So, there’s this kid, skinny and a little short, who loves his phone and cannot bear to part with it so he straps it to his hand at night with sellotape as not to drop it and always have it on-hand if needed. His mother, tired of finding scrunched-up balls of sticky tape in her son’s bed sheets, is desperate to help break the habit. “What about the shower?!” shouts his father in reference to the sellotape which, unknowingly, attaches itself to his son’s back and neck during restless sleep and then falls off in shower, blocking the drain.
Then, mother sees an advert on a website and it feels as if it’s been written especially for her and her boy. “Cutting edge technology,” it says, “for the person who would lose their head.”
She shows the advert to her husband and the two of them agree. Gently, father lifts the boy from his bed, places him in the back of the car and the drives to a concrete building in Shoreditch where an angular man with silver eyes spends two hours attaching the boy’s phone to his hand with invisible threads and the boy doesn’t lose a single drop of blood. In fact, he doesn’t even stir from sleep. Lifted again, gently by his father, the boy is returned to his bed. Mother and father let out a deep breath before heading downstairs to drink wine in front of the television, relieved that the bother of all that sellotape is finally over.
Social media is the most influential innovation of the 21st Century, so far. It has swept across global society, growing from a means of making plans and sharing photos to a powerhouse of news, business, marketing, culture, communication and current affairs, But, for all its power and influence, social media also courts controversy like little else on Earth, all the way from the top down.
By the sum of its parts, is social media on the whole a force for good, inciting positive societal change, or a force for bad, empowering the few, manipulating the masses, and giving voice to hate? If so, is it something we can, or even should, endeavour to change?
The Best of Social Media
Social media has incredible powers for good, many of which go unreported in favour of far more juicy, click-friendly stories of corporate scandal. Of all of those positives, it must surely be the ability to open up the world and encourage social engagement which sits at the top.
Is it possible to make the world both bigger and smaller at the same time? Because, in many ways, social media has achieved just this.
The first phase of social media (MySpace, in other words), didn’t achieve this very well. Despite the fact that it promoted users to customise their pages and post images, it remained a somewhat anonymous platform. Seedy, in its way, too, it introduced a new phase of digital voyeurism driven, as always, by rampant hormones.
And that’s exactly why Facebook started, too, but this second phase of social media sparked profound societal change and the internet began breaking down geographical and societal boundaries.
All of sudden, the distance between nations diminished and the world became smaller, more accessible. And as the shared world shrinks, our personal worlds grow. We are exposed to global news like never before, both the good and the bad. Stories such as immigration and warfare went from being abstract notions of lands far away to immediate and uncensored realities. And no longer do we rely on media outlets to tell global stories, instead we listen to the people at the heart of them; second-hand storytelling has become first-hand reportage. Social media has empowered the people.
By providing direct access to the world and all of its people, social media has removed the veil of journalism to reveal raw, unfiltered stories. If the story at hand is one of political or social wrongdoing, social media has made it so that somebody, somewhere must be held accountable. Where once stories could be buried with savvy PR tactics, they are now fully exposed, and even if the authorities, for example, choose to ignore a story of criminality, social media has made it so that the public can continue hammering at the door, demanding justice for all.
We’ve seen it happen is so many different ways already. The #MeToo movement is the most recent, most extraordinary example of social media empowering the people, but there are hundreds of other examples. Trump’s impending visit to the UK is destined to be met with angry demonstrations thanks purely to the organisational capabilities of Facebook and Twitter. America’s recent hard-line immigration stance has been met, almost instantly, with universal disdain and fundraising efforts, promoted largely on social media. These efforts have seen millions of Americans donating money to fund legal representation for those who have had their children stripped from them at the US border.
Before social media, this story would have gone largely unreported. We certainly wouldn’t have had access to the shocking imagery from inside the detention facilities, and the Trump administration would have been able to do a pretty good job of burying it under some kind of convenient sex scandal. More importantly, the families from Mexico who desperately need legal support would not be receiving nearly as much aid from the outraged public as they are.
The Worst of Social Media: born from a bad seed
The biggest problem with social media is one that has always been there. In fact, it was built into the original social media blueprints and has never disappeared since: counterproductive, negative design, which demands that users bend to fit the mold provided, regardless of whether or not that is how they would normally behave.
From the very beginning, many argue that social media was designed badly and never recovered. The bad that social media has caused to the world can all be traced back to poor design.
The design of social media is such that it forces us to behave in ways we would never even contemplate in real life – it drives us to want recognition and authentication that we would never normally need, and it alters our mindset to even have certain thoughts that we would never previously have had.
It goes all the way back to MySpace and one seemingly insignificant feature that was embedded at the forefront of the design, a feature which has played a hugely significant role in user interaction. It is, of course, the friend counter.
Social media at its very best reflects the world we live in and provides a platform on which we can further celebrate that which we have built for ourselves: our friends, our hobbies, our photographs, our holidays, our shared experiences, our joy, outrage, frustration and pain.
So what is the friend counter doing there? When, in real life, was anybody ever concerned about the number of friends another person had? It didn’t matter. You’re my friend, I’m your friend, that’s all I need to know, has turned into, dude, you’ve only got 75 Facebook friends…what’s up with that?
With this feature, social media instantly started to demand something of us which wasn’t natural. Predictably, rather than ignore the friend counter, we started measuring each other and ourselves by it, or rather we measured each other and ourselves by someone else’s friend counter.
Before long we were making judgements based on something that fell completely outside of our standard moral code – we changed our mentality to fit what social media was telling us is right. And it’s still there today. Facebook took the friend counter from MySpace and ran with it. For what purpose?
Another destructive aspect of social media design is the rewards systems that have been installed. Likes, comments, and shares are now integrated into our lives, and people or brands are rewarded for getting as many of them as possible. The problem is, it doesn’t matter how you go about getting them, just so long as you get them.
This has led us to today, where we reward people for gaining clicks or likes and pay very little heed to the actual content being shared. Because of this, we have created a society where upskirting, candid nudity and street brawls are considered more valuable content than works of art, social aid messages, or inspired thought. Yes, there is a demand for all that good stuff, and social media allows for it to be found, but you often have to go and find it rather than simply stumble upon it.
I’m sure even the Victorians couldn’t resist a cute dog pic, or a pub brawl, but they didn’t make it the centre of their cultural output.
Another issue with social media design is its contradictory nature. We are told our social media profiles are places on which we express who we are and what we love about the world around us, display our colourful lives and show the world that everybody, regardless of where you’re from or what you do or what you look like, is beautiful in their individuality.
Sadly, that’s bull. In truth, Facebook enforces tight homogeneity across the board in order to create more standardised data which can be mined, curated and sold. Look at your profile page, and now look at everyone else’s; they’re identical. Facebook allows for no personalisation outside of profile and cover pictures. You can’t change the background colours, you can’t change the font, you can’t change the layout; there is very little that Facebook hasn’t directly decided for you. Forcing everyone into the same blue and white template smacks of corporate governance; there’s something quite authoritarian about it – the prison guards can’t tell you how what colour eyes to have, but they can certainly make sure you’ve got the right clothes on.
Not only does this enforced homogeneity go against the supposed ‘think different’ attitude of Silicon Valley, but it also sets an incredibly dangerous example to young people in terms of how they should negotiate the journey from adolescence to adulthood. It’s already hard enough at school to go against the grain of the social zeitgeist in terms of fashion and interests, just for example. It’s always been a problem that the kid in Gola jogging bottoms is picked on by the kids in Adidas, but for today’s young people who have never known a world without Facebook, the need for conformity can leave a lasting, damaging impression on the developing brain.
For those too young to remember the birth of the internet, this is how the world is, not how it has become. For them, there is no alternative and therefore the homogeneity of social media does not seem weird. Is that not the path of continued generational bigotry? Do they not say that young people need to broaden their minds? In order for the bigoted views of parents to not be inherited by the children, do the children not need to be shown that there is an alternative? If social media platforms keep enforcing conformity upon people who have never been shown that conformity is not a necessity, are they not promoting authoritarian politics ahead of existential expression?
Remember the outrage when the government considered bringing in ID cards for all citizens? I struggle to see how people are missing that this is exactly the same thing, just being enforced by a private rather than public body.
How do we fix it?
We start again. Simple as that. It doesn’t need to be a new platform; I have no problem with Facebook as a business, but I think they have a responsibility to change what is broken.
The next era of social media must promote personal expression. Our digital lives are now as relevant as our real, analogue lives and platforms should reflect this. I want to see profile pages that reflect the people who made them. This is such an easy thing to do. In fact, MySpace was doing it before Facebook came about and took it away.
Most importantly, social media needs to pivot in order to enable us to better live digital lives that reflect the same moral code we live by in the real world. The friend counter needs to go. If someone wants to spend time going through and counting all my friends, that’s their problem to deal with, not mine, but to make it a standout statistic for all to see gives it unworthy significance.
In the same vein, the rewards system needs changing, too. Create a way a for people to express why they have liked or shared something. The tick boxes could include: it made me laugh; it made me angry; it taught me something I didn’t know; the message is universally important; there is a problem which needs addressing; there is immense talent on show.
I know people will manipulate this system – who’s to say that a man falling from a tree and breaking his legs doesn’t make someone laugh? But it will force people to consider what they promote via social media, make them accountable for their actions.
On the flip-side of this, I think people should be able to use agreed-upon hashtags to alert others, and the platform itself, to content which may be more or less worthy of gaining social momentum. #MeToo is a prime example; as Ethan Zuckerman says:
“[#MeToo] is basically saying, ‘we’re going to challenge how people talk about sexual assault and sexual harassment.’ And once we change that norm, there’s [sic] other legal pieces, market pieces, that’ll come into play. But at its heart it’s trying to change how we have certain conversations.”
This use of hashtags to try and change the way we have conversations can become a universal system of appraisal. If a story breaks on social media and garners hundreds of thousands of comments and interactions, and if there was a pre-agreed hashtag of #FakeNews, users should be shown exactly how many times others have labelled the story ‘#FakeNews’. If that number is high, it might persuade the reader to think twice about trusting the content. The same could apply to #HateSpeech for bigoted content, or #ItsALie for those posts which tell others they have to look or act a certain way.
It might sound a little simplistic, but for an immediate quick fix, while we decide how best to move forward, it could be a useful way of helping users better understand the content they are consuming. It might even be that if a post gains hundreds of #VitalNews labels, for example, Facebook or Twitter could take a look at it and, if it really is promoting positivity, reward it by boosting it. It could be a nice way of balancing all of that content which they blindly boost when paid for.
Social media has run out of control. It simply can’t keep being guided by its current compass. We don’t need Facebook and Twitter to go away, but we do need to pressure them into creating platforms which are better for society than they currently are. It’s not about censorship, it’s not about a paywall, it’s not even about choosing what is good and what is bad, it’s about making people accountable for what they do and giving everyone the power to highlight that which is good and that which is bad. Until then, we’ll continue to rely on platforms which did incredible things to open the world, only to use them to promote and reward corporate wealth, scandal, and social conformity.