A smoldering cigarette in an ashtray
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Overview:

Like tobacco companies that made their products addictive on purpose, the drive for ever more "engagement" on social media pushes it to appeal to our worst tendencies.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I love social media. I also hate it.

It’s an infinite conveyor belt of diversions when I’m bored. It’s an endlessly flowing river of news, including perspectives I wouldn’t see anywhere else. It’s a global performance stage for jokes, cleverness, creativity and wordplay. It’s a one-stop shop for keeping up with my friends and finding out what’s going on in their lives.

And, of course, there’s nothing like the rush of a post going viral. It’s exhilarating to have thousands of strangers treating your words as jewels of wisdom.

But at the same time, I don’t like the expectation of documenting my life or the pressure to bare myself to the gawking of strangers. I don’t like the clout chasing and the way it compresses a human being’s value down to a follower count. I don’t like the creepy way it vacuums up our personal information. I don’t like the rumor-spreading, the frightening ease of stalking and harassment campaigns, or the accelerant it offers for conspiracy theories and disinformation. I don’t like that I’ve wasted countless hours on it when I could have been doing something more meaningful.

Most of all, what I hate about social media is that its purpose isn’t to enhance connection and spread understanding. Mutual connection is an inherent human need, dating back to when we told stories around the fire at night. Social media wants us to think that it exists to support this universal desire—but it doesn’t. Like a parasite, its purpose is to exploit it.

Paperclip maximizers

The saying is apt: If you’re getting a service for free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product. Social media companies don’t make money from their user base, but from their advertisers. That means their incentive is to trap our attention and keep our eyeballs glued to the screen, by any means necessary.

There’s a dystopian thought experiment called the “paperclip maximizer“. In this hypothetical scenario, an artificial intelligence is programmed with a single goal, like overseeing a factory to ensure it manufactures as many paperclips as possible. When we turn it on, the AI takes a literal definition of “as many as possible”. It modifies the factory to churn out self-replicating machinery that devours the entire Earth, converting the planet’s mass into paperclips. It’s doing what we told it to do, not what we wanted.

While this specific scenario is science fiction, social media is a kind of paperclip maximizer. Its goal is to maximize engagement, the amount of time that people spend on the site, because that way they can be shown more ads. However, to a blind algorithm, “bad” engagement—conspiracy theories, misinformation, hate, threats, harassment—is indistinguishable from “good” engagement.

This anti-vaccine page that Facebook suggested I follow is a classic example of misinformation that gets high social-media engagement.

In fact, bad engagement is better (from the amoral perspective of a paperclip-maximizing algorithm), because fear and anger are powerful motivators. They play on the most primitive part of our brains, the primeval threat-detectors that evolved to spot lurking enemies or hungry tigers in a shadow or a rustle of the grass. Fear and anger compel us to pay attention. Therefore, a social media site that’s designed to maximize engagement will inevitably favor appeals to them. Thoughtful conversation, calm deliberation and reasoned argument get crowded out.

They want us hooked

There’s a cost to this. Just as prolonged stress weakens and wears down the body, a constant bath of toxic emotions makes us smaller. Our perspective narrows; we develop tunnel vision. Everything different begins to seem threatening. We become less capable of critical thinking, of changing, of growing, or of accepting new ideas. We spiral into prejudice, tribalism and knee-jerk conservatism.

On top of this, social media is calibrated to deliver perpetual stimulation. Each like, each reply, each new follower sends a ping or plays a sound, delivering a small jolt of dopamine. Over time, this intermittent reinforcement trains the brain to crave more of the same. It’s the same addictive strategy used by designers of slot machines.

There’s a dark comparison that suggests itself: the tobacco companies that deliberately made cigarettes more addictive by boosting the nicotine content and adding flavorful chemicals. They wanted their users hooked, because a captive audience is the quickest path to big profit.

Social media may well prove to be the cigarette of the 21st century. It’s a pleasurable, addictive habit that’s bad for you. Just as we look back with horror at people of the past puffing away in restaurants and airplanes and hospitals, the future may judge us for how much time we spent mindlessly scrolling Facebook or Twitter. How is this rewiring our brains?

The constant hunger for engagement can produce absurd results, like this time Facebook suggested I follow a page that Facebook says is misinformation.

How can social media be better?

To be clear, social media isn’t inherently bad. Free speech is a priceless right. The world benefits when people have better communication and more access to information. Making connections with others makes us more empathetic and less prejudiced. I still believe all those things are true.

The problem arises when they’re shackled to the profit motive. That’s how we get viral misinformation that exploits our basest emotions to get itself shared; algorithms that downgrade thoughtful content in favor of low-effort memes; and incessant notifications that train us to crave constant stimulation and degrade our attention spans.

Social media may well prove to be the cigarette of the 21st century. It’s a pleasurable, addictive habit that’s bad for you.

It’s great to have daily updates about our friends’ lives or what’s happening in the world, but maybe we don’t need more of it than a few minutes a day. However, no for-profit company would design a site like this, because it would be devastating to their bottom line.

This suggests that the solution could be not-for-profit social media, operated as a public service. There’s precedent for this. The U.S. Constitution established the Post Office as a public good, and what was the Post Office if not the world’s first analog social network?

Another possibility would be to mandate interoperability between services. Imagine if people on different phone companies couldn’t call each other. You’d want to be on the one with the most users, because that’s where more of your friends were. For the same reason, your friends would also want to join that one so they could talk to you. This dynamic ensures a monopolistic, rich-get-richer outcome.

However, if different social media services could exchange messages with each other, you could use whichever one you liked best. If you could port your personal data between them, the same way you can transfer a phone number from one carrier to another, you wouldn’t be locked into whichever one you joined first. That way, social media services would have to compete on user-friendliness and features, not just their walled gardens and the network effect.

None of this will happen tomorrow, but there are steps that we as individuals can take in the meantime. We can choose to limit our social-media consumption by turning off notifications, or better yet, uninstalling the mobile apps so you have to sit down at a computer to use them. We can seek out other sources of connection, like old-school blogs, e-mail, text, and even physical letters!

I’m also trying out Mastodon, a decentralized, open-source alternative to Twitter. It shows you only the posts from people you choose to follow, in chronological order, without constantly tugging at your sleeve to get you to click more. I’d almost forgotten how refreshing that was. (If you use it too, you can follow me!)

Only time will tell if this project and others like it succeed. However, it’s clear that we collectively have an unhealthy dependence on for-profit social media, and our society is worse off for it. Maybe it’s time we tried to kick the habit.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...