December 19, 2018

The Deliberate Awfulness of Social Media

“Twitter, as everyone knows, is Hell. Its most hellish aspect is a twofold, self-reinforcing contradiction: you know that you could leave at any time and you know that you will not. (Its pleasures, in this sense, are largely masochistic.) My relationship with the Web site, which has, for years now, been the platform most deeply embedded in my daily—hourly, minutely—routine, has come to feel increasingly perverse. It mostly seems to offer a relentless confirmation that everything is both as awful as possible and somehow getting worse. And everyone else on Twitter appears to feel the same way. (You can check this claim right now by doing a Twitter search for phrases including “extremely normal website” and “I’m losing my mind.”) Last month, the writer Julius Sharpe posted the following exquisitely relatable sentiment: “Whenever someone stops tweeting, I feel like Ben Affleck going to Matt Damon’s house at the end of ‘Good Will Hunting.’ So happy for them.”

So why hasn’t Sharpe done a runner, like Matt Damon lighting out for the territory? And why, more to the point, haven’t I? The obvious answer is that social media is an addiction. The first argument in Jaron Lanier’s recent book, “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” is that the nexus of consumer technologies and submerged algorithms, which forms so large a part of contemporary reality, is deliberately engineered to get us hooked. “We’re being hypnotized little by little by technicians we can’t see, for purposes we don’t know,” he writes. “We’re all lab animals now.”

The problem, for Lanier, is not technology, per se. The problem is the business model based on the manipulation of individual behavior. Social-media platforms know what you’re seeing, and they know how you acted in the immediate aftermath of seeing it, and they can decide what you will see next in order to further determine how you act—a feedback loop that gets progressively tighter until it becomes a binding force on an individual’s free will. One of the more insidious aspects of this model is the extent to which we, as social-media users, replicate its logic at the level of our own activity: we perform market analysis of our own utterances, calculating the reaction a particular post will generate and adjusting our output accordingly. Negative emotions like outrage and contempt and anxiety tend to drive significantly more engagement than positive ones. This toxic miasma of bad vibes—of masochistic pleasures—is not, in Lanier’s view, an epiphenomenon of social media, but rather the fuel on which it has been engineered to run.

Lanier has coined a term for this process: he calls it bummer, which stands for “Behaviours of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” (Sample bummer-based sentence: “Your identity is packified by bummer.” Sample marginalia, scrawled by this reviewer with sufficient desperate emphasis to literally tear the page: “Please stop saying bummer!”) In Lanier’s view, bummer is responsible, in whole or in part, for a disproportionate number of our contemporary ailments, from the election of Donald Trump to the late-career resurgence of measles due to online anti-vaccine paranoia.”

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