Imagine a world without social media. It’s easy if you try.
Well, scratch that: It’s actually not easy at all. Odds are, you’re kind of addicted to social media, whether you admit it or not. According to Jaron Lanier, a Silicon Valley virtual-reality pioneer and author of the new book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, that addiction might be eroding your soul.
We’ll get to the book, which is worth reading, in a moment. But before that, let’s try to imagine that world without social media, if only for sport.
Without social media, for instance, would the social train wreck surrounding the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va. — you know, the one that banished Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family this week — have devolved into the embarrassing conflagration it is today? Sure, various people acted like jerks, but people have occasionally acted like jerks since the beginning of time. But let’s imagine l’affaire Red Hen without “the fire and ire of social media,” as the Washington Post aptly put it. It’s rather enlightening.
Without social media, would we have seen a frenzied rash of vengeance-strewn over-the-top Yelp-bombings — often aimed at the wrong restaurant? Without social media, would a woman who has the poor luck of sharing the same name as the Red Hen’s owner watch her personal information get emblazoned all over the Internet, earning death threats in return? Without social media, would the saga have wildly pinged and ponged and flamed and finally escalated to the point where a man was arrested for pelting the Red Hen with manure?
As an aside, the act of pelting something with manure seems like a lose-lose situation, does it not? I mean, first, you have to actually gather the stuff, unless you have a long-suffering octogenarian butler who will reluctantly do it for you. Next, you have to transport the manure, which might befoul your rollerblades. Finally, in order to hurl the cow poo, you have to hold it in some way. Even if you’re wearing gloves or using a slingshot or utilizing one of those makeshift potato guns, you will probably get some of it on your hands. Then you might get traces of it in your eyes, which could lead to a raging case of conjunctivitis, which is an absolute nightmare for those of us who wear contact lenses, let me tell you.
The passionate hurling of manure, in short, is a degrading business. Now that I think about it, it might also serve as an excellent metaphor for social media.
Certainly, there are good things on social media: baby pictures, dog pictures, funny videos, goofy memes, and sponsored links where you can compulsively buy things like South Korean “miracle masks” or Gwyneth Paltrow’s entire nighttime skincare routine. (Hey-yo! Guilty as charged!) You might also be a completely “good” person on social media, which means you don’t blindly join empathy-free insta-mobs that regularly threaten to murder complete strangers. But in its own way, as Lanier points out in his book, social media has a way of bringing everyone down. It’s “the cage,” he writes, “that goes everywhere with you” — and if I might paraphrase C. S. Lewis, the doors are firmly locked from the inside.
Social media rewards jerky behavior, encourages mass jerkdom in the larger populace, corrupts journalism, corrodes empathy, encourages fakery, deprives arguments of context, distorts reality, spreads unhappiness, and on and on and on.
Some of Lanier’s arguments might resonate more with certain readers more than others — I, for one, tend to view smartphones with far more suspicion than he does and believe they are addictive in their own right — but the overall arc of the book hits home. We the people are not the customers of social media, Lanier reminds us. We are the product. Moreover, he adds, “we’re all lab animals now,” acting as willing participants in a massive behavior-modification scheme. Lanier abbreviates this phenomenon as BUMMER: “Behavior of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” In short, your emotional swings and insecurities and general behavior patterns are subtly manipulated by social media, all ultimately translating into big data — and, of course, big money — for someone else.
What do social-media users get in return? Sure, there are vacation shots and wedding photos, which are nice. On the flipside, Lanier outlines how social media rewards jerky behavior, encourages mass jerkdom in the larger populace, corrupts journalism (“the more successful a writer is in this system, the less she knows what she’s writing”), corrodes empathy, encourages fakery, deprives arguments of context, distorts reality, spreads unhappiness, and on and on and on. According to a new report from Pew Research, four in ten Americans have “personally experienced online harassment.” If one were to narrow that survey to people who work in politics, you can bet the result would be a lot closer to ten in ten.
Deep down, most of us know social media has major downsides. But hey, let’s be honest, it’s hard to quit. In addition to its built-in rapid-fire dopamine-hit infrastructure, social media fills users with a latent fear of missing out. Having been on a Twitter strike for almost three months, I crept back on to “research” this column. I cannot tell a lie: On one hand, I felt like that character in the first Jurassic Park — played by Newman from Seinfield! — who gets hit in the face with a splash of blinding, poisonous dinosaur spit and runs around in agony yelling something akin to “MY EYES! MY EYES!” On the other hand, the siren song of Twitter — Scroll, click! Scroll, click! — came through loud and clear.
Those people in Silicon Valley aren’t dumb.
Anyway, I closed the browser, and I’m back on strike. Lanier isn’t completely without hope, by the way: Without users rebelling, he argues, what incentive will social networks have to change for the better? For those on the fence, or who aren’t entirely ready to press “delete,” he proposes that we meet him halfway: If you can’t manage to completely wipe out your social-media accounts, “do at least one thing: Detach from the behavior-modification empires for a while — six months, say?” Then, he argues, you’ll have more perspective with about your choices.
What do you have to lose? It won’t be easy; like many of us, you’re probably addicted. But that’s all the more reason to give it a try.