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A Brief Summary of the Social Media Reform Movement

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 Thoughts

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…

31 thoughts on “A Brief Summary of the Social Media Reform Movement”

  1. Thanks for sharing such a nice piece of information to us.Media reform refers to proposed tries to reform mass media toward an time agenda which is extra in song with public needs and far from a perceived bias toward company (or, in many instances, authorities or political) biases. Media reform advocates also vicinity a robust emphasis upon permitting individuals who are marginalized or semi-marginalized with the aid of their man or woman incomes, immutable traits or desperate situations to own get admission to to approach of ebook and dissemination of facts.

  2. Where people have developed a ‘dependency’ it’s probably a real challenge to make exponential progress at the individual level. Objective introspective evaluation is probably out of reach for most. The leverage at regulatory and institutional level is where this can happen – the silver lining of the Russian election-meddling escapades, etc.

  3. It’s not just social media.

    More and more websites (News, Blogs, Forums, etc.), (mobile) applications and companies use harmful ‘dark patterns’ for their own advantage – increasing their revenue – at the expense of their users. The tacticts that social media established are now leading to an increased useage of tracking advertisement, polarising / emotion evoking News articles and score based valuation of user comments and forum posts.

    I believe this is a societal / economical problem and will sooner of later spiral out of control (if it hasn’t already). Without regulation and a change in our all minds/habits, we, as individuals, wont be able counter it.

  4. Cal, I agree with you that social media is bad. But how can we get adequately informed about politics in Brazil without social media? Our regular media hides a lot of important information.

    • This is where I’m struggling, I’ve been a avid fan for a long time. However, recently my local town has a factory being planted right next an elementary school and we are trying to mobilize and do what we can to stop it. We wouldn’t of gotten off that ground at all if it wasn’t for canvasing all social media platforms. I’ve never touched Twitter until now out of desperation to reach politicians and anyone that might of be an interest.

      However, as soon as this is over I really have every intention of deleting the accounts as the idea of Twitter just makes me, “Ick.”

      • Dan,
        you said “We wouldn’t of gotten off that ground at all if it wasn’t for canvasing all social media platforms”…which makes sense….because “that what were told”.
        I just had this conversation with a local govt official in my town…
        His input was “Nothing will replace”(or is a powerful a statement) as people showing up at a town meeting or the such – in numbers. He also stated that over the last 10 years or so (co incising with the smart phone- I will add) people dont show up at meetings, then B*tch when the city does what “they want”.
        Analog solutions still can prevail…plus there is nothing like voice inflection…the emogi
        is a sorry attempt to replace it. Looking into eyes – instead of screens is now rare and powerful!
        In my opinion, we as a society have become “lazy” and overly busy

    • Brazil is an interesting case. My suggestion: read international oriented newspapers, but not the online “website”, but instead the actual digital edition of the paper version (as it would be too expensive to have it delivered at your home).
      Read: Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, International New York Times (formerly the International Herald Tribune). If you can, one local newspaper. That’s it.

      • Thanks.
        This suggestion is excellent for interenational news.
        Not so much for local news, as international media is often biased by regular Brazilian media.

  5. I don’t know about outlawing smartphones and tablets in school, when Google is giving (or selling very cheaply) tablets and teaching aid tools to schools, teachers and students. I was listening to a radio segment recently on the CBC about how teachers and parents loved the conveniences these tools provided.

    • Google LLC is a for-profit subsidiary of for-profit Alphabet Inc. Do not mistake this “charity” for an act of altruism. They are interested in profit and the biggest profits come from expanding and monopolizing their markets. This is tantamount to giving schoolchildren their brand of cigarette “for free” with the expectation that they become lifelong customers to the addiction they provided.

    • As parents, we don’t love that. Our son’s school “gave” students iPads for school and home use this year. We said yes to in school but no to him bringing the device home.

  6. One of Jaron Lanier’s main points, perhaps his single main point, is that the underlying business model for social media has to change for this to really improve. The way Google, FB, et al, make money is buy scraping your personal data to feed their “engagement” algorithms for the benefit of their real customers, the advertisers, i.e., those who are paying them to get in front of you when you’re online. They don’t care what they’re engaging people in (racism, hate, whatever), as long as users stay online. They are selling your life without paying you. So these “free” services are far from free. He doesn’t push regulation that much. He suggests you pay regular money for value–so quit all these “free” platforms and pay for what you want. And if it doesn’t provide you with the ad-free privacy you want, ditch it and pay for one that does. This will get us out from under the Google/Facebook monopoly. Cal–it would be cool if you addressed this issue in your blog sometime.

  7. If we join the “Quit Social Media” movement, we can also think about new (or updated old) ways of doing what we need without using Social Media. I foresee a creative time ahead.

  8. I don’t think comparing social media to tobacco cigarettes is the right analogy. Tobacco cigarettes are 100% bad for you and have zero benefit. A better analogy is alcohol. The actual alcohol is poison for the body, but it can have amazing benefits to your social life. Alcohol is not something to self-righteously abstain from entirely; it’s something that you can enjoy once in a while in a controlled way. In retrospect, Prohibition was a complete failure…

    • @TRACEY I don’t think that’s an unfair comparison either, it’s just that in the sense that it was a product that was deliberately engineered to be addictive, became very socially acceptable or even encouraged, and spread throughout the world before the pitfalls became apparent while rich people got richer of it, FB is VERY much like cigarettes.

  9. Alas…people eventually find the margins of social media, and reject being robbed of their own personal bandwidth. –Finding a better way to express and be oneself.

  10. Cal, whatever regulatory systemic changes may be implemented in future, your message will always be valid and important. Many people rely on others such as government officials and corporate leaders to look out for their best interests, and assume they will do so. But this can be dangerous and people need to think their own thoughts and look after every aspect of their own lives. Your writings offer great clarity, advice and encouragement to individuals of all ages.

  11. Cal, the thing I’d like to understand better is how far beyond social media your criticisms extend.

    I ask because I’m not significantly on any social media, and yet I find all the digital media I do use intrusive and irksome.

    For example, I’m concerned by Google’s data collection practices just as much as Facebook’s.

    SMS and email notifications are distracting to me, just like social media notifications.

    I get my news directly from digital newspaper subscriptions (to save trees and support quality journalism), but it’s hard for me to avoid checking the site compulsively for sensational headlines.

    It seems to me that by avoiding social media, I’ve only avoided outrage echo-chambers and the pressure to overshare. All other issues are not exclusive to social media. Do you have any recommendations for managing the downsides of all other digital tech?

  12. I wonder if the tide is turning with social media and the younger generation? An article here from the Guardian in the UK
    I recently quit – I tried the experiment earlier this year but didn’t manage to get through it, but after re-reading Deep Work I have decided to go for it. I’m trying to write my PhD and work full time, but feel as an early career researcher I ought to have a presence and am met with confusion by some peers when I tell them I’m no longer there.

  13. I think you should stand your ground on focusing on the individual. Institutional control would turn social media into something like alcohol: regulation does not help people curb their addictions or consume it responsibly.

  14. Cal,
    I’ve been thinking for a long time that people would eventually shift to an “unplug” mindset and that the tide would start to turn with regards to social media. I’m not a genius by any stretch, but I could just see the fatigue that would come from always being tethered to everyone else all the time.
    I found your book Deep Work last year. It represented an unbelievably well articulated argument against network technology’s threat to our ability to develop skills and get anything of meaning done. I’m reading it for the second time now and am even more convinced that you are at the forefront of diagnosing one of culture’s greatest disasters. I appreciate your insights, clarity and determination to make the case.
    I hope that your audience keeps growing!

    Mark Heid

  15. Cal:

    My understanding is that Facebook is being urged to track and edit fake news sources. This responsibility at the company is left young individuals with a less mature understanding of the risks.

    My belief is that we must have an independent arbiter, such as the Department of Justice. This is food for thought, and I believe such an independent entity is key.

    Action is needed to protect our democracy.

  16. Excellent article here. Love how succinct and organized your writing is in general. This issue is big for me. I have deleted (not deactivated) my Facebook account 2 or 3 times now, only to rejoin for the ‘benefits’ months later. I look forward to Digital Minimalism in February!


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