Two Fundamental Concerns about Social Media

The bulk of my concerns about social media can be broken into two fundamental areas: its psychological impacts on us and the centralization of our data. Almost everything else (and most of what you’ll read about on this blog) are offshoots of these fundamental concerns. This is a brief summary of both of them.

Psychological Impacts

There are a lot of questions about what social media is doing to our brains, which researchers are only just beginning to explore. Is it behind the increase in teen depression and suicide rates? Does it lead to increased bullying? Does it lead to a decreased sense of self worth? Are we addicted to it? If so, why are we addicted to it? Is there an evolutionary component to our behavior on social media?

I think the answer to all of these questions is that we really don’t know yet. Researchers have established links between unhappiness and social media use, but we really don’t understand the extent to which social media impacts us. We are also still in early days of social media, so there is no way to understand the full extent of long-term psychological impacts of  social media.

Centralization of our data

This might seem like a two-parter, but it’s really two sides of the same coin. Due to network effects, the world of social media has always been destined to consolidate to a few platforms. These are Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Twitter, and Snapchat – at least in the US. Due to the concentration of where we congregate online, these firms now have outsized power, and are essentially monopolies. When a firm is a monopoly, it doesn’t have an incentive to fight back against abusive trolls or fake news.

It is also in the position to collect vast amount of data on its users, which is can then sell to the highest bidder. When we learn that a company is abusing our data, it might create a brief PR storm, but that will soon blow over. The truth is that social media users do not have the ability to choose an alternative provider who does not abuse their data.

Steven Johnson wrote an excellent piece in the New York Times in early 2018 about blockchain and the benefits of a decentralized internet. The (long) article is well worth a read. It speaks to the benefits of decentralization, verification, open protocols and the lack of an “owner”. Why bring up an article on blockchain in a blog about social media? Look at this quote:

The true believers behind blockchain platforms like Ethereum argue that a network of distributed trust is one of those advances in software architecture that will prove, in the long run, to have historic significance.

The Bitcoin bubble has become a distraction from the true significance of the blockchain. If we look past the speculative bubble, we can see the potential of a “network of distributed trust”. This could lead to a decentralized and democratized version of the internet we know today. This would prevent our identities from being housed in Facebook or Google’s walled gardens. We could have an identity that exists based on open protocols, and we can take it from platform to platform as we please. There would be penalties for abusing our data.

It is helpful to understand the two layers of the internet. The first is based on open protocols that were developed in the 1970s, which still exist today – email and web browsing still works on these. This layer is decentralized. The second layer of the internet are the platforms that we use to access the internet today. These are private companies such as Facebook or Twitter. This layer is private and highly centralized.

Johnson argues that keeping smartphones away from kids and government regulation are commendable, but will not cure all of societies ills. This belief – that there is no silver bullet to protect us from social media – is a fundamental reason for the existence of this blog.

Johnson paints a vision for a decentralized future with open protocols overtaking the highly lucrative private platforms that exist today. Blockchain, afterall, has shown us that it is possible for everyone to agree on the contents of a database without the database having an “owner”.

I hope he is right. But his vision requires the success of swashbuckling punk rockers that are driven purely by a mission to restore the internet to its original utopian vision. This would require everyone to turn a blind eye to the gobs of money that will be thrown at him to keep the internet closed.

Until then, the social media platforms we use will remain closed and highly centralized. Our data lives with these private companies, which earn their revenue by harvesting and selling our data. While some are perfectly comfortable with the sale of our personal data by fortune 500 companies, it is important to remember that these private companies are vulnerable to attacks, and our personal information can get into shadier hands.

This all leaves me thinking about a very prescient tweet that I saw once, which I would love to attribute to its author, but cannot remember:

The only businesses that refer to their customers as “users” are tech companies and drug dealers

This is what drives this blog. There are many questions about what social media is doing to us. Most of the efforts to understand social media have to do with monetizing our attention. How can businesses advertise to users as they spend time on these platforms? And how can the social media platforms monetize the time we spend using their technology? It’s fine that many smart people are dedicated to answering these questions – because if they weren’t, bad actors would fill that void.

However, the conversations about what social media does to our brains seems limited to fragmented academic studies. Discussions on social media’s centralization and its impact on society have become more mainstream recently, but do not seem to have impacted the fundamentals of how social media platforms operate.

Those of us that seek to understand what is happening to us as individuals and society as a whole will never come to a satisfying conclusion. We seem destined to only uncover more questions. Questions I am happy to continue asking.

 

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