The Social Media Cancer

I get it: it’s hip to be railing against social media now that everyone and their mother is on it. That’s conventional wisdom anyway. But what if, just what if, there’s really something wrong with social media and we’re just ignoring the signs because we think we can’t do without it?

What if it were the people who started social media — who made social media what it is — already warning us about its adverse effects? Surely that deserves a hearing?

Sean Parker, creator of Napster and one of Facebook’s first investors, made a bit of a splash in the news back in November 2017 when he announced that he had become a conscientious objector to social media. After achieving much success, Parker began feeling the pangs of guilt. Parker confessed that the design of Facebook was “to consume as much of your time and attention as possible.”

He explains further: “That means that we needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever… It’s a social validation feedback loop… It’s exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”

He adds: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

When he was at Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya was vice president of user growth, meaning it was his job to get as many people as possible on the platform. Now he’s also warning people against social media. In a talk he gave last December, he warned his audience:

“You don’t realize it, but you are being programmed. But now you got to decide how much you’re willing to give up, how much of your intellectual independence.” He doesn’t use Facebook anymore, and his children are not allowed to, either.

“We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded in these short-term signals—hearts, likes, thumbs up—and we conflate that with value, and we conflate it with truth,” Palihapitiya said. “And instead what it really is is fake, brittle popularity that’s short-term and that leaves you even more—admit it—vacant and empty before you did it, because then it forces you into this vicious cycle…”

More than the effects on persons, Palihapitiya worries that social media has lingering ill effects on society as a whole. “The short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created, are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”