A Lonely Voice Finds Company
I’ve been publicly criticizing social media since at least 2010. For most of this period, most of the people I encountered were either puzzled or annoyed by my stance on these services.
When the event organizers first posted the video of my anti-social media TEDx talk, for example, they changed my suggested title, “Quit Social Media,” to something blander, along the lines of “Why deep work is important in the new economy.” I think this was a good-intentioned effort to make me seem less eccentric. I had to ask them to change it back.
When I subsequently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times arguing that social media’s role in career advancement was overhyped, I created such an uproar that the paper took the rare step of commissioning a response op-ed the next week with the sole purpose of refuting my dangerous ideas.
But then things began to change.
At some point in early 2017, as the various shockwaves emanating from the Trump election victory began to align and amplify, sentiment toward these services started shifting in ways I hadn’t noticed before.
I began, for example, to receive more notes of support and less confused looks when I told people I’ve never had a social media account.
Prominent figures suddenly announced they were leaving these services.
Last weekend, at the Kent Presents ideas conference, I sat on a panel called “The Social Media Crisis.” The crowd attending was so large they had to setup chairs in the hallway outside the auditorium doors.
The cultural conversation surrounding social media, in other words, is undergoing a rapid and surprisingly complicated evolution.
With this in mind, I thought it would be a useful exercise for both my readers and myself to do my best here to briefly summarize my understanding of the current state of this burgeoning social media reform movement…
The Main Anti-Social Media Arguments
There seems to be at least three main arguments against social media at the moment. These concerns overlap in interesting ways, but also maintain distinct characteristics, and are advanced by their own vocal constituencies.
Argument #1: Social Media is Harmful to Individuals.
This argument focuses on the ways that heavy social media use can make users less happy, less healthy, and/or less successful. Most of my writing and speaking on this topic falls into this category. (My main point is that the benefits of these services are exaggerated, while we tend to underestimate their damage to our ability to do valuable things with our brains.)
In recent years, this argument has been bolstered by important whistleblowers and flashy media attention; c.f., the Atlantic’s cover stories on Tristan Harris, a former Google executive who sounded the alarm on how social media companies engineer their products to be addictive, and Jean Twenge, a demographic researcher concerned that smartphones might have sparked a youth mental health crisis.
A growing scientific literature, featuring top researchers, is also starting to quantify this harm with a precision that’s hard to ignore.
Argument #2: Social Media is Bad for our Democracy.
This argument was instigated, in large part, by revelations surrounding Russian election meddling, and, more generally, the relatively unsupervised role of social media in the otherwise heavily regulated election process.
Conservative commentators have also become increasingly vocal with their concerns about the unchecked ability of these services to censor ideas they don’t like, and users from all points on the political spectrum are experiencing fatigue from the constant drip of outrage and division these services seem to instill into their daily experience.
Argument #3: Social Media is Bad for Privacy.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal from earlier this year underscored the degree to which social media platforms harvest and exploit their users’ personal data. Facebook’s PR professionals did a good job at the time of casting Cambridge Analytica executives as Bond Villains, performing dastardly deeds. But what much of the media reports at the time missed is that there was actually very little illegal (beyond some potential issues with user agreements) or even all that unusual about Cambridge Analytica’s actions.
As several different social media researchers confirmed to me, what this firm was up to — using personality quizzes to gather information about users’ friend graphs — was basically standard fare in the growth industry of social media influence marketing. (Policy changes starting around 2014 have since impeded — though not stopped — some of these practices.)
The banality of Cambridge Analytica, of course, is what makes their case study even more scary from a privacy perspective.
The Main Proposed Reforms
The obvious follow up question is to ask what reforms might help solve the problems summarized above. Here are the main categories of proposed fixes that I’m hearing a lot about at the moment.
Reform #1: Cultural Changes.
Tristan Harris, Adam Alter, and former Facebook president Sean Parker, among many others, have been recently revealing ugly secrets about how major social media platforms engineer their products to be more addictive. Jaron Lanier has effectively portrayed these service as trying to manipulate your actions and emotions toward dark purposes.
These assaults from technology insiders are serving a similar purpose as the anti-tobacco Truth ad campaigns of my youth (which helped drop teen smoking rates from 23% to 6%) — they’re changing the narrative surrounding social media from one of cultural ubiquity and hipness, to something more exploitive, corporate, and icky.
This category largely captures my own modest efforts to help with this issue. My push to better protect your cognitive capabilities from relentless distraction, as well as my upcoming book on digital minimalism, are efforts to change the cultural conversation about these services.
Reform #2: Youth Protection.
The data on the negative impact of addictive smartphone use on teenage well-being is stark and alarming. Jean Twenge’s work on the mental health of iGen is an example of a strong early warning that there’s a serious problem lurking. I get the sense from others I know in this space that the scope of this issue is going to keep expanding until it becomes an unavoidable public health crisis.
My prediction (and I could be wrong here) is that we’re going to start to see more serious restrictions on young people’s access to this technology. France, for example, recently outlawed smartphones and tablets in their schools. Their education minister was clear about why: “our main role is to protect children and adolescents.” We’ll likely see similar moves in many American school districts.
I also think social media companies will be pushed to increase the minimum age for their users, and that the normative age at which kids receive their first smartphone will rise to something closer to 18.
Reform #3: Federal Regulation.
The E.U.’s response to social media’s excesses was to pass a sweeping new set of privacy measures known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The GDPR is aimed, primarily, at giving users more control over the data online sites and services gather from them. Under these regulations, which provide users de facto ownership over their personal data, you can now demand to see what information a given service has collected on you, and the service must delete it all if you request. These requirements are enforced with strict fines.
US lawmakers are increasingly more willing to discuss thematically-similar regulation, though probably not fixes as sweeping as the GDPR. A paper recently leaked from Senator Mark Warner’s office, for example, proposed reforms built around increased transparency and more aggressive FTC audits of the major social media platforms. There are also rumblings about developing anti-trust cases against the biggest of these platforms.
On the other hand, the people I know who are up to speed on Capitol Hill machinations in this area keep emphasizing the massive amounts of money these tech giants are spending on lobbying efforts, and Congress, of course, is not exactly a shining paragon of efficient lawmaking at the moment, so there are serious impediments to this rising regulatory enthusiasm.
My commentary on social media has traditionally deployed a narrow focus on the individual: this is how social media is harming you, and here is what you can do to avoid these harms.
I was caught off guard by how quickly the social media reform movement, once it finally lumbered to life in the past two years, blew past the individual to seek facets to these issues that demand systemic solutions.
What I’m trying to figure out at the moment is whether I was ignoring these broader responses because I don’t think they’ll be particularly productive, or if after spending so many years alone in the wilderness on this issue, I haven’t yet recalibrated to the full scope of what’s possible.
Either way, it’s an interesting time to be engaged with this issue…