Op-ed (ish)

Six Degrees of Social Media

By October 23, 2020One Comment
Artist – Pawel Kuczynski

Words are interpreted through the lens of one’s experience. It doesn’t matter if I think I am clear about the meaning that I am trying to convey. It is so far out of my control how it gets interpreted.

I do try and convey what I write with simplicity and clarity, and yet people will only read what they want to and interpret it in their own way. It’s one of the challenges with writing. This is the same with speaking, although one can tip the scales with non-verbal cues. Still people only hear what they want to hear.

This all leads me to the world in which we live—technology. Recently I’ve noticed a disturbing trend beginning around the time social media became intertwined in the fabric of our lives. I knew it was happening, but my observations became clearer after watching a documentary titled, “The Social Dilemma.” It’s a series of interviews with mostly early social media pioneers. Essentially, top dog tech nerds that developed the apps that have now taken over most peoples lives–Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others.

The documentary’s central figure is a former Google technology ethicist, yes they had one of those for a while, who is one of the few outspoken proponents of social media and what it has done to societies across the globe. I do not want to go into too much detail other than to say the longer you spend on social media the more money is made off you. And you are already addicted whether you want to admit it or not.

To be overly dramatic, there is a level of sinister at work. While at one point social media was well intentioned, but somewhere along the line it became about money. And just about every problem you are seeing in society today can be traced back to social media. Think of it as six degrees of social media.

Let’s play that game.

The topic, vaccines. There is a percentage of people who believe that vaccines are not necessary for their child foregoing the usual vaccines nearly every child gets. At first it was a very small percentage, but somewhere along the lines someone started posting, mostly on Facebook and Twitter, what looked like legitimate articles on the dangers of vaccines. Now there is a portion of the population prone to conspiracy theories, maybe you, who end up coming across the articles because they may already be part of another Facebook group or Twitter follower that has to do with health of some kind. Thanks to the algorithms of these social media sites the user is then recommended articles and groups. The moment you choose one the algorithm changes and you are then given more. And before you know it you’ve gone down the proverbial rabbit hole and are now a convert–vaccines are bad. This also ends up opening the door to a whole host of other groups, articles and conspiracy theories.

There is so much going on behind the scenes of these social media companies that are hellbent on keeping you glued to your screen. This is called “attention economy,” and where they make their money. The longer your attention the more data they get off of you allowing them to make more and more money.

Let me give you one more example. Have you ever played slots at a casino? Recall that feeling you get the moment you pull the handle causing it to spin. Hear the sound, feel the feeling, hoping against hope you get three in a row of something—a winner. The sound of the clinking coins pouring out hitting the metal releases more of the brain chemicals that cause you to feel on top of the world. It’s a great feeling so you go again and again, winning, winning and eventually losing. How much you lose depends upon your own willpower. Some have more than others, and we know where that story ends.

Facebook and others have designed their apps to function like a slot machine. Take your finger, swipe down and the wheel at the top spins and the screen refreshes with something new. You may not win coins, but you get something new each time. This is very subtle and an addictive way to keep your attention on the screen.

I was not raised with tech. I’ve had the luxury of perspective, but there are now generations that only have this perspective. It’s powerfully addictive and insidious in the worst case of the meaning.

I’ve said this before, but worth saying again, words are powerful. There are forces at work that manipulate the public through the use of social media knowing full well that most people are not intelligent enough to look for other sources or at the very least vet the source they reading.

The end of the documentary paints a dire picture. If this is not dealt with it could be the end of the first part of the word civilization—civil. We will no longer have that civil part of the fabric keeping us together. We already see widening gaps.

This affects all of us on so many levels from the personal all the way to climate change and other major issues that are tearing the fabric of society apart. It’s not yet a massive tear, yet. It can be sown back together if we remain civil and work together.

Watch the documentary to learn how that can be done.

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