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Where did social media go wrong?

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For most of my life, the internet, particularly its social media — BBSes, Usenet, LiveJournal, blogosphere, even Myspace, early Twitter and Facebook — consistently made people happier. But roughly five years ago it began to consistently make people more miserable. What changed?

I posted that question to Twitter a week ago, and the most notable response was the response that did not exist: not a single person disputed the premise of the question. Yes, Twitter responses are obviously selection bias incarnate — but looking at the opprobrium aimed at social media from all sides today, I’d think that if anything it understates the current collective wisdom. Which of course can often be disjointed from factual reality … but still important. So, again: what changed?

Some argued that new, bad users flooded the internet then, a kind of ultimate Eternal September effect. I’m skeptical. Even five years ago Facebook was already ubiquitous in the West, and we were already constantly checking it on our smartphones. Others argue that it reflects happiness decreasing in society as a whole — but as far back as 2014? I remember that as, generally, a time of optimism, compared to today.

There was one really interesting response, from a stranger: “The nature of these social networks changed. They went from places where people debated to places where lonely people are trying to feel less lonely.” Relatedly, from a friend: “The algorithms were designed to make people spend more time on those sites. Interestingly, unhappy people spend more time on social sites. Is unhappiness the cause, or the result of algorithms surfacing content to make us unhappy?” That’s worth pondering.

Pretty much everyone else talked about money, basically buttressing the argument above. Modern social media algorithms drive engagement, because engagement drives advertising, and advertising drives profits, which are then used to hone the algorithms. It’s a perpetual motion engagement machine. Olden days social media, early Facebook and early Twitter, they had advertising, sure — but they didn’t have anything like today’s perpetual motion engagement.

Even that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that there’s apparently a whole other perpetual motion machine at work in parallel, too: engagement drives unhappiness which drives engagement which drives unhappiness, because the kind of content which drives the most engagement apparently also drives anxiety and outrage — cf. Evan Williams’ notion that social media optimizes for car crashes — and arguably also, in the longer run, displace other activities, which do bring happiness and fulfillment.

I don’t want to sound like some sort of blood-and-thunder Luddite preacher. There’s nothing automatically wrong with maintaining a thriving existence on Facebook and Twitter, especially if you carefully prune your feeds such that they are asshole-free zones with minimal dogpiling and pointless outrage. (Some outrage is important. But most isn’t.) Social media has done a lot of excellent things, and still brings a lot of happiness to very many people.

But also, and increasingly, a lot of misery. Does it currently bring us net happiness? Five years ago I think that question would have seemed ridiculous to most: the answer would generally have been a quick yes-of-course. Nowadays, most would stop and wonder, and many would answer with an even faster hell-no. Five years ago, people who worked at Facebook (and to a lesser extent Twitter) were treated with respect and admiration by the rest of the tech industry. Nowadays, fairly or not, it’s something a lot more like disdain, and sometimes outright contempt.

The solution is obvious: change the algorithms. Which is to say: make less money. Ha.They could even remove the algorithms entirely, switch back to Strict Chronological, and still make money — Twitter was profitable before stock options before it switched to an algorithmic feed, and its ad offerings were way less sophisticated back then — but it’s not about making money, it’s about making the most money possible, and that means algorithmically curated, engagement-driven, misery-inducing feeds.

So: Social media is increasingly making us miserable. There’s an obvious solution, but financial realpolitik means we can’t get to it from here. So either we just accept this spreading misery as a normal, inescapable, fundamental part of our lives now — or some broader, more drastic solution is required. It’s a quandary.

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1117 days ago
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