Giving up on Social Media

Social media fail: the Twitter icon bird, upside down with an "X" for an eye.
She's dead, Jim.

Social media has been very good to me. I’ve worked with it for the better part of the last ten years at large corporations, small non-profits, universities and more. I’ve taught social media marketing at college, lectured on it in Canada and the U.S., won awards for my work, and helped found Toronto’s Social Media Cafe. Now I’m (somewhat) done with it.

Social media held immense promise when it started spreading about ten years ago. The idea that ordinary people could create online, global communities in which to interact, share ideas and connect was literally revolutionary. I remember changing my timezone to Tehran’s on Twitter during the Green Revolution, when Iranian authorities were trying to locate activists through their location on social media, in order to make them harder to find. I remember a group discussion at one of our first Social Media Cafes with a Syrian immigrant about whether social media could help topple Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. Those were heady days, when social media promised liberation, connection and the dismantling of hierarchies.

Apocalypse Like

Fast forward to 2017: we have social media boot camps for pre-teens on the proper use of makeup and lighting to become a YouTube “influencer.” We have large corporations such as Snap (parent company of Snapchat) with a higher market capitalization than American Airlines and unrestrained narcissism for a business model. We have cyberbullying, isolation, depression and much worse, and much of it is thanks to social media.

The revolution will not be televised (it won’t even be tweeted): the revolution failed.

Social media has failed to live up to its promise, but the failure of revolutions is nothing new. When television first appeared, it was hailed as a tremendous educational opportunity, and it took decades to degenerate into the Kardashians, Fox News and Wheel of Fortune. Social media took barely six years before beginning its decline. Since I wasn’t alive to witness the birth of TV, its fate doesn’t depress me the way social media’s failure does.

The end of Critical Thought?

I’ve seen my attention span wither since my pre-Facebook days, and I know social media has played a large role. Bite-sized chunks of infotainment custom-designed to distract us have impaired our ability to focus and think critically. Instant gratification has replaced reflection. Why spend time and effort focusing on something when you can get a quick dopamine rush simply by checking the number of likes on your latest post? Thinking takes effort, gratification doesn’t, and validation is oh-so-irresistible.

It would be easy to write these musings off as the cantankerous ramblings of a cranky old man, if I hadn’t been a social media fan boy for the last ten years. So pause for a moment and consider: do you really need said dopamine rush? Do you need to check Facebook one more time? Do you need to go online at all at any given moment? Most importantly, are you actually missing anything by not doing so?

You definitely miss something when you stare at Facebook over dinner, and when you’re done, can’t remember tasting anything you ate. You lose something when you choose to vegetate in bed with your channel of choice instead of going outdoors, even if it’s just to walk down the block. When you consume a seemingly endless stream of top-ten lists, and 30 minutes later can’t remember what any of them said, that isn’t living in the moment: it’s living in the never.

Social Media and the Death of Journalism

Social media’s sins go much deeper. It’s become a conduit for fake news and misinformation. Everyone from anti-vaccination activists to Donald Trump use it to dress up half-truths and lies with the appearance of legitimacy, passing them through our crumbling B.S. filters. Therein lies social media’s worst sin: it’s killing journalism.

As we consume more of our information through Facebook and Reddit, advertising revenue bleeds away from traditional news channels. Newspapers and public broadcasters report the news we rely on to stay informed. Social media distributes more and more of this news, resulting in less revenue for the media reporting it. Newsrooms make less money from advertising and subscriptions, and spend less on original and investigative journalism. The result is a shrinking capacity to report real news, much less the investigative journalism the world is in dire need of.

In 2017 it’s hard to make a buck on the kind of long-form journalism portrayed in last year’s Academy Award Winning Movie, “Spotlight.” In the post-truth Donald Trump world, we’re in dire need of exactly that kind of journalism. Sadly, what moves ad units on social media is more likely listicles and infotainment vs. the kind of bread-and-butter reporting that allowed Woodward and Bernstein to take down Richard Nixon, and Walter Robinson to expose the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal in Boston.

…but I’ll Always Come Running Back to You.

I’ll always use social media: it’s an essential communication tool, and I still enjoy spending time on it (who doesn’t?). It’s tremendously useful for finding work, it’s entertaining, and it’s great for engaging in heated arguments you’ll never win with total strangers. I particularly enjoy posting photos of things I discover around town, and sometimes after a hard day I actually want to disconnect my brain and vegetate for an hour or two in front of a list of the top ten worst war movies of all time, or something equally distracting.  

Social media has evolved over its short lifespan to give us exactly what we crave: bite-sized, easily digestible morsels of information we can passively absorb, and which we don’t have to think very hard about. That’s what makes it addictive. That’s what makes it dangerous.

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