implies that people’s behaviour is vulnerable to an external factor. Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality, in an interview with Channel 4, explains how the social addiction is used to keep the users under constant surveillance in order to collect huge data about their behavior and then further analyzing and interpreting it to adjust their information feed in order to manipulate their behavior to some commercial end in favor of the economic interest of the companies who use the services provided by these social media companies. According to Lanier, it is the social media companies that are engaged in the ‘addiction’ part, and it is the other companies, for instance the companies that advertise on these media giving them business, that are engaged in the ‘manipulation’ of human behavior part. After all, effectiveness of such external factors ought to be one of the reasons for the success of ‘nudge theory’ the propounder of which, Professor Thaler, received Noble prize in economics.
It is pertinent to mention that there are a number of ways to influence people’s behaviour. It could be the use of physical force, or subtly nudging them, or exposing them to the information constant exposure to which is extremely likely to bring a change in their behaviour. Now, how one should judge whether one means is justified and other is not becomes an important issue. If coercing someone using unequal bargaining power is illegal or physically forcing someone to act against their conscious will is a crime in most of the jurisdiction, what reasoning could be afforded to make nudging and behaviour manipulation through social media justified.
So, we are on social media living an ‘online’ life because we are addicted to it. Every notification on your smartphone and every like on your post give you a dopamine hit. Earlier, the dopamine aspect was attached to the notification pertaining to others’ actions with regard to your posts on social media. With time, the notification aspect on social media has evolved to include prompting you about what others are posting, with no connection whatsoever to you, on their story feeds, in groups that you are a part of and on pages that you have subscribed. In other words, even if you not ‘popular’ on social media and no one interacts with your posts, social media platform is still likely to keep you addicted providing you with dopamine hits with every notification with no direct relation to you. This does not end there. If you do not visit your social media account, it keeps sending you the unrelated updates by your friends or a general email attempting to get you curious as to what your ‘friends’ on social media are up to.
The aforementioned proves how hollow the argument that the technology has brought us together shortening the physical distance becomes when two friends sitting in close physical proximity are busy using their smart devices without sharing anything in real time. Commonly it is seen how parents give their smartphones to their children in order to engage the latter when they start crying. People have got notionally farther away from each other and their relationships are being mediated by technology even if they reside in the same house or same room.
Another aspect of social media is not only the fake news but it is the very broad phenomenon of information explosion. It is important to know that information is not knowledge. Technology has proved to be very beneficial to the mankind. Though accessibility of information is a positive point, information explosion is not. The credibility of information has gone down with the democratization of the digital space. Here, it becomes all the more important to understand that the democratization of digital space is skewed because those who control the information nature and flow are able to do so because technology provides them with easy tools to do so. It is not all free as it is sometimes argued to be. Companies like Google have been accused and even convicted of manipulating algorithms to skew the placement of information, for strategic placement of information counts more than the availability of or accessibility to information. Therefore, democratization of digital space is far from becoming a reality.
A crucial issue with social media is that it destroys one’s psychological and mental wellbeing. There is scientific evidence to support that getting off SM reduces stress and anxiety and increase wellbeing. Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality, in an interview with Channel 4 articulated how the SM affects our behavior and makes us vulnerable to manipulation, cranky, depressed, and jittery. World famous historian Yuval Noah Harari articulates the same in a very effective manner. People live under tremendous pressure to solicit more likes, views, shares, comments. The competition on social media is not productive but vain and futile. In the wake of social media, social has allocated more value to what “looks” great and not what really is.
Availability of cheap smartphones, zero interest loans facilitating smartphone purchases, provision of initial internet package with the smartphone are some of the instruments that have been used by companies in order to scale up the smartphone use. In other words, given the existing circumstances, the devices to control people were not given to them for free, they were sold to people and profits were made. Not only this, the strategies adopted to increase penetration of smartphones into the lowest economic strata of society have been incredible. This is perhaps an example of a good business plan.
In view of the aforementioned, even if one wants to quit social media, is it really possible to do so? In an interview with Russia Today, the contemporary radical philosopher Slavoj Zizek pointed out that in order to function socially, one has to be digitally connected. According to him, we might assume that we are free to choose but it really is not the case. Almost all the government institutions across the world are using social media to communicate to the people. This shift to social media from conventional media for communicating public information has made it even more important tool as far as mediating interaction with the public at large is concerned. It has become indispensable. The user base of some selected social media platform has scaled up to such an extent that maintaining other platforms for public dissemination of information is either economically inefficient or ineffective.
In closing, it is the masses that use social media. In order to make sure that social media works in the interest of masses in a highly democratic manner, artificial intelligence that is being developed should be by design capable of taking care of the aforementioned concerns. Effective regulatory framework should address these concerns, as well.