I’ve always believed in technology’s ability to make life better for humankind. How could you argue otherwise? The entire accumulation of all human knowledge now resides in your pocket.
Seriously, think about it. You now have a free access to an online encyclopedia — Wikipedia — that has more than 5.2 million articles. As a comparison, the old Encyclopedia Britannica I used to have on shelves in my room had around 40,000 articles.
Yet for all that technology has done for us, I have come to regard one human advancement as having truly set the species backward. That advancement is social media.
I was not always cynical about social media’s role in society. In fact, I carved out a career that involved social media. My start in politics was in data, digital marketing, online advertising and the use of social media, and how to broadly leverage technology in campaigns, elections and public advocacy.
I was, in fact, a bit of a social media evangelist. I even won some professional awards for being an industry leader in that space. For years, I believed that the key to unlocking human potential was the growth of connectivity facilitated by social media.
I made the same arguments you still hear today. Social media doesn’t change people, they are who they are in real life. All it does is connect us to each other, and provide new and easy ways for us to gather together, collaborate, and make change.
Indeed, those of us in the political digital space managed to find ways to effectively weaponize social media and digital tools to organize and build large national political movements, and put them to use.
But slowly, over time, I have begun to understand that those benefits — and I admit, there are many — are outweighed by significant drawbacks. Dramatically outweighed.
The first problem is the addiction. It seems to have taken over almost everyone’s life.
Look at any lunch table, and you will often see human beings sit down, other human beings with them, and immediately take out their phones. They seek the dopamine hit that will be provided by a notification on a social media feed more than they seek the company of flesh and blood humans sitting right next to them.
I do it myself.
For many people, whenever they have an empty moment, or are bored, they distract themselves with social media.
And the worst part about it? Doing this frequently irritates or annoys us as we read a mix of rudeness, fake news and endless humblebrags, but our stupid monkey brains still crave the stimulation and social reinforcement of the inevitable series of likes and comments that come with social media interaction.
Gone, apparently, are the days when we were comfortable being bored. Comfortable looking at the sky with wonder, or talking to actual human beings.
But our obsession and distractions aren’t the only issue. There is the perversion of reality it creates.
Social media connects us to fantasy versions of each other’s lives. What you see on your friend’s Facebook feed is not his real life — you see only what your friend wants you to see. You see the fantastic tropical vacation he just took, not the fight he had with his wife on the plane, or the secret illness he has kept to himself.
And then there is the problem of how we use it.
People are not “the same” on social media as they are in real life as so many claim. The combination of clickbait intentionally designed to outrage, coupled with the immediate ability to feed one’s own emotionalism, combined with the safety — and oftentimes anonymity — of solitary relationship with the electrons on a screen rather than the face-to-face interaction between people conspire to drive otherwise good, happy, optimistic people to turn into truly reprehensible trolls on the internet.
In short, we are fed an inaccurate view of the world around us, we are fed garbage that preys on our negativity and emotionalism, we are given the ability to immediately react to it, and we are given the consequence-free safety of not even having to look other people in the eye while doing it.
I don’t think it is any coincidence that, during this era of the rise of social media, there has been a rise in dissatisfaction with life, an increase in polarization in our politics, and a massive spike in extremism.
Social media may connect people to the world around us, but it also, ironically, pushes us further and further from our fellow man, and has had a corrosive impact on too many of our lives.
Most of us would probably be better off without it.