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How Social Media Hacked Civic Conversation

The most recent issue of The Atlantic includes a fascinating article by Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell. It’s titled, “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks.”

In Digital Minimalism, I argued that our relationship with social media was transformed when the major platforms updated their designs to make these services less about checking on other peoples’ status, and more about checking incoming “social approval indicators,” which arrive in the form of likes, retweets, shares, hearts, streaks and tags.

This key shift, which took place between 2009 and 2012, is largely responsible for retraining us to think about social media as something to check all the time. Our current moment, in which we both accept and lament the status of our phones as constant companions, was a direct consequence of these tweaks to social media technology.

(For more on this idea, see also my New York Times op-ed on Steve Jobs’s original vision for the iPhone.)

In their new article, Haidt and Rose-Stockwell trace another unintended consequence of the introduction of social approval indicators to social media: the breakdown of online civility.

Drawing from the work of philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke, the authors argue that adding quantifiable approval to a public forum leads to what’s known as moral grandstanding, an activity in which speakers take turns, each trying to out do those who came before them in whipping up approval from the crowd:

“Grandstanders tend to ‘trump up moral charges, pile on in cases of public shaming, announce that anyone who disagrees with them is obviously wrong, or exaggerate emotional displays.’ Nuance and truth are casualties in this competition to gain the approval of the audience. Grandstanders scrutinize every word spoken by their opponents—and sometimes even their friends—for the potential to evoke public outrage. Context collapses. The speaker’s intent is ignored.”

This definitely sounds familiar.

As Haidt and Rose-Stockwell point out, this grandstanding isn’t somehow fundamental to our times, or an unavoidable side effect of public conversation, or even a necessary tactic for aggressive advocacy. It is instead an unexpected consequence of a small number of design choices made by the major social media companies a decade earlier.

These companies added easy ways to share and approve of posts to improve the experience of timeline-style content consumption, a new concept at the time. They ended up accidentally short-circuiting our brains.

The one place where I diverge from Haidt and Rose-Stockwell, however, is when it comes to solutions. At the end of their Atlantic article they offer three fixes to this current state of affairs. All of them focus on changes to existing social media platforms that would minimize the conditions that spark moral grandstanding.

What was missing from their list is an even more powerful solution that can actually create real improvement right now: encourage people to use social media much less.

The problem with Haidt and Rose-Stockwell’s suggested solutions is that they would require social media companies to make changes that would almost certainly reduce their revenue. For those who barter in attention, moral grandstanding is good business

My solution, on the other hand, can be put into action immediately and yield significantly positive results, as it has for the increasing number of people embracing a more minimalist approach to these tools.

The sooner those who write about social media accept that the current importance of these technologies are inflated, and that for most people these platforms don’t need to play a major role in their civic or personal lives, the sooner we can get about repairing the damage that we’re only now beginning to fully understand.


Photo by Kheel Center.

8 thoughts on “How Social Media Hacked Civic Conversation”

  1. One thing that observers are not talking about is how these behaviors (grandstanding, virtue signaling etc) are now flooding into the so-called “real life.” Most actions are now prefaced by a “how can I show this on social media” (stupid example: what I eat for dinner, now a social media issue) question. This leads to obvious behavioral attitude changes on everything.

    • You bring up a point that’s a very real concern among parents. How we raise our children is now an issue anyone and everyone can comment on. If I take my daughter to the park and she falls down, do I rush over and cuddle her and sooth her, or do I make sure she’s uninjured and let her deal with it? (I’m not talking a broken bone here, but a fall that doesn’t even leave a bruise.) The latter builds strong, resilient children; it also gets you on social media as a horrible parent. Do you have a quite birthday at home with a few friends, or a lavish Instagram-worthy party? Do you meticulously pick every outfit for your child, or do you get a call from CPS when someone puts a post on Facebook complaining about your son’s mis-matched socks?

      Parents no longer have to worry about the safety, health, and education of their children (a full-time job on its own), but also about how other people, who only see the children on a friend of a friend’s Facebook feet, feel about how you’re raising your children! And since the current law is essentially “guilty until proven innocent” in child protection cases, there are very real consequences to this.

  2. I’m finding my reading and writing related to my dissertation to be producing much more nuanced and multifaceted since finally kicking social media to the curb back in March. In August I had to change my research topic after 2 years of getting everything in order for the first topic, and the first section that’s close to completion in my new literature review is one where objections and apparently contrary research exist. I’ve spent more time there, before reading beyond the seminal papers supporting what I want to study, and both my feelings and those of my committee chair are that my writing is significantly stronger than it was the last 2 years.

  3. Slavoj Zizek has an interesting and entertaining video on why he is opposed to wisdom ( ). Zizek’s thoughts are, in my opinion, amplified in social media by orders of magnitude, where one line thoughts on a nice background are passed as wisdom and endorsed by many, driving a bandwagon effect on others.

    Isolating oneself from social media and this cycle a sure way to keep a healthy perspective on things, where a person is creating his or her thoughts based on (hopefully) reliable sources. Personally I do not have any social media account, apart from LinkedIn that I used to recruit people, and have noticed that I (and others who do not have social media accounts) am generally less aggressively antagonistic on issues that I disagree with. I attribute this to the lack of the feeling of being in a herd.

  4. I agree, waiting for the social media moguls to change is a hiding to nothing. We must change. Although there are some aspects of social media I miss my now 18 month life without has, I believe allowed me to experience more depth and focus for sure.
    I am also grateful to be relieved of the negative affects of “grandstanding”, which I hear friends and family getting caught up in and sometimes reacting to without due thought and consideration.

  5. I love this piece, thank you so much. I’ve been weeding out a few habits of my own recently, and honestly, I see a shift in a little as two days when I give social a rest. My issue: I’m a social media manager. -__-

    I love my work, but I also have had to really work on detaching from it. Mainly because my work involves me being on my phone a lot during the day. Thankful for social automation platforms of course. However, even when I’ve taken “breaks”, my physical habits have proven that I was addicted. Picking up my phone for NO reason at all. Switing tabs on my laptop constantly. Even not being able to really write effectively without worrying or wondering what someone in the ether that I’ve never seen before would think. Overall, I really appreciate your work, Cal, and will be using your tactics to move forward and use social media as a tool, only. It sucks but I just don’t really “connect” that much anymore.

  6. One of the major problems is the instant validation people feel when they see a “like”, a “thumbs up”, or a positive reply on their post. This further reinforces grandstanding, virtue signalling, and other types of aggressive behaviors. Not only that, but it also further incentivizes through conditioning a need to continue garnering the validation through any means necessary — be it through confrontational means, needless pictures, suggestive pictures, etc. We thrive on validation of our existence, feelings, and/or thoughts (think “Adler”). If can make you feel validated all the time, you’ll keep coming back to me to get that feeling.
    A good friend of mine who is a coder and deeply entrenched in the tech world recently told me that these algorithms are purposefully designed to elicit this kind of behavior and are even named things like “Epsilon Greedy” and the “Bandit Algorithm.”
    Unplug, friends. Give your dopamine and serotonin a chance to normalize. Develop a useful hobby or skill.


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