social media and the monsters within

Social media didn’t change us for the worse, it merely enabled us to be as bad as we wanted to be and our lack of impulse control would allow.

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One of the biggest disappointments we tend to have in life is finding out we thought too highly of others. When we meet someone who seems polite and pleasant, the last thing we want to know is that he’s a bigot, or a con man, or a thief, so much so we may even try to rationalize undeniably awful and malicious behavior. After all, being nice is kind of ingrained in us since our infancy. For a social creature, it makes evolutionary sense not to see others of our species as competition or antagonists first, but as possible friends. It’s why during conflicts, militaries and the media paint our enemies as distant, faceless Others driven only to destroy us, otherwise we’d be less likely to be willing to kill them, and when we’re ordered to do harm, we tend to, in the most literal sense of the words, mentally check out as we do it. So when we see people using social media to do things that appall, disgust, or disturb us, it’s pretty understandable that we’ll blame the technology first. After all, it’s new and never been seen before, surely it must be leading people towards a life of bad choices and tearing society apart at the seams, right?

This is the argument of almost every anti-tech article you’ll encounter today from people like Evgeny Morozov, who argues that humans could lose their will to apps that help them learn new things, mainstream media Luddites in mourning that some outdated, dehumanizing practice is dying thanks in no small part to new technology, and Nancy Jo Sales, whose bread and butter seem to be outrage stories of how apps are ruining sex and relationships, as well as the lives of teenage girls who become internet famous. You see, they say, it’s not the people making bad decisions or engaging in bad behavior on their own! It’s that damn technology. Why without it, there wouldn’t be any of those damned fake news, we wouldn’t have had Trump as president, and we’d all be happy instead of anxious overstressed, overworked hairless apes aiming searing hatred at each other online! And while I hate to say it, they have the wrong culprit. The technology is fine. It’s the people who aren’t. In a world where the distance between their impulse thought and having that thought broadcast is so short, they’ve just shown their true colors.

Now, this is not to say that techies are without sin here. Our profession has given the world tools that have profoundly changed it and didn’t teach the millions of people who’d sign up for them how to use them. This wasn’t out of carelessness, but because we too weren’t sure where these tools would end up, often starting with the utopian notion that social media and being able to connect to anyone, anywhere would be a net positive. But we didn’t really account for the fact that not everyone who’ll be using these tools will be as optimistic about them as we are and take them as seriously as we did in our elevator pitches and planning sessions. Once the adoption curve hit a large enough segment of the population, people swiftly unleashed their ids to a global audience, and just a few years later, the internet ceased to be the place you go to get away from the real world’s ugliness and became a place where you get slapped with it across the face repeatedly, the tweets, posts, and memes teed up to burst into your feeds when you open the apps.

Nothing on social media prevents you from engaging with news sources or blogs that would challenge your opinions, yet its heaviest users choose not to interact with them. We can summon torrents of facts to correct lies that run rampant on partisan pages, but people dig in further into their beliefs to avoid cognitive dissonance, though this is no small part depends on how the facts in question are phrased according to a newer study. And when it comes to internet fame, success is extremely rare and most would-be celebrities on the web either muddle through or quit altogether because making money as an entertainer is even more difficult than in the pre-internet days. In many ways, humans aren’t really doing anything new or different outside of the business world with all this technology, they’re doing what they did before, only much faster since a global broadcasting platform and filter mechanism is generally just a click or touch away. Why aren’t we being told this story a lot more? Why do pundits insist on blaming the app but not the user?

Well, it’s hard to sell a story in which the general idea revolves around the readers’ failure to control their ids, unless you’re writing about those dang millennials for grouchy old people, who incidentally are the best vector for spreading right wing propaganda and xenophobia. This is why using apps and social media platforms as sinister accomplices in fueling people’s poor impulse control is the name of the game. As an example, take Sales’ story of how Instagram and YouTube likes are tempting 13 year old Danielle Bregoli to start setting herself up as an underage quasi-porn starlet. Just like with her “investigation” of Tinder, we’re supposed to conclude that there’s some unseen technological force driving young girls to market themselves as sex objects, supercharging objectification of women. What she quickly glosses over is that Bregoli was made famous by appearing on a my-teen-is-out-of-control episode of a daytime TV show, a classic trope that’s been around for almost 20 years longer than social media, and based her brand on that.

She’s capitalizing on her Trumpian style celebrity, the shock jock, any-press-is-good-press style of injecting yourself into everyone’s media diet, as a “bad girl going wilder by the day” which is another trope we’ve seen play out by a long list of pop stars who transitioned into “bad girls” with calculated shock and awe campaigns, like Christina Aguilera and Miley Cyrus. She’s using the same formula, but without $250,000 for an image consultant to polish it for mass consumption, the result looks like aspiring softcore porn. This isn’t the brave new frontier teenage girls must navigate, this is business and a rehash of the same sexist standards and ideas that have existed for the last 30 or 40 years with more amateur attempts that are naturally, much rougher around the edges. Where technology comes in is in lowering the bar for those who want to try this out for themselves. Her story on Tinder failed along similar lines: trying to recast behaviors by a minority of young people always on the search for a casual hookup being slightly more efficient with an app cast as unwitting victims of an app supposedly conditioning them to go wild.

If there’s an upshot here, it’s this. Technology gave you the tools to market and share yourself around the world in almost real time. You still have to have the foresight and the impulse control to know when you should use it and when you should walk away for a while and really think about why you want to do or say what you were planning to broadcast to others. You’re the one pressing the buttons, selecting the pictures, writing the posts, captions, and tweets. You are ultimately in control of your thoughts and image, and when you show the world something very ugly, the only person to blame is yourself. Blaming your phone or social media is like blaming cars and bars near your house for your drunk driving. You didn’t have to drink to excess, you could’ve had one or two drinks and called it a night. You didn’t have to get in the car, you could’ve just walked home and arranged to pick it up in the morning when you were able. But you got in, drove when you shouldn’t have, and got caught. That’s on you. And the same applies to your rants on Facebook, photos on Instagram, and hateful tweets. That’s on you.

# tech // journalism / opinion / self awareness / social media


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