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Let’s NOT talk SOCIAL MEDIA!



Kirjoittanut: Luiza de Oliveira Vago - tiimistä FLIP Solutions.

Esseen tyyppi: Akateeminen essee / 3 esseepistettä.

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Jaron Lanier
Esseen arvioitu lukuaika on 8 minuuttia.

In the last decade or so, social media has become an increasingly significant part of people’s lives. In 2020, over 3.6 billion people worldwide were using it, and that number is projected to increase to about 4.4 billion by 2025. (Statista Research Department, 2021) Using different social media platforms has become such a normal part of people’s everyday lives that many think they are even a necessity. When thinking about its benefits, whether that is for business or personal life, a way more important question is often ignored; is it healthy? 

Social media has certainly created a lot of good. It is a way for people to stay connected with friends and family around the world. Communities of support that one may not have been able to find before are now accessible for everyone. Social media gives everyone an equal chance to access information and research easily. The way one is now able to learn skills from basic things like cooking to specialized ones like marketing is certainly something the world has never seen before. One very significant change that using social platforms has brought is awareness of social issues and injustices. Countries and communities that have in the past had a challenging time getting their voices heard can now find thousands of supporters around the world and make real chance.  

With all the good, unfortunately comes a lot of bad. At a quick glance, social media can seem like a good thing but studies have clearly shown the opposite. The more it is used, the less happy the users seem to be. More specifically, the more people spend time on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat and Reddit the more socially isolated they perceived themselves to be. This perceived social isolation can be very harmful, mentally and physically. (Walton, 2017) 

It comes as no surprise that social media usage has become one of the worst addictions of our time. Studies have shown that excessive usage is linked to relationship problems, worse academic achievement and less participation in offline communities. People that are more vulnerable to a social media addiction include those dependent on alcohol, the highly extroverted, and those who use social media to compensate for fewer ties in real life. (Brown, 2018)  These same characteristics can be found in the descriptions of almost any drug-related or other addictions too. Just like with any other addiction, the changes in behavior can start out small but over time end up changing one’s persona completely.  

This can all seem like an unfortunate coincidence, something that happened by accident when trying to create a positivity bringing aspect into our lives. But through the information brought to us by multiple whistleblowers and in the end even by mister Zuckerberg himself, we know that this is far from the truth. Social media algorithms were created very deliberately to be addictive. By creating addiction and therefore more engagement, these companies are ensuring profit for their customers. These customers are the countless companies that use media platforms to advertise their products and services.  

Jaron Lanier is an American scientist considered the father of virtual reality. If you search his name you will see how connected he is with the tech industry and all his achievements. You will also find a book named “Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” This book is a very clear protest against the modern world’s trends. In this essay, through some of Lanier’s arguments and other researchers we wanted to discuss the very modern problems social media has brought upon us. Is social media harmless to us as individuals? And what about society in general? What is behind it? The following are arguments from Lanier’s book and some other citations on the topic.  

 

Argument One 

YOU ARE LOSING YOUR FREE WILL 

 

It is not by coincidence that data is considered one of the most valuable assets today, even more than oil. Our data is being collected 24/7 and that is exactly how we are being used by social media, and not the opposite. That is also why social media is usually a free platform that you can access all around the world and on most of the phones we have. It can be also the reason some people are realizing this reality and preferring to stay offline. 

One day has 24 hours, 86400 seconds and this entire time you probably have your phone on your hands or close enough. That is the amount of time your data is being collected per day. Data such as at what time you go to bed, the time you sleep, the amount of time you are asleep, things you like to eat and what companies want to make you eat more or less. Those examples are nothing if compared to what social media is doing around the world when it comes to politics  

It can seem conspiratorial to say all that, but as more information comes from formers workers, scientists, engineers of the big tech industries, the more we know it is all true. It is also not a coincidence that those platforms are free for users. Tristan Harris, a scientist specialized in ethics of human persuasion says in the movie The Social Dilemma: “If you are not paying for the product, you ARE the product.” Our pure online consumption is not what matters the most, but how we consume, how we can be manipulated and controlled through the usage of social media. The way our phones show us different things, usually more related to what we like – or we think we like – says a lot about how our profiles are built and managed with data. It is not about what we want to see, it is about what the tech industry wants us to. 

It gets to a point the self-questioning is needed. Can I see all this happening? If not, that is quite weird, but it is good to remember that we are talking about a system built for the users not to feel or understand what is really happening and the dangers of it. A really good phrase also from The Social Dilemma movie, by Edward Tufte, professor at Yale University to resume this situation, this addiction and blindness we are living is: “There are only two industries that call their consumers usersillegal drugs and software.” 

Humankind has become addicted to social media and that is not news. The logic behind the tech industry is always improving it, updating it, and utilizing social theories to make us even more devoted, according to Jaron and other scientists, is behaviorism. Behaviorism, psychologist theory well-known by B. F. Skinner (1904 – 1990), in small words, says that the behavior (of a human being or an animal) can be designed by external stimulation, meaning that the environment can make the subject act X or W way, depending on the incentive. It can be a punishment or a reward.  

Jaron affirms that this method is also used in molding us and we do not even realize that our behavior is changing. We are being manipulated 24/7, we are being watched even though we do not understand that. Personal data is precious till that point, yes. The biggest problem beyond our manipulation, Jaron wonders, is how is tech industry really using it and for what? We are the product, we are the rats in Skinner’s box and most of us still have not realized that our free will is slightly sleeping away through our fingers. 

  

Argument Two 

 QUITTING SOCIAL MEDIA IS THE MOST FINELY TARGETED WAY TO RESIST THE INSANITY OF OUR TIMES 

 

Even though most people in the modern world use social media and smartphones every day, those things are often also strongly criticized. According to Lanier though, the problem is not in smartphones themselves or even the use of the internet. He highlights that it is important to narrow down the problem precisely in order to try and fix it. The problem is not solely in the fact that users are crammed into environments that often bring out the worst in them. Also, the fact that the monitoring of these giant cloud servers is in the hands of very few people, does not alone explain the problem. All the points mentioned are surely a part of the problem but the bigges and defining one is that all of this is built around a business model that is motivated by finding customers who are willing to pay for modifying people’s behaviour.  

Behaviours of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent. This is what Lanier says is the main point of certain social media companies and to simplify it, he has made it into an acronym, BUMMER. Lanier lays out six defining parts that make a BUMMER. Some media platforms have some of these characteristics but not all and therefore are not BUMMERs. Lanier still calls them an important part of the BUMMER ecosystem. The six parts are as follows:  

A is for Attention acquisition 

B is for Butting into everyone’s lives 

C is for Cramming content down your throat 

D is for Directing behaviors in the sneakiest way possible 

E is for Earning money from letting the worst people secretly screw with everyone else 

F is for Fake mobs and faker society 

The sole purpose of BUMMER algorithms is to keep the user engaged and keep them coming back. In the past, a company had to wait until after its advertising campaign was released to see its impact. Now with all the personal data available, BUMMER companies are able to tell their customers beforehand how their campaign will likely be received. The algorithm can only make estimates of with what probability an individual will behave a certain way. However, what is likely for an individual is almost definite when compared to an average of a big group and therefore, it is so effective. All of this of course means that the ones that are willing to partake in the most extreme ways of user behavior modification gain the most power.  

 

Argument Six  

SOCIAL MEDIA IS DESTROYING YOUR CAPACITY FOR EMPATHY 

 

Like said in component C, BUMMERs are “cramming content down your throat.” This content is very specifically targeted for an individual’s engagement, which means that one cannot know what others are seeing. In traditional media, everyone saw the same news article or segment on TV. Even though individuals might interpret whatever is happening slightly differently, everyone still saw the same thing and therefore it was easy to understand the way others were feeling. This is even a very primitive part of human behavior, one must be able to read what others are seeing and feeling, to survive. When news articles and movements happening around the world are shown to us in a targeted manner, it can become impossible to truly understand others.  

The Black Lives Matter movement is a perfect example of this. Where others were shown peaceful protestors, some people were shown only violence and crime. This was a highly successful way of keeping people engaged in the platforms and driving division between groups. 

  

Argument Nine 

SOCIAL MEDIA IS MAKING POLITICS IMPOSSIBLE 

 

As we start to understand the problem behind social media and to see ourselves as manipulated users, we discover that this power can also affect democracy. Fake news all around the internet has had a direct influence on the elections in such countries as United States of America and Brazil, electing radical right-wing parties which are close friends with authoritarianism and ignorance. 

Lanier compares the effect social media has on people when it comes to politics, to “Stockholm syndrome or being tied to an abusive relationship by invisible ropes.” (Lanier, 2018) Meaning that it is a situation people are trapped in an extremely unhealthy kind of bond. The fact is that democracy in many countries is quite fragile and social media with all the viral content and the acquisition of data can influence directly how people think or vote for example.  

Facebook is aware of how it can be used as a manipulative tool when it comes to voting, as Trump was able to use millions of user’s data in order to change their minds and get elected against Hillary Clinton in 2016. How legitimate can an election be considered that uses algorithm strategies and manipulation to win? And how does this matter weaken democracy and put it in real danger? 

The same questions can be raised when related to all the social media rooted movements. Despite the good intentions, there is proof of data collection, manipulation, and profile construction through them, such as in Black Lives Matter quoted in the above topic. People keep feeding this system unconsciously and hurting freedom, democracy, and the emancipation of the users.  

 

CONCLUSION 

 

A long time ago social media was a way to connect and network, not anymore. The main connection we find now in social media currently is the connection between our browser and Instagram, or with what we are speaking and the ads your phone will “magically” show you. It would be hypocritical to say that social media is 100% not a “place” where different kind of people can meet each other from all around the world and grow a community. On the other hand, it would be even more hypocritical to say that this is the point of it in our reality, when there is a huge amount of information proving people are being manipulated for several purposes. 

It is important to reflect on the influence those networks have in today’s world. Bringing awareness of the problems it brings to society in many different areas such as health or how it can be used to change our reality, most of the time, in a bad way. The discussion around this theme is interesting and at the same time, scary. It is scary to see how people are addicted and manipulated without realizing, getting stuck and influenced by an entire system that seems harmless, but it is affecting every part of our lives. Jaron Lanier would say: “Free yourself to free us all.”  

 

References:

 

Brown, J. (2018). Is social media bad for you? The evidence and the unknowns. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180104-is-social-media-bad-for-you-the-evidence-and-the-unknowns  

Lanier, J. (2018) Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.  Random House. 

Lanier, J. (2018) Ten Arguments to Get Off Social Media. Available on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCTlcj5vImk 

Statista Research Department. (2021). Number of social network users worldwide from 2017 to 2025. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com: https://www.statista.com/statistics/278414/number-of-worldwide-social-network-users/ 

Walton, A. G. (2017). 6 Ways Social Media Affects Our Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com: https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2017/06/30/a-run-down-of-social-medias-effects-on-our-mental-health/?sh=296f5a0e2e5a  

The Social Dilemma (2020), Available on Netflix. 

 

Written by Luiza de Oliveira Vago, Saana Keranen and Gustav Pertilla. 

 

 

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