Dr. Neil's Notes
The Social Networks
In the last couple of years I have pulled away from using social networks. I no longer watch, or contribute to my Facebook account, Twitter has become something I occasionally use in order to contact people who only seem to respond to Twitter messages. Instagram, Snapchat, and many others have never held interest to me. I want to use this article to explain why I have stopped engaging with these platforms.
For me, it was important to consider the motivation behind running a media platform. Journals, newspapers, almanacs, magazines have always existed to create money for the publisher, and provide a platform to present the viewpoint of the author(s). Sometimes the author and publisher is the same person, or entity, however not always. These periodicals would historically edit the content, to match with regulations, and maintain a view point aligned with the publisher. Some publishers would refuse to print certain materials for being too 'racy', or promoting views that they considered dangerous.
People believe what they read. I am sure we have all heard the phrase "it must be true, it was written in ....". A large amount of trust is placed (almost certainly misplaced) in the publisher validating that what they produce is true, or clearly marked as fiction.
The challenge is that the truth is often boring, and boring does not sell well. People want to read something simple and exciting. The more exciting, and less complicated a story is, the more people will read it. The majority (a big generalization here) of people do not want to spend an hour reading an article in order to understand the nuances, and details, of a situation.
There is also an effect I will call the Stern Effect where being outrageous increases the audience size, because not only is it titillating content, it is also often so ludicrous that it is funny. People tuned in to Howard Stern not because he was providing valuable information, it was because he could stir people up into saying and doing dumb things that made a large percentage of the audience wonder what he would do next, and tune in to find out. This is entertainment. This form of entertainment draws in a large audience, and therefore makes a lot of money for the entertainer, and the publishing platform.
Serious objective informational media is in decline. A platform that enables, and encourages, people with different view points to publish in the same issue, is becoming rare. While more interesting, and more thoughtful, it requires listening to both sides, and having a level of empathy for both sides. This requires effort, and most people want to be entertained. Caligula knew that the gladiatorial ring is more exciting than the discussions in the senate. To get the people on his side it is far simpler, and more efficacious, to slaughter some Christians, and pay for some horse races, than have a intellectual debate on the pros and cons of some activity relating to taxes and the cleanliness of part of the city. Some things have not changed much, many countries are being run by clowns, in the truest sense of the word. They are entertainers, providing a change from the boring, stuffy conversations. The clown simplifies the challenge to something that most people can understand, even when untrue. The clown is not there to provide truth, the clown wants to misdirect your attention, and then surprise you with something silly and funny.
Back to the topic of social media platforms. These are owned by stake holders that want to increase revenue, if more people want to see cat videos, then that is what the platform shall promote and provide. If the antics of clowns misdirecting your attention, and making you laugh, helps sell advertising then that is what will get promoted further. These platforms have no vested interest in presenting you with a complete world view, where you have to stop and listen and think about multiple sides to a situation. Facebook, Twitter, and countless other platforms, want you to click, scroll, click, click, scroll, exposing you to more advertising, the only (or major) source of revenue they have.
The customer for an advertising company is the advertiser, the company promoting their product. The size of the audience, along with the ability to target specific type of people within that audience, is the product they are selling, to their customer. If you use FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube, or countless other platforms, then you are part of the product those companies are selling.
While in legal terms, you agreed to this, it is somewhat analogous to agreeing to be on the crew of ship after being press ganged at knife point. The choice was not exactly made clear, and you are not given an option to use the platform under different constraints. If you have the patience, please read the terms and conditions, which you agreed to when you created an account, on any one of these platforms. You will discover that you have agreed to a slew of constraints enabling the platform to determine what is presented to you and when.
The objective of each of these platforms is get as many people spending as long as possible watching their screen, repeating the click, scroll, click, click, scroll, scroll behaviour. All the while consuming the advertising that is being pushed alongside the sweet candy of titillation and clown shows. The addiction of the variable mini-dopamine hits experienced, is by design in each platform. They have hooked, and enslaved millions of people to the countless channels of entertainment, disguised as information. This might sound like a strong statement, however consider how much time you have spent on these platforms in the last week. Did you schedule that time in your calendar to consume advertising ?
This is not new, it is simply scaled up. In the 1990's I made a conscious decision to not own a television, I did not want to be the consumer of advertising and biased view points. I also felt my time watching TV was not well spent. I would go to the cinema to watch movies on a regular basis, often once a week, however TV seemed pointless. I wold prefer to spend the time I had available, reading, writing, cycling, in the gym, or sleeping. Twenty years later and the rise of social networking platforms was an interesting phenomenon, I participated out of curiosity, and it become a good way to keep in touch with friends all over this little planet. Prior to the rise of the social network platforms, I tried sending out group emails, blogging, and podcasting. These are broadcast mechanisms, and the feedback is in a different time frame to the social networks. The rise of notifications in software, that flag when something might be interesting to you, along with a wider reaching internet has taken us to a place where people expect responses in seconds, minutes, or at most hours, not days. Combine this with devices that you keep with you at all times, drives a new set of behaviours. The social networks take advantage of all of these vectors.
Your phone and the social networks
The timing of the smartphone becoming more popular, and the rise of the social networks is not coincidence. They are symbiotic in nature. The internet connected phone enables you to post and consume content from almost anywhere, at anytime. The social networks need more people to engage throughout the day in order to keep driving those dopamine hits. If you could only access Facebook, or Twitter when sitting at a wired-in desktop computer, I am almost certain the platform would have failed to reach the level of success, and value, that exists today. Interestingly the success of the smartphone is also tied to the rise of the social network platforms. If your phone did not have an application that let you share, and consume, on your favourite social platforms, what else would you use it for ? Making phone calls perhaps? Listening to music? The smartphone revolution was, in part, fuelled by the adoption of the applications that enabled you to scroll, click, click, scroll, scroll, all day, from anywhere. Now you are part of the product consuming advertising from the bus, while walking, from the sofa while half-watching TV, anywhere, anytime.
The politics of media
All this adds up to a set of hard to manage distractions, taking your time from the traction you are attempting to achieve in your life goals. The strong willed may laugh and say they can manage this. Some people might even schedule 'social networking' time in their calendars. If all that these platforms did was push cat videos (or the equivalent) into your focus, it would not be that bad, would it?
However there is another (darker?) side to this ability to target an audience with specific messages, the political side. This creates tribes of people, that are willing to believe the same message, and will never (or rarely) hear another message. This provides certain customers of the social network platform to target vulnerable groups with messages that will stick and get reinforced by the platform. The platforms remove the ability to have open, moderated debate. Open and moderated debate is the cornerstone of group decisions and tribal understanding. Some might say it is the cornerstone of democracy, however I am not sure that is true. When the customer of the platform is a political movement, promoting their messages, to the audience they wish to reach, echo-chambers are created, where the message bounces around between people who buy into that point of view. The fact that the most acceptable messages are short, and easy to understand, leads to a simplification of the true matter at hand. It is far easier to blame a group of people for a certain situation, than understand that the whole system in which everyone exists is to blame for the current situation in which we find ourselves. The world is far more interconnected than ever before, in part due to the underlying technologies enabling the platforms being discussed here. We are a global species, everything we do has impact on people all over the world. It is not possible to pull up the drawbridge and operate in the modern world cut off from the rest of the world. Yet the social network platforms enable this isolationist lie to proliferate, Trumpism, and Brexit, only succeed by reducing the whole picture to simplified 200 character messaging and videos that are 5 mins long at most. The whole picture is not provided, the voter is not being given all the information they need to make a complex decision that will change the fortune of their country on the globe.
It is ironic that the goal of many of the social networking platforms is to connect everyone together, has become a tool to drive the division of more people than we have seen since the cold war.
Buying In and Dropping Out
I bought into the Facebook view of the world at the beginning, I remember meeting some of the initial folks at The Facebook as they moved into their first office in downtown Palo Alto. There was a high level of excitement, they were connecting the world together. These seemed like good people, with a positive mission, to make the world a better place. The application of technology, to help people connect, fantastic I thought. I set up my own account as soon as it broke out of the education account only model. I convinced other friends to create accounts, it grew very fast. The obvious term is the network effect, the more people connected, the more valuable it becomes.
Jump forward ten years and the young folks with the vision of connecting everyone together (who are still around) are driven to increase revenue and build a business of value. The stake holders (share holders) demand profits. When the majority of profits are generated from advertising, the pressure to drive the addictive behaviour of the users (yes just like drug users) is increased. The Stern Effect helps provide this, outrage, and divisive messaging grabs the attention of the user to benefit the customer (advertiser).
Once I started to see this platform being used to drive more division, than I felt was acceptable, in a world that needs a global species attitude to survive, I dropped out.
Will I return? At this point I cannot answer that. Technology is fast evolving and new ideas get introduced all the time. I would like to see the platforms adopt a true global species view, and prevent single viewpoint conversations from proliferating without including multiple points of view, and provide a forum for honest fact based debate. Then I might consider returning to the conversation.
Created: December 27, 2020 03:08:36