In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg painted a picture Facebook could become: a place where people could connect online in new and powerful ways. We could stay in touch with friends, and make new friends easier. We arrived at that future, and now we’ve gone past it.
As we near 2020, and we have arrived at a new, unpleasant reality. Monstrous, unintended consequences of “connectedness.” We are quickly becoming the characters from the 2008 Pixar film “WALL-E,” where good people choose to sit next to one another, engaging each other only though the screen.
Where is this going? How will our culture and society continue to change? These are big questions that deserve some patient discussion.
It’s easy to argue that the future of social media will be a linear progression–that we will get more engrossed in social media. This is a probable outcome, but only if you ignore the problems that social media has already caused, and you assume that these problems will not get worse.
Let me highlight three problems that we can can clearly see around us today:
- The Validation of Vanity
- Undeniable Addiction
- Artificial Division
Problem 1: Validation of Vanity
Pretty faces on social media attracts the hearts and followers. So pretty people share their pretty face.
This seems normal today, that someone would take photos of themselves and then share it with strangers for praise and admiration.
^ Read that last sentence again, and tell me if that sounds normal.
Has there ever been a more potent example of vanity? And has there ever been such immediate validation of that vanity? Within minutes, the beauty queens are rewarded with tens of thousands of likes.
But what happens when the fans reduce in numbers? The hearts don’t fly as fast? This can wreak havoc on your mental health, especially when you are young.
We are losing grip on what it means to be human, to have dignity with or without a million followers.
Problem 2: Undeniable Addiction
In generations past, you put down the newspaper and moved on with your life. Not anymore. Our social media platforms are built and then rebuilt to bring you back.
Since 2005, children have grown up watching parents hiding behind their phones at the dinner table, at the sports games, at dance performances. Even while driving.
As a parent today, it takes significant discipline to put down the phone. To ignore the text from work. To ignore the chimes and dings that remind you that you are missing out.
What will happen when these same children grow up? Will they repeat our bad habits?
Problem 3: Artificial Division
Social media has divided people across contrived, artificial topics.
You should have strong, well-educated opinions. You should also not cower when you meet someone who disagrees with your opinions. Listen to their POV, share your POV, and together we’ll move closer to understanding. This is what intelligent societies have done for centuries.
What we are dealing with on social media today is different. Here’s how it works:
- Activist groups, political parties, and news outlets set a goal to increase engagement (e.g. raise money, raise awareness, drive traffic to their website)
- They choose divisive topics with binary options: you are for me or against me.
- They release the controversy onto social media and watch their cause take off. #teamUS versus #teamTHEM.
- They win the retweets and trending topics for their cause. Donations pour in. Traffic surges!
Result: Virtuous, well-meaning people across the political and social spectra then become paranoid, and behave erratically. They pick up their pitchforks and torches and go after the “villains” and their belief systems.
The polarity increases every day. Neighbor against neighbor.
A Post-Social Media Society?
I want to suggest that we will reach a tipping point where the net-damage social media will OUTGROW the net-positive. Then you’ll see a deliberate depopulation of our social media cities.
Maybe it’s too late for Gen-X and Millennials to give it up, but it could come in the next generation. Unlikely trends often emerge as a response to decades of excess. Consider these white-hot trends of today:
- Minimalism is a response to the covetous consumerism of previous decades.
- Tiny Homes is a response to McMansions and the burden of a massive monthly mortgage payment.
- Veganism is a response to gluttony and abusive farming.
- Off Grid Living is a response to the punishing pace of city life and all its costly conveniences.
Again, go back to the U.S. economic surge of 2003-2005, an economic boom that was driven entirely by consumerism. (Not an increase of GDP, of gains from technology, but of people feeling rich and spending all their money.) It would be laughable to suggest then, in 2003, that 15 years in the future, the most trending lifestyle choices would involve buying less (minimalism), living small (tiny houses), abstinence in eating (veganism), and escaping metropolitan life (off grid living.) Yet here we are.
Young children of today could grow up to have a deep disdain for social media, and the vanity, addiction, and division that social media brought onto their parent’s generation.
Can Social Media Platforms Self-correct?
Facebook, our oldest social media platform has evolved significantly. Your personalized Facebook Wall became difficult to manage, so it was replaced with a Facebook Timeline. The Facebook Newsfeed was a dumpster fire of politics, emotional opinions, and personal drama. It’s was replaced by a nameless first page where an algorithm predicts what news and photos would give you emotional satisfaction.
Perhaps Facebook Messenger is itself a solution to the problem of Facebook. Not every conversation needs to happen in front of everyone.
Recently, Instagram rolled out tests that hide the number of likes and video views each post gets. So people can’t see your “popularity score,” but you can still peek at your dashboard to see what videos and photos are appreciated more than others.
Maybe these are good signs?
Bottom Line: Hoping for Change
So social networks can adapt and evolve to solve new problems. They’ve proven that again and again.
But it’s unclear if the likes of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube will be able to undo the cultural problems that they have created. But I’m hoping for the best.
For you, the person reading this. And me, Matt Smith, the real person who wrote this blog. You and I both have to have the self-discipline to look up from our phones, ignore our popularity, and embrace the real people in our lives.