A few years ago, Aziz Ansari made the excellent point on the Freakonomics podcast that the time he spends on social media could be spend enjoying great literature that has been cherished for centuries. I find myself agreeing with that point more and more. Every time I check Twitter, I may feed that dopamine craving of checking in with that is happening in the world, but I don’t get any real enlightenment or true satisfaction.
However, as I have taken steps to cut back on my own social media use, I have not found that it leads to a direct increase in my consumption of real culture. For one, I don’t exactly have the ability to whip out War & Peace for two minutes between meetings at work. I certainly waste time on social media, and should spend more time reading great books, but it isn’t an easy substitute. This is in part because of how social media has inserted itself into our lives to be ubiquitous, available with as few hurdles as possible.
I do consider myself to be moderately addicted to social media – currently my fix comes from Twitter. Part of this has to do with the world we live in today, with my craving for breaking news constantly being fed by one thing or another. But I was addicted to social media long before the 2016 election, so blaming the news cycle would be a cop out. I think often about the Radiolab episode, in which they discussed addiction, and how there is a school of thought people who are more prone to addiction are merely more highly evolved. The argument goes that we as humans evolved to respond to the pleasure centers of the brain, because it helped us avoid poisonous fruits. The pleasure center evolved to make sure we ate oranges and not poisonous berries. Unfortunately, this makes us susceptible to drugs that really trigger the pleasure center. Could social media be similar?
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee wrote in USA Today that there are parallels to when humans first started forming cities. He makes the point that when we were spread out as hunters and gatherers, we’d come into contact with a few dozen other people a year. When we moved to cities, we’d see a few hundred a day. This created an environment in which diseases could flourish. Before cities, a disease would impact only a few people and then die off because there was no one else to infect. Once cities formed, it had the ability to spread exponentially.
The same is now true of bad ideas on social media. If I had a conspiracy in 1985 that I wanted to spread, my idea would probably not extend beyond my group of friends. But if I’m on Reddit, Twitter or Facebook – not only do I contact many more people in a day – but my ideas can be easily and effortlessly shared by everyone I reach. Exponential spread.
This puts us in dangerous territory. An incorrect narrative, doctored photo or video, or mistaken identity can spread like wildfire. This is especially true when it confirms a belief that someone holds. The old saying goes, it’s easier to fool someone that convince them they’ve been fooled.
Bad ideas and false narratives are only one negative side effect of social media. Typical symptoms of depression in teens rose 33% from 2010 to 2015, correlating strongly with the increase in usage of smartphones and social media. Getting “likes” on our photos and posts has replaced actual enjoyment of experiences for some. Our sense of self worth is now quantified in the number of likes our posts get, leaving our psyches desperately fragile.
Psychologists have also shown evidence that we are really addicted to social media. Research has shown that receiving a text or Tweet can light up the same area of the brain as heroin or cocaine. This is why I am constantly checking Twitter. Not for real enjoyment. For that hit of dopamine.
A ray of light emerges from Reynolds’ cities metaphor. He shows us a path forward. We fought back against the diseases that spread with cities by adapting. We developed better nutrition, medicine and public services. There is no questioning that human migration to cities brought about a plethora of scientific and societal advances that would have been impossible otherwise. Likewise, there can be no denying that social media has brought with it advances as well. Disenfranchised can speak out, artists have new platforms to share their work, and sometimes it can be nice to see a picture of an old friend you haven’t talked to in a while.
The honest truth is that there is no silver bullet coming to help us. No app, no startup, no product, or any kind of technology-driven solution is going to let us enjoy the benefits of social media while offering us compete protection from all of its dangers. If you are like me, and believe we need help navigating social media, this is concerning. I don’t think we need to cut out social media altogether – it is clearly here to stay – but we need to understand how to manage it in our lives.
What needs to happen is we need to evolve, as both individuals and society.
I have taken measures to cut down on my own social media use. I deleted Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare from my phone. I still don’t have stacks of classic American literature sitting around my house. I have made a conscious effort to read more, but there wasn’t a 1:1 exchange for a minute spent on social media replaced with a minute of reading a book. It just doesn’t work like that. Social media has made itself extremely ubiquitous in our lives in a way that a book – or even a newspaper – article can’t replicate.
The societal evolution also seem to be off to a slow start. It was made abundantly clear recently that the United States Congress is in way over its head with regards to social media. The Supreme Court refused to even think about the technical and data complexities of gerrymandering when they realized how smart the analytics people were by describing the gerrymandering methods as sociological gobbledygook. Essentially letting the public know that if an issue requires any level of technical or statistical depth, the Supreme Court is not going to step in, because they don’t get it.
More simply put – this is going to be a battle and it is up to us as individuals to fight that battle. On the other end of our phones and computer screens are engineers, data scientist and sociologists that do everything in their power to make their product as sticky as possible. There may be an evolutionary angle here. There is a new predator among us, praying on our attention and capacity to learn and become productive members of society. Some will certainly adapt and survive – thrive even. My hope is that society can make sure to limit the number of us that don’t to as few as possible.