Please Use Less Social Media

Social media has been good to me. It’s paid many of my bills over the last ten years during my time as a social media manager and digital strategist. It’s won me international awards. I’ve created and taught courses on it, and lectured on the subject at most of Toronto’s universities and colleges. I helped set up Social Media Cafe Toronto, once the premier networking event for social media devotees in the city. I tell you this to establish the authority necessary to ask the following: please use less social media, for all our sakes.

When social media broke big about ten years ago, early adopters like me had stars in our eyes. It was a revolution we were sure would break down barriers and redefine how we relate to one another. Ten years ago, it felt like we were on the cusp of some great societal change. It turns out we were, but for all the wrong reasons. Social media is threatening our society, and it’s time for each of us to moderate our use.

It’s killing our attention spans

Social media is driven by ad revenue, which is driven by clicks, which means the more we click, the more money Facebook, Twitter, et al., make. This incentivizes these companies to grab our attention using any means necessary, and they’ve become exceptionally skilled at it, to the point where our attention is increasingly fragmented as we click Mark Zuckerberg on to his next billion. Unfortunately, intelligence depends on an ability to focus and retain details. That ability diminishes with distraction. Deep, focused reading – the kind you experience reading a book or something intellectually challenging– is essential to understanding. It’s where informed opinions grow. As we increasingly multitask our media consumption, that ability to focus and understand is shrinking.

It’s killing intelligent conversation

Thoughtful dialogue rarely happens on social media. You need only read YouTube or Reddit comments to see this for yourself: their semi-anonymity encourages snark, trolling, baiting and worse. LinkedIn long ago retooled itself as a “content platform” for marketers and wanna-be business impresarios. Twitter has largely devolved into 300 million people anxious for attention. Intelligent conversation doesn’t happens when you put a few hundred million people together and restrict them to 280 characters. It happens when a few people with some idea what they’re talking about – gained through a combination of education, reading and informed opinion – gather to discuss something in an open, honest manner.

It’s making us miserable

Crack open Instagram and see how many people are sharing pics of themselves on an amazing tropical vacation,  having a ball at a sporting event or taking shots of the delicious food they’re about to wolf down. Visit LinkedIn and read about the fabulous new business opportunities people are embarking on, the promotions they’re getting and the conferences they’re attending. Try the same thing with Facebook, Twitter, et al.

Precious few of us share our real lives on social media: we put up an elaborately curated version of it, filtered to show only the positive, a digital Potemkin village. Nobody wants to share that they’re in a rut or that life sucks. Few people have the courage to admit they’re depressed or struggling to pay the bills. Everyone else seems to be succeeding, so the untold millions who aren’t end up feeling inadequate and unhappy.

The shocking truth is that our lives aren’t all unicorns and rainbows. Just because we choose to only share the good stuff doesn’t mean the bad doesn’t exist: it’s just hidden from view. On social media we’re all trying to keep up with the Joneses, except that the Joneses – at least as depicted on Instagram – don’t exist.

It’s spying on us

Social media uses your data to show you ads you’ll click (clicks mean revenue – remember?). The data itself is often more valuable than the clicks, and can be monetized by these platforms in other lucrative ways. All the major social platforms have come under scrutiny over how they harvest and handle our data, and this doesn’t include government efforts to track our every step online. Edward Snowden blew the whistle on US government surveillance efforts, but it was a company named Cambridge Analytica which took advantage of social media to take media manipulation to a whole new level.

It’s undermining our democracy

Cambridge Analytica provided demographic and psychographic information on millions of Facebook users to  Donald Trump’s campaign and Brexit supporters (among others) to skew their respective votes. But Cambridge Analytica is only the most flagrant example of this disinformation. Every day, fringe groups from antivaxxers to white supremacists use Facebook and other social platforms to sow fear and division, and propagate outright lies. With the decline of traditional news outlets (ironically, caused by the flight of their ad revenue to the online and social worlds) there are fewer checks and balances on this misinformation. The filters we used to rely on to make sense of information are being dismantled at the very moment we need them most.

The list of offences goes on. Ultimately, we know social media in its current incarnation isn’t working for us as a society, as a democracy or as individuals. The only question is whether we have the political and societal will to curb it through regulation, and by providing meaningful alternatives. Regulation has a chance to succeed in functional democracies such as Canada, but there’s less hope in places such as the United States where lobbyist dollars talk, and companies with deep pockets such as Facebook can buy and sell public representatives at will. Meaningful alternatives – i.e., journalism – don’t seem to be up to the task, as they’re too busy fighting for their lives amid a sea of free content.

It’s up to you

In spite of all this, social media isn’t the problem. Our consumption is the problem. When we don’t question what we see on social media, we contribute to the problem. When we spend our time endlessly clicking top-10 lists and headlines that promise “You’ll never guess what happens next!” we contribute to the problem. When we try to out-do everyone else in showing how awesomely phoney our lives are, we contribute to the problem.

I still use social media. Facebook’s a great way to message friends and family. LinkedIn’s useful when you need to find a job. Instagram’s awesome for cat photos. Each of them are essential business communication tools. However, in the absence of effective checks and filters, it’s up to each of us to moderate our consumption: no one else is going to do it for us. Facebook and Twitter aren’t about to wean you off their machine any more than casinos in Las Vegas will stop you from putting money in slot machines. Social media understands us better than we do, and it will take willpower and determination to reign in our consumption.

Use social media. Indulge yourself. Share. But – please – use less of it, and use it more wisely, for your sake and everyone else’s.

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