Contemplating the Role of Social Media (in our lives, and in society)

What’s in a like? Not much, really—another toggle from 0 and 1; an electronic stamp of approval, existing nowhere real and barely contemplated. It is reactionary. Visible, yes, but hardly tangible. Constructed. Created. Imaginary.

But it feels good. And sometimes it even matters.

This week, in my Psych Café series at UBC (in which my students are given the opportunity to discuss current social issues in greater depth), we explored the role of social media in our lives. My impression has been that the problems and challenges are clearly increasing, while the solutions remain elusive. Here’s what we discussed…

I asked everyone to consider two broad questions. First, is social media good or bad for the individual? And second, is it good or bad for society? What seemed undeniable throughout our discussion was the potential for a positive role of social media in our lives. These digital spaces, however isolating and separating they can be, afford us with unique opportunities to connect with others, and by extension, with opportunities to cultivate identities and communities that would have otherwise never existed. They further enable the discourse and coordination that have been essential to many recent social movements, from #MeToo to #BlackLivesMatter—both amplified considerably by social media. And for individuals, they have the obvious potential to connect over vast distances in ways that are more dynamic than a mere phone call; and more complex.

Yet for the individual, anxiety, depression, and loneliness are likely outcomes. Indeed, though they do not affect everyone equally, such psychological effects are the more likely results of social media use according to numerous studies conducted over the past decade. Anger also tends to increase; life satisfaction tends to decrease; and self-esteem takes a hit, as body image issues are exacerbated. In addition to the unnatural degree of self-examination and filtered presentation occurring on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, a significant factor underlying the distress stemming from social media is a fear of missing out. Social media, by their very design, operate on the basis of social comparison. They are also inherently superficial, in so much that what is shared is primarily visual, always oversimplified and abbreviated, absent of depth or context; and in so much that responses to content are usually reduced to a like, emoji, or tweet—mere clicks on keyboards and smartphones. To top it all off, these clicks are addictive, as are the likes and shares received from “friends” and followers. Whether ultimately good or bad, it is important to see the superficial quality of it all. Everything is reduced, and in most cases reduced as much as possible, in order to fit the constraints of whatever platform or app one is using at the time. It should be of no surprise, considering the programmed preference for that which is visually stimulating, attention grabbing, and brief, that social media also appear to either cause or intensify narcissistic attitudes and behaviours. These online spaces require self-objectification; they are further constructed on the premises of brevity and social comparison. When everything hinges on a like or share, are self-aggrandizement, attention-seeking, and derogation of others (some of the hallmarks of narcissism) really all that surprising?

These problems exist in addition to concerns over privacy, copyright, and analytics, and over the ways in which platforms like Facebook regularly profit from our online behaviour and even manipulate our emotions in order to determine marketable content. But these are, after all, websites and apps that exist to turn a profit. They are not publicly owned, as much as they may feel like public spaces; even “our” content isn’t really ours at all. Nor is the moral or ethical substrate on which any given social media platform is built. We can choose how we are seen and heard by others, but the media through which we are seen—their construction and design, their makeup, their organization and presentation, and their measures of control—are determined by the morals and ethics of a few. Try as they may to please their users, what would we do if their morals and ethics were incompatible with our own? 

Greater concerns, I believe, exist for society. The ways in which social media are designed, and the technologies on which they are built, inevitably operate to create echo chambers. We use our social media within self-reinforcing boundaries or “bubbles.” We see what we will probably like from friends and followers simply because we’ve liked it (or something similar) before; indeed every “like” or emoji is a vote, each collated and quantified in order to give us more of what we want, and in doing so, keep us coming back for more. But what are the social consequences? Do we really want people to be so isolated, or do we want them to be exposed to diverse ideas and perspectives? I can’t help but foresee stagnation as the probable outcome of our echo chambers. Where’s the perpetual revolution, the dynamic flux, so essential to complex social systems without regular exposure to novelty and contrast? Of course such echo chambers also affect the spread of misinformation (information that is inaccurate or incomplete) and disinformation (that which is intentionally meant to mislead and falsify), two other notable and glaring societal challenges associated with social media. In their reductionistic approach, information, news, and even science are also further condensed (and I will add here that few things are more problematic than the removal of context and nuance from discussions of science, research, and data). Not only is important information left out, but false information is more easily presented as truth. (With such superficial engagement, who can tell the difference?) And so we see social and intellectual challenges like anti-vaccine rhetoric, climate change denialism, and the flat-earth conspiracy proliferate. Many of these social phenomena may have fizzled out by now had it not been for the echoing walls of social media. 

Add to this the consideration of divisive subcultures and hate groups, like the Proud Boys or Incels, and you start to see that despite whatever positive opportunities exist for identity and community, there are equally negative and problematic consequences to facilitating long-distance social connections with such ease. Identities and communities founded on bigotry and violence are also better engaged and supported on social media. (But I will admit that this outcome may be unavoidable, and endemic not to social media but to the Internet more broadly. )

Importantly, through their superficial reduction of all things shared and posted, social media have a way of polarizing us on issues of social and political concern (even to the point of motivating us towards a particular group membership or allegiance, sometimes hate-oriented or outright terrorist). It’s one thing to have your love of cat memes reinforced, or your access to celebrity gossip simplified, but it’s another to be repeatedly fed the idea that everything is either black or white—that on every issue, one must choose (toggle between?) yes or no; that everything is either good or bad; or worse, that on every question or debate, one must take a side (political or otherwise), and take it quickly! Evidence is already emerging that viewing political content on social media makes people more polarized on social and political issues. This isn’t an imagined outcome; it’s been demonstrated. And again, what is perhaps most concerning is the oversimplification and superficiality that result. Complex issues and topics are consumed as short headlines and memes, human stories are fit into one- and two-minute reads, and the point quickly becomes lost. If there was one thing we all clearly agreed on in our discussion, it was that information shared on social media lacks substance. Context and depth are sacrificed for the sake of clicking and scrolling. It should be of no surprise then that organized efforts to manipulate people’s attitudes and beliefs regarding real-world issues have proven effective on social media, as seen in the recent dissemination of polarizing information on vaccines and in the 2016 U.S. election (both instigated by a foreign government, no less). But as users (people) themselves are presented superficially, so too are important topics and issues; so too is social discourse itself. Human stories are treated and responded to without humanity; moral judgments are handed down at the click of a button or tweet, as the court of public opinion grows; and news on climate change and social injustice—the stuff that should really matter to us—is mocked, plagued by laughing emojis and divisive comments from trolls and bots. It’s as if we’ve thrown away everything we know to be valuable—temperance, patience, justice, and reflection, even humility—in this particular “evolution” of social connection. 

The image unavoidably emerges that despite whatever benefits exist, these are (potentially) dangerous spaces for both the individual and society at large. In addition to compromising the mental health of the individual user, social media further remove us from what is real—and from nature itself. Though they may expand our opportunities, they also limit them. They remove us from a place of thoughtful consideration, abandoning critical thinking and forethought, and they sow division in their reductionistic approach to both identity and information. They undoubtedly lack the substance that not only makes our lives more meaningful, but also makes our world—and the issues and challenges we face—more real. I left  our discussion with an important (and problematic) question on my mind: Is this notion of substance, which we all agree is important but lacking, actually incongruent with the fundamental nature of Facebook and social media in the first place? In other words, is it even reasonable to expect substance and depth from a medium that is founded on notions of brevity and speed? Is it reasonable to expect anything other than narcissism and self-indulgence, for example, from an app like Instagram? Or is it at all logical to presume that one could somehow manage to be “real” or “deep” in 280 characters or less?

Although we realized that social media and the technologies on which they are based are likely here to stay, we had a difficult time seeing a clear path out of many of these challenges. Perhaps we can limit our use of social media, at least in order to reduce the impact on our well-being. On the social level, perhaps it’s a matter of education—not just education in general, but specifically on the limitations of these online social spaces, and on the pitfalls of sharing and consuming information with so little opportunity for detail or depth. As users, we do maintain control over how we use social media, after all. Let’s try to use it with a little more awareness.

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