When you spend as much time on Facebook as I do, you start to wonder what kind of value it adds to your life. Reflecting on the nature of the content I scroll through on a daily basis, the answer is: not much. Every morning, I mindlessly scroll down my news feed passing shit-post after shit-post after shit-post. Every morning I navigate my feed saturated with the same people posting their NowThis videos letting me know what I should spend 15 seconds being alarmed about today, videos of middle school kids fighting, and a recipe for no-bake cookies that I’m never going to try. While these shit-posts (yes, that is a technical term) are annoying, they are also mostly benign. What makes me wonder about the utility of social media is when things get political.
When people post their impassioned opinion on important political or social matters on Facebook, that’s when things get interesting; because as much as I want to hate social media like Facebook and Twitter, I have to wonder whether it could actually be a really powerful tool for fostering greater social awareness. Despite how dumb most people’s opinions are, at least social media gives them a platform for discussing them. John Stuart Mill discussed the value of free and open discourse. When people publicly share their ideas in a discourse, they are opening themselves up to criticism, and that is a good thing. When people are critical of each others ideas, then they are forced to defend them. When you defend an idea, you are forced to think about it, and why you believe in it. When others poke holes in your idea, you either need to change it or find a better way to defend it. When there is a culture of free and open discourse, people will start to develop more sophisticated ideas over time. At least that’s the theory.
Beyond that, social media might also serve to make our democracy stronger. When writing on his observations of a young America in the 19th century, French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville noted some of his concerns with the functionality of democracy. He was a major critic of what he called individualism, which is what happens when people become primarily focused on their own lives, families, and personal affairs. He argued that individualism was the enemy of a healthy democracy, and for it to succeed people needed to go out and associate with one another, socially, politically, whatever. People just needed to live a public life and have a general concern for the well-being of others in their community. Otherwise, no one can get a sense of how how well a policy does. People are unconcerned with political life, and risk falling victim to a soft despotism.
If we look past all of the shit-posts, we might notice that Facebook is a medium for free and open discourse. People can share their opinions with one another and engage in critical dialogue. People can also read updates on others’ lives and in turn update other people on their own lives, a gesture that displays concern for the well-being of their community.
Even though it seems like social media has so much potential to improve society, I can’t shake the feeling that something more sinister is going on. Maybe I’ve read too many sci-fi novels, or maybe I’m just naturally cynical, but I have a feeling social media will never deliver on its promise. Even though we have a platform for free and open discourse, I don’t think people will develop more sophisticated, well thought out ideas. Even though we have a forum for displaying mutual concern for the public good, I don’t think our democracy will become more engaged.
Perhaps I can find a hint to what makes social media so ineffective at effecting social progress in my own behavior on it. Earlier, when I said I mindlessly scroll through my news feed, I meant mindlessly. I really don’t read much of what I see, and I watch even fewer videos. I suspect that most people’s behavior is similar to mine. In fact, one Columbia study has shown that 59% of links shared were never actually clicked by the person who shared it. This is startling. Not only do people not read others’ posts, but 59% of us don’t even read our own!
But I don’t want to get too ahead of myself and judge social media simply based on my own attitude towards it. After all, I am a pretty cynical guy. But if we think about the content that gets shared, it can give us hints as to what people really do on social media. We don’t get an actual picture of reality by listening to what people tell us; rather, we get a feel for what is actually going on by observing what people do, especially people who want things from us. Take sites like Buzzfeed and NowThis for example. Their goal is to get as many clicks and shares as they possibly can. That’s a tough thing to do online due to the sheer magnitude of content out there. So how do you get people to click? Clickbait. If you don’t know what clickbait is, it is a link or video whose title is designed to play on your curiosity just to get you to click. 13 recipes you can’t live without. What all oxygen lovers need to start doing immediately. The 9 biggest lies your parents told you growing up. You get the idea. One popular trend in clickbait headlines is to make the article a list. People seem to love lists. Why do people love lists? Because most people hate actually reading. People want the instant gratification of getting information without actually looking for it, and lists provide an excellent format where people can just skim a few words, satisfy their curiosity, and move on. If you click, the baiters win. It doesn’t matter what the article actually says, so long as you clicked the link. Same goes for video views.
Another common tactic used on social media to grab our oh so short-lived attention is putting text on videos. The media sharers of social media know that the headline and thumbnail are not enough. The video will play without you ever clicking on it, but with no sound (because that would be too invasive). Putting text on the videos in the absence of sound gives the maker of the video another chance to pique your interest and lure you into clicking on it. What these two tactics tell us is that, for the most part, people just scroll through without actually reading or watching any of the content.
It’s clear that there are plenty of websites trying to get our attention to make a buck, but that does not prove that social media doesn’t serve a noble purpose for the individual poster and sharer. It can still be an open marketplace of ideas shared by members of a social community. The problem is, that is not the case. Once again, we can examine the content. Think about your experience on social media, and then think about the diversity of topics being discussed. To what degree does it correspond with topics trending online in general? Diversity of ideas is something we would expect from a platform that allows people to publicly voice their concerns and opinions, but there is no such diversity on social media. Certain topics, like gorilla shootings for example, become blown way out of proportion online. These events are sensationalized and feed the machine that just wants you to click. When something becomes remotely popular, you can bet that NowThis will make a video about it so that you think it’s a huge deal. You can bet there will be an article on the Atlantic about it explaining the underlying reasons for why it’s so important. Most people’s original status updates, even the politically charged ones, revolve around these topics. They are not born of genuine concern, but are merely mechanisms for virtue signaling. It’s a way to show all of your friends how humanitarian, how liberal, how libertarian, how progressive you are.
It’s true that there is the occasional intelligent debate on Facebook. I indulge in them myself every once in a while. But the few of these that don’t result in angry, ad hominem attacks which would never come up in a real conversation simply end and don’t go anywhere else (like translate to offline action). They don’t result in political activism, policy change, or anything meaningful. This is just virtue signaling to an audience with a higher IQ. Even this highest form of Facebook behavior, which is as close to Mill’s ideal as it gets, is only a minuscule amount of the content on social media.
Facebook and Twitter are not places where genuine rational discourse occurs. Nor are they places where we find genuine concern for the public well-being. You can post a picture of yourself in the hospital and get 70 likes, but nobody will actually visit you. de Tocqueville said that people needed to associate in order to combat individualism. Social media allows us to pretend we have interests greater than our own, but it is a shallow facade that tricks us into believing that we are associating and engaging with our community, without requiring us to ever leave the house. We can tell ourselves we care about the world around us because we posted a status or shared an article. That way, we don’t actually have to do anything to help anyone else. We satisfy each others’ need for attention by liking a link or a status, in a practice that is nothing more than mutual ego-inflation. I don’t think social media will ever make good on its promise to lead us to a greater social awareness or a more engaged democracy. It can’t, because we are too busy deluding ourselves into thinking it already has.