In our Information Age, social media engagement has become ubiquitous, and contagious. According to recent surveys, internet users are now spending an average of 2.3 hours per day on social networking and messaging platforms (the most popular being Facebook and YouTube).
This proliferation of online social networks (OSNs) has had both good and bad consequences. In What Technology Wants, technology author Kevin Kelly gushes with the promise of social connection:
Right before my eyes, I saw online networks connect people with ideas, options, and other people they could not possibly have met otherwise. Online networks unleashed passions, compounded creativity, amplified generosity.[i] (italicsmine)
In Alone Together, psychologist and author Sherry Turkle examines how technology, in turn, shapes our social interaction:
People love their new technologies of connection. They have made parents and children feel more secure and have revolutionized business, education, scholarship, and medicine. …They have changed how we date and how we travel. The global reach of connectivity can make the most isolated outpost into a center of learning and economic activity. The word “apps” summons the pleasure of tasks accomplished on mobile devices, some of which, only recently, we would not have dreamed possible…[ii]
Nonetheless, we’ve witnessed how this wondrous technology also imposes a Faustian bargain, with implications for our social relationships, mental health and happiness, and our public discourse. Turkle presents a large body of evidence that portrays the tech generation as increasingly insecure, isolated, and lonely. We’ve discovered that digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the commitment of friendship. We are drawn to the comfort of connection without the demands of intimacy. Facebook offers us hundreds of “friends,” but not a single one to confide in. What’s happening, Turkle discovered, is that as we expect more from technology, we expect less from each other.
On the societal level, social media has come under fire for promoting political propaganda and fostering malicious or even violent behavior, polarizing democratic societies into uncompromising bubbles. The negatives are starting to outweigh the positives.
In order to better manage this technology, we need to investigate the positive and negative effects of OSNs so we can enhance the good, minimize the bad, and, if possible, eliminate the ugly. Let us start by summarizing these mixed effects:
1. The Good: social media has enriched opportunities for social connection and genuine friendship across distances, much as the telephone did a century ago. It has enabled decentralized peer-to-peer information sharing that can be essential during times of crisis. Social media has increased the potential for serendipity in social relationships and social participation. Finally, social networking has aided in building more robust communities among like-minded users and also enabled connections across diverse groups.
2. The Bad: social media engagement is often contagious (and is designed to be that way) and can become addicting. This can lead to asocial behavior with personal narcissism and status seeking. As a substitute for real human connection, it can lead to emotional isolation and severe anxiety due to fear of missing out (FOMO). Public metrics, like the number of friends, can contribute to feelings of inferiority and despair. Social networking can erect barriers as well as break them down.
3. The Ugly: the competition for status on social networks can lead to malicious gossip and bullying. Emotional isolation increases the potential for violent anti-social behavior, such as that promoted by the Unabomber. Social media has generated misinformation and political propaganda on a large scale, diminishing our trust in social institutions and enabling malignant actors to organize their mischief. Lastly, it has empowered the invasion of our personal privacy, often through our own ignorance of the dangers.
What separates the good from the bad and ugly? Largely it is the nature of the content and the context in which it is shared. Much of the deterioration of online content and interaction can be attributed to the advertising revenue models of the platforms, where the business incentives of the platforms do not align well with the social needs and wants of users. Social media giants like Facebook and YouTube generate huge advertising revenues from free, user-generated content. It is not in their interest to guard user privacy, but rather to promote all data sharing to monetize. They reap no meaningful benefit by costly monitoring of users or content, so their platforms have become playgrounds for trolls, flamers, bullies, hackers, propagandists, and digital media addicts.
Turkle observes that the psychological logic of social networks can be stated thus, “I share, therefore I am.” This is a degenerate form of René Descartes’s famous proposition, “I think, therefore I am.” One might smartly identify one major problem of social networking as “I share before I think.” There’s certainly some truth to that, but the psychology goes deeper than this. Turkle argues that we have used OSN technology to alleviate social isolation, but also to avoid the emotional intimacy that often makes social relationships uncomfortable, but ultimately rewarding.
Many who have felt this odd tension have disengaged completely, as reflected in attrition rates for OSNs. But with so many benefits, the public will not abandon social networking; rather, we must and will transform it. Consider the fact that Facebook is actually a centralized global gossip network. Even given the benefits of gossip for monitoring social behavior in small communities, a global gossip network makes no sense from a social human psychology perspective.
So, how do we promote good effects and weed out the bad effects? First, the sharing of content becomes meaningless if the actual content is devoid of meaning. The blessing and curse of the Information Age is Too Much Information. Given the constraints of the time and energy required for attention, why are we distracting ourselves with nonsense on social media?
If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of psychological needs, we find the pinnacle of self-actualization occupied by moral thinking, creativity, and problem-solving. These provide meaning to our inner lives. At the next stage down we find self-esteem, confidence, and mutual respect, while at the third level we find social connection and belonging. Below these are the crucial stages of personal security and physiological needs. The first four stages of human needs are necessary, but the meaning of our lives is attained through the final stage at the top of the pyramid. One might expand Descartes’s proposition to: “I think, I create, I imagine; therefore I am.”
Meaningful information is valued more than trivia, but what is meaningful? That depends somewhat on the context of social interaction. Friendships tend to focus on highly personal and particular information and content, i.e., photos of your dog or last night’s homemade casserole. Larger scale networks lean toward more universal ideas, content, or information. Huge centralized platforms, what we might call Big Social, are seeing less engagement, with a wide range of new niche platforms stealing the attention and devotion of people who prefer decentralized and peer-to-peer interactions outside a system of attention control based on advertising. These niche competitors will be less focused on sharing and more on what is being shared and with whom. To promote meaning in human interaction social media needs to be more about imagining, creating and collaborating. Such connections are more in tune with the human than the technological. These activities enhance our mental health rather than distract us. Psychological studies show that creative stimulation and interaction can help reverse debilitating addictions.
Who we share meaning with, in what context, is becoming more crucial to online engagement. User anonymity provides cover for anti-social behavior as anonymous users can do and say anything without being sanctioned or censored. Fake user accounts lead to fake information and uninhibited abuse of community trust. It’s like going to a masquerade ball and entrusting your valuables to masked actors who cannot be identified. The loss of privacy in the context of meaningful social interaction is secondary to building trust and reputational capital through accountability, which makes privacy less salient.
Appropriate technological and business model design should be able to solve this problem because technology tackles the tasks of searching, filtering, sorting, connecting, and reconnecting far more efficiently than serendipitous face-to-face social interaction. A good example is online dating, with the stark comparison between eHarmony and Tinder. Social networking should help us coordinate rather than segregate. It should enable us to harmonize our social interactions in a positive direction, according to complex matrices of particular interests, while also allowing us to filter out unwanted noise and negativity.
This networking challenge is best addressed by empowering human assets within the network, rather than relying solely on mechanistic algorithms based on network metrics. As Turkle says, real communities are constituted by physical proximity, shared concerns, real consequences, and common responsibilities. Also by real people. Online connectivity relaxes the physical proximity constraint, but the shared human imperatives of socialization remain, even when we connect through a computer interface.
Looking into the future of social media and social networking, we can summarize the aforementioned qualities it will likely need to embody:
1. The future will be decentralized. We have little need for a centralized global gossip network. Rather platforms will be built on peer-to-peer interactions, which means decentralized control;
2. Content matters. Content is valued by participants in the social community. Content that does not enhance the value of the network needs to be screened out, by users and/or the design of the network;
3. No anonymity. Community networks will reward reputational capital and reciprocity through verified identities, so there is a negative carry cost to anonymity. This, along with potential sanctions, helps minimize threats by bad actors;
4. User engagement in managing network dynamics is essential. User control not only encourages participation and engagement in the community, but it also places responsibility and accountability for engagement in the right hands. The human element is critical;
5. Scale matters, especially for social engagement. Everything else is broadcasting. Larger sharing networks can be filtered and segregated into smaller entities for engagement, without losing connection to the larger community.
The future will be better.