Social Media & the End of Society

If you think the heading is a little dramatic, I can understand that. Maybe I should have retitled it to ‘Social media & the End of Society as We Know It?’ Here’s the thing right, if you look back over the past two decades, which has been the internet’s most profound stage of development, the net essentially offered a space where you could find and share information and meet new people. There are some names that have been there since the start but more than anything else, the net has given us a space in which trends have come and gone. However, there are certain trends that look set to stay, namely those of social media.

Social media & the End of Society

As human beings we have a tendency to jump on to things or trends and to embrace them with reckless abandon. It is only much later with hindsight that we look back and go “What the hell were we thinking?” I’ll give you an example; way back in the good old US of A – I’m talking 1885 to be more precise – the idea punted mostly is one of saloons, whiskey, big moustaches and six-shooter pistols. The more realistic one is a lot less ‘romantic.’ Americans were finding themselves in totally legal opium dens after work and mothers were giving their children opium and cocaine to subside the painful effects of teething. Back then you could head down to the drugstore and pick up a bottle of Cocaine Toothache Drops for 15cents a pop. Today those drugs are highly illegal, addictive and notorious with drug-smuggling cartels. See where I’m heading with this? Could the same one day go for TV programmes? Why is it called a programme? Will we look back on Facebook years from now and recoil in absolute horror?

Digital Addiction by Design

Facebook has 2 billion users and the world’s population is 7.6 billion. That puts the amount of people around the world using Facebook at a little under 25%. Naturally with so many people plugged in, Facebook has sought various ways to increase its revenue stream by way of paid advertising. If you’re thinking that advertising was a mere by-product, think again. Facebook, according founding member Sean Parker, was developed with the following objective: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” According to Parker Facebook’s founders created the social platform with the intention of exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. Yikes.

It’s Just like Gambling

Believe it or not, but the technologies embossed into the way that social media tools like Twitter and Facebook work affect the same neurological pathways as gambling or drinking would. The very same mental buttons that make us seek out love, food and comfort have been insidiously implemented into things like Facebook, Snapchat etc. It all comes down to a reward-based system that activates the brain’s dopamine pathways. So right now you might be asking yourself how does it work and where exactly is it? Well, allow me to point it out and I’m going to use Facebook as I’m quite sure this is one we’re all mostly accustomed to.

Firstly there’s the Like button, originally created as the Awesome button and by a designer named Justin Rosenthal who more than a decade ago spent a whole night coding it. Today he describes his creation as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure” that are as hollow as they are seductive. Many of these Silicon Valley pioneers are starting to see the errors of their ways. To further quote the creator of the Like button, and I think this speaks for many in the tech industry who have spearheaded and been responsible for the climate of social media tech we find ourselves in:

“It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions that have unintended, negative consequences.”

This brings me to the colour red, used to nudge you to check all the updates that appear on Facebook. The very fact that you don’t know what that red indicator is going to unveil has been likened to concept of gambling. There you are waiting to be surprised but you also know it could be something as whimsical as a birthday reminder or something as important as a Like on an important issue. Better yet, maybe your “prize” is a Like from someone you like more than just a friend. I’ll say this much, there are no financial rewards to those much-loved red nudges. If I wanted remuneration I’d just click on over to 7 Sultans Casino, but that’s another story altogether.

To further drive home the point on gambling, the very nature of the Facebook scroll feature, one implemented just a year or two ago, maybe three, is the ultimate take on a gamble feature. The way it works to ready our brains to unleash a small bit of dopamine is pure evil genius. Think about it; you want to see if there’s any update you’ve missed so what do you do? You tap the notification button, the icon defined by that of a bell if you’re using a smartphone. You see nothing so you position your thumb on the drop down menu, you pull it towards yourself and you wait with bated breath for the outcome. The outcome can be a slew of notifications, it can be one or it can be none. Need I expound more on likening Facebook to gambling?

Multiple Reasons for Concern

Multiple Reasons for Concern

I won’t lie to you, this could turn into a two part, maybe even a three part article, because there really is a lot to say. But I figure it might be best that I cash in this article’s chips soon. I believe, and I know I’m not alone, that there are multiple reasons to be concerned about social media. I have essentially focused on Facebook because it’s the one most of us use. The behavioural by-products of social media and the proliferation of certain forms of behaviour is what unsettles me the most.

Broadly speaking, I think social media is driving more of a wedge between us as opposed to bringing us together. Not only has it created a legion of narcissists, it’s created a platform for existing ones to flourish on. Social media has created a world in which it’s about showing everyone else how much better your life is than theirs. It’s created an unhealthy social competition in which your privacy is no longer safe, in which what you say could mean the end of your reputation, maybe even your job, in which witch hunts can be carried out overnight and in which friendships can be damaged or lost over something as simple as a disagreement over a post.

We’ve literally allowed ourselves to be duped into a global police state. All our actions online are monitored. Social media has given society at large a voice but it’s also allowed for hate speech to flourish and thus to destabilise us and cause further civil unrest. Nothing that I’ve mentioned thus far didn’t exist before, but through having allowed social media to penetrate the very fabric of our lives, we’ve unleashed something that should have been checked from day one. It’s here now and in the opinion of this writer, we need regulation. That’s right, I said it. Being allowed on social media, heck, maybe even the internet, should require a license. I know it goes against everything the net stands for, but as a species, if we’ve proven anything, it’s that we need to be kept in check.

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