The Two Faces of Social Media
Social Empowerment or Intellectual Dystopia?
Countless obituaries have been written for traditional media over the past decade. For local newspapers, the doom and gloom has been warranted.1 However, large national newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have figured out a way to survive with paid subscription models.
One way to justify charging for content is to dedicate significant resources toward investigative reporting. The Facebook Files series, published by the Wall Street starting in September, now has sixteen articles highlighting undeniably serious problems with Meta’s platforms.2
Journal reporters benefited from numerous leaked documents provided by Francis Haugen, a former Meta employee and self-styled whistleblower. Although there is some controversy regarding the propriety of Haugen’s disclosure of Meta documents, even the company has been unable to categorically deny the seriousness of the charges.3
Stepping back from Meta specifically and surveying the overall landscape, we can easily see that something fundamental has shifted over the past few years. The social media movement was making steady headway and then the pandemic had the effect of throwing a massive amount of fuel on the fire. Human beings are not meant to socially isolate and, for many people, social media took the place of in-person relationships for months after the start of the pandemic.
Would it have been better if people did not have recourse to technology to fill in the void left by the virus? I have yet to read any compelling argument that would support such an absolutist statement. The ability to work remotely and to connect with family and friends through technology certainly made a bad situation more tolerable for many people. Social media, specifically, allowed many businesses to continue to operate and communicate with customers. One would have to succumb entirely to cynicism to suggest that we would have been better off without these tools.
As the pandemic extended from weeks to months to years, what most people initially thought would be temporary palliative measures to get by for a short period hardened into more persistent habits. Habits, once formed, are usually difficult to change absent some new shock or a concerted effort. Many people who discovered that it was possible to work remotely have decided that they prefer such an arrangement. Others who resorted to social media to fill the void left by the pandemic continue to use it just as much even as society has gradually reopened.
I have long thought of Twitter as being the equivalent of the office water-cooler. But I should be more specific: I am referring to the “fintwit” subset of Twitter which is just one of many parallel “universes” that exist on the platform. What is fintwit great for? For the most part, the same thing that a water cooler in an office is good for, except with a vastly broader audience. Jokes, gossip, and hilarious memes vastly outnumber serious posts, but that’s part of the charm. You don’t get up from your desk to go to the water cooler to be productive, but to socialize.
There are plenty of examples of people who have made important connections on Twitter. Young people who would have never been noticed otherwise have been able to establish Twitter presences that led to employment or independent income streams. The flip side is that employers and others looking for talent have a vastly larger pool of people to consider. Unlike a traditional resume, following someone’s Twitter feed over a period of time gives you a sense not only of the individual’s intellectual abilities but also usually reveals other important attributes of personality.
Twitter is also often pseudonymous, to varying degrees. There are many accounts, such as mine, that are not “pseudonymous” in the strict sense, but are written by people who do not go out of their way to advertise identity due to privacy reasons. This aspect of Twitter is a double-edged sword. People who are writing pseudonymously might feel a greater freedom to tweet what’s on their minds, but there is also no accountability for terrible behavior.
Social media has addictive qualities that I think surface primarily in two ways. First, as a passive consumer of information, social media platforms are skilled at “curating” your feed in a way that learns your interests and presents a never-ending stream of content tuned to what you have proven you will click on in the past. This can result in a consumer of information falling into an echo chamber resembling an intellectual monoculture — a recipe for confirmation bias. Second, once a user starts posting on social media, the feedback loop comes into play. Human beings like attention, and the likes and retweets become addictive.
Alcohol has been used by humans for millennia and remains the most socially acceptable drug in use today. Like social media, alcohol has the potential to lubricate social interactions that otherwise might not take place. Before the pandemic, how many people were introduced to employers, friends, and future spouses at events where alcohol took center stage? When not taken to excess, alcohol can provide the push to take some modest risks that otherwise would not be taken. But the dark side of alcohol is obviously well known, and it can far outweigh the positive aspects. Deaths from disease and accidents, not to mention the social harm done in alcohol fueled stupors, date back to antiquity.
The analogy between alcohol and social media is obviously imperfect. Alcohol is a substance one takes into the body physically. Information, including social media, is something one takes into the body through the mind. Social media can lubricate relationships and open doors that otherwise would remain firmly shut, but it can also cause addictive and compulsive behavior.
From the standpoint of a consumer of information, I am convinced that the worst aspect of technology in general is that interrupts the state of flow by leading to endless context switching.4 All meaningful productivity occurs in a flow state. If you are picking up your phone a dozen times an hour to check how many likes you got on your latest tweet, there is zero chance of entering a state of flow.
If you have information to communicate, social media falls short due to its tendency to reward trite soundbites over serious content. I am a proponent of not using more words than necessary to make a point, but how much is lost when one tries to condense a thought into 280 characters? It’s true that many fintwit accounts use “threads”, or series of tweets to communicate more complex ideas. However, isn’t a blog or a Substack a better way to communicate something meant to last more than a few minutes?
From personal experience, I can say that any day removed from social media is far more productive than days where I am on social media, and it isn’t even close. This does not mean that other people will not find social media productive — some clearly do, but I would suggest that it depends on personality and how prone you are to getting sucked into the platform. Keep in mind that social media platforms are specifically designed to be immersive experiences and it seems prudent to assume that you risk being sucked in unless you’ve proven capable of resisting! All things considered, I prefer communicating in a longer format than 280 character chunks.
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Warren Buffett’s sale of Berkshire’s newspaper operations in 2020 was perhaps the final nail in the coffin. Buffett had decades of experience in the newspaper industry and increased Berkshire’s exposure to local papers in the early 2010s. Buffett explained his thesis for local newspapers on pages 16-18 of the 2012 Berkshire Hathaway annual report.
Facebook changed its corporate name to Meta on October 28. The Facebook social media platform’s name is unchanged.
It is difficult to identify the most troubling revelations, but Facebook’s intentional targeting of teenagers and pre-teens has to be at the top of the list. If adults have trouble self-regulating when it comes to social media, children are nearly defenseless. And let’s not limit criticism to Facebook. The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of TikTok reveals even more pernicious targeting.