Yes, I’m still thinking about this — although (believe it or not) reading this book came after I had made the decisions detailed here and here about the role of social media in my life. It has absolutely reinforced my convictions that I need to get off social media, though, and I’m glad that I have read it because Jaron Lanier is both better informed and much more eloquent than I am.
But first, who is Jaron Lanier, and why should we listen to what he has to say? Lanier is not a Luddite by any means, nor is he just some anti-technology crank. On the contrary; Lanier has been a programmer and computer scientist since the 1980s, and is intimately acquainted with Silicon Valley’s companies, workers, and products. He founded the first company that sold virtual reality products. He currently works for Microsoft. In short, he knows what he’s talking about — and what he’s talking about is alarming. (This profile of Lanier at The Guardian is nearly twenty years out of date now, but still a fascinating read. Alternatively, here is the bio page on his personal website.)
So, social media. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is a book designed to ring all of our alarm bells. Lanier dives into how social media works (what is that mysterious thing called “the algorithm” and what is it doing?) and how it affects our lives. Here are his ten reasons for deleting:
- You are losing your free will.
- Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.
- Social media is making you into an a**hole. [I censored that one for you, Grandma]
- Social media is undermining truth.
- Social media is making what you say meaningless.
- Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy.
- Social media is making you unhappy.
- Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity.
- Social media is making politics impossible.
- Social media hates your soul.
I won’t get into each of these arguments — you should just read the book, as it’s on the short side and very digestible — but here are some things I found particularly intriguing.
Argument one: you are losing your free will. Why is that? Because social media is deliberately designed to be addictive, and because addiction is the opposite of free will. I know that I’ve struggled with the impulse to constantly check my social media accounts, or to log on just to check one thing and only resurface an hour later. What I didn’t know is that a surprising number of Silicon Valley bigwigs have backgrounds in behaviourism, and that those backgrounds come into play in the way that social media is constructed. Underneath the surface, it’s not about connecting people or sharing our lives — fundamentally, the purpose of most of what we see on social media is to keep us engaged, to keep us returning to the site in question.
How does this work? Through both positive and negative feedback (and the way our brains react to both of those by trying to find the underlying pattern), through social pressure, and through the amplification of emotions to keep us engaged. But the easiest emotions to amplify are the negative ones: sadness, fear, anger. As we use social media, the adaptive algorithms that power it notice what keeps us engaged and feed us more of those things — and nearly always, those are the things that make us upset. We keep coming back because our buttons keep getting pushed. We lose our inability to stay off of social media for meaningful amounts of time. Our free will is being eroded.
Arguments three and six: social media is making you into an a**hole and destroying your capacity for empathy. These ones go hand in hand, really. And we don’t need Jaron Lanier to tell us that people can be horrible in the relatively anonymous space the internet provides — just open up the comments section of any online newspaper article and observe the vitriol flying. Flaming, trolling, malicious doxxing — we’ve seen it all. But the question is: why? Are we really so collectively uncivil? Or is there something about the platforms we’re using that brings out the worst in human nature?
Lanier posits that instead of the world being divided into trolls and victims, we each have an inner troll — but what causes that troll to come out? His theory, which I think is interesting, is that people have two switches inside them, as it were: solitary mode and pack mode. Something happens to us when we get switched to “pack”:
The pattern is found whenever people form into groups. […] The Pack setting of the switch makes you pay so much attention to your peers and enemies in the world of packs that you can become blind to what’s happening right in front of your face.
When the Solitary/Pack switch is set to Pack, we become obsessed with and controlled by a pecking order. We pounce on those below us, lest we be demoted, and we do our best to flatter and snipe at those above us at the same time. Our peers flicker between “ally” and “enemy” so quickly that we cease to perceive them as individuals. They become archetypes from a comic book. The only constant basis of friendship is shared antagonism toward other packs. (46)
When people act as solitary wolves, then each person is in a unique position in society and thinks in a unique way. Another example: Democratic elections are a genuine commingling of ideas, and have historically helped societies find paths forward despite controversy, but only so long as people are switched to Solitary. Democracy fails when the switch is set to Pack. Tribal voting, personality cults, and authoritarianism are the politics of the Pack setting.
It might sound like a contradiction at first, but it isn’t; collective processes make the best sense when participants are acting as individuals. (48)
The tribalism encouraged by the internet platforms we engage with is one piece of the puzzle — when we’re obsessed (and kept obsessed by the algorithms that control what we see online) with who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s in and who’s out, we are left with a tremendous need to prove ourselves to be in the “right” camps, no matter how much ugly talk is needed to keep us there.
But why are we so easily divided into camps and switched on to Pack mode? Again, part of the answer is in the way that social media algorithms function. One of the big features of most social media is that everyone has a customized feed, one that is trying to constantly give us the particular things that will keep us engaged on the platform. But that means that nobody is seeing what anyone else is seeing, and we don’t what the differences are between what we are all (not) seeing:
A thought experiment can help expose how weird out situation has become. Can you imagine if Wikipedia showed different versions of entries to each person on the basis of a secret data profile of that person? Pro-Trump visitors would see an article completely different from the one shown to anti-Trump people, but there would be no accounting of all that was different or why.
This might sound dystopian or bizarre, but it’s similar to what you see in your … feed. Content is chosen and ads are customized to you, and you don’t know how much has been changed for you, or why. (75)
The result of this: our own worldviews are distorted (as we are fed more and more of the things that reinforce it, and less and less of what will challenge it), and we are less aware of other people’s worldviews. It becomes harder to understand those in opposite “camps” from us (whatever those camps may be) because what they are seeing and what we are seeing are getting farther and farther removed from each other. We are losing out on common experience; our capacity to imagine the world from others’ points of view is crippled. We are constantly switched into Pack mode because we seem crazy to each other; we seem crazy to each other because our feeds are robbing us of our ability to see the world from a perspective other than our own. It’s a vicious cycle, and what makes it worse is that “The degree of difference between what is shown to someone else and what I can guess is being shown is itself unknowable. The opacity of our times is even worse than it might be because the degree of opacity is itself opaque” (80).
So what do we do, now? Is social media an inveterate evil from which we should forever abstain? Lanier proposes that we should abstain — not forever, but for now:
Some have compared social media to the tobacco industry, but I will not. The better analogy is paint that contains lead. When it became undeniable that lead was harmful, no one declared that houses should never be painted again. Instead, after pressure and legislation, lead-free paints became the new standard. Smart people simply waited to buy paint until there was a safe version on sale. Similarly, smart people should delete their accounts until nontoxic varieties are available. (27)
I don’t know when nontoxic varieties will be available. I do know that Lanier has convinced me that opting out of most or all of my social media is a healthy choice in the mean time.