Deleting Social Media

(To the reader: This is both a blog and a book review)

We at HCG have been considering deleting our social media accounts for quite some time, but were caught in the (erroneous) belief that doing so would be too detrimental to our work (getting our work out and keeping up with the work of others). We had an inkling that these platforms were not on the up and up given Facebook’s value as a multibillion dollar enterprise (roughly $139 billion as of July 2018) while offering a “free” service to 2.3 billion monthly active users. Nothing is really free in the realm of the corporatocracy and thus Facebook’s services, Google’s (3.5 billion searches a day and worth over $239 billion) search engine and gmail, and the like…none of them are really free. Not being very tech savvy, however, we were not able to pinpoint exactly “why” we did not trust these venues and the benevolence of their services and so we stayed.

Adding to our discomfort was the persistence of trolling on these platforms and the ease with which even the most affable of folks turned into truly awful people, saying things they would never dream of saying face to face. Lindy West wrote about her troll (Shrill, 2016) and noted that when she met him, he seemed like a nice enough guy who really had no idea why he chose such a cruel response to her – it just seemed so easy and he kind of went with it. The combination of the shadowy nature with which these platforms operate, the social detritus that they seem to encourage, and the way they influence our society in lowest-common-denominator ways all pointed to “leave social media”. And yet, we still did not. It’s gravitational pull was quite strong, and that coupled with a little FOMO made us stay. Additionally, it did not appear to be a decision anyone else was making and so we were hesitant to do it. Then the switch flipped. A year of problematic headlines for various social media giants, the most visible of which were the revelations regarding the 2016 presidential election and our reading of Jaron Lanier’s book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, 2018, tipped the scales and convinced us to leave all social media. Viewed as one of social media’s / the tech world’s key players, it is all the more poignant that he advocates abandoning the current iteration of social media. Not being a “tech skeptic”, and definitely not a luddite, his insider reasoning is clearly laid out in ten arguments (listed below). Embedded across his “ten reasons” are a few key themes that were compelling to us and perhaps they will be to you as well.

In one theme he underscores how the business model for these platforms pushes them to increasingly mine, store and sell every bit of personal information you share. Some social media users often compare this to TV ads and say they do not mind the data sharing given that services are free. What almost all of us do not understand about this process, however, is that the data then gets utilized by algorithms designed to craft and cater information in line with that personal data. Thus, there is an ever-increasing “bubble” effect. More insidiously, the algorithms use this information to deeply but subtly manipulate the user into increased behavior modification that serves the corporations buying the data – what the platforms call “user engagement” but what Lanier describes as intense and ongoing manipulation. He highlights how social media users may “think” we are exercising free will when expressing interest in a particular product/headline/action, but in fact we are being constantly (and he means constantly) manipulated, herded if you will, in one direction or another. The free business model is not at all free and we are not the users of social media, we are actually the commodity major corporations (the real users) are buying from social media platforms. Our free will within these settings is, in the long run, a myth as the highly sophisticated algorithms continually adapt to our “preferences” and feed us more of what we think our “preferences” are.

The second major theme is what this does to us as people. In short, he says it makes us “assholes” (argument three). The algorithms arc to what sparks strong reactions in us. Citing cognitive psychology sources, Lanier says that tends to be negative emotions, comments, or responses. The loudest jerk, then, gets the most attention leading the algorithms to adapt in that direction. In this light the corresponding erosion of our public discourse on social media makes a lot more sense – if the platform algorithms respond to the most robust responses, and if negative responses are easier to trigger, land more loudly and energetically, and in the end are the more “robust” then the algorithms more consistently adapt in that direction. Social media celebrities who are brazen and off the rails get more hits and likes than do those who make measured critiques, consider multiple views and are grounded in care and respect. The quintessential example he gives is Donald Trump whom he says is by no means an anomaly, but is instead the likely outcome of social media platforms whose core programs favor that tonal narrative. Of course, everyday folks fall into that trend as well. In the end, to get more views, likes and to be validated on social media, you have to be a bit of an asshole.

The third major theme is what social media does to our society. Lanier says it makes us callous, it deeply obscures truth and the need to be truly well informed, and it herds us into what appear to be highly polarized camps, even though US society is actually not as polarized as mainstream media would have us think. As the algorithms continue to show us the bubbles of our “choices” we lose the ability to understand someone else’s point of view. One of the most vital elements of a democracy is the ability to talk across difference and find some measure of common ground. These platforms make that virtually impossible and thereby erode one of the basic needs of a thriving democracy. Place on top of that the ease with which interests outside the US are able to influence our democracy, and we have a toxic combination for a democratic society (which can eventually lead to the loss of that same democracy). Lanier points out the parallel rise of increasingly authoritarian regimes with the rise of social media platforms. He is not at all directly blaming these platforms, but he is noticing that in their current form, they are easy and powerful tools for authoritarianism – an ideology that does not encourage critical thought, lives through curt slogans and xenophobic frameworks, and encourages conformity to the power structure. He does acknowledge that certain social movements of late have benefitted from the wide reach of social media (BLM and #MeToo) but then says the short term benefits of these do not actually outweigh the power of the wizard behind the curtain. And to the extent that these movements are able to gain traction, the algorithmic wizard(s) are more expeditiously working to co-opt, manipulate and redirect the work of those movements. Thus, the net is a loss for our society, a loss that no short term gain can justify.

As a book, Jaron Lanier’s ten reasons are a bit repetitive and their interrelation makes the identification of ten seem a bit inflated. I understand this move in terms of having catchy points as well as the need to repeat points to help the reader “get” what are often abstract and opaque dynamics for the “everyday” person, but it makes for dull reading at times. The lack of literary prowess should not deter one from reading this book and taking on its core points – the major social media platforms are not good for our society, they are not good for our personal growth and well-being, and they are not the “open” platforms we think they are. Rather, they are the tools of mega rich corporations for other mega rich corporations. Social media as an idea is not the problem, but social media that operates as these companies currently do is. Thus, deleting our accounts is the only way to get the attention of these companies and will eventually (hopefully) pave the way to the creation of other, more democratic social media platforms.

But beyond deletion being a strategic approach to forcing complete reform of these systems, there is of course a deep moral imperative here. Lanier references in one of his points the work of Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015) and uses her comments on our connectivity to broach the notion of what it means to be human and how these platforms do not well serve our humanity. AI advocates might suggest that as menial work is taken care of, we are able to actually be more human and explore greater arenas of thought and action than before. Perhaps, but that is not this. What we have here is a deep loss of who we are as humans. The very notion that one can govern via tweets let alone address the complexities of the human experience via Twitter, Facebook, What’s App, or Instagram is absurd, and yet each day we increasingly accept it as the norm. A range of contemporary articles have shared how much better the authors feel about themselves, the world and their relationships after getting off social media. Similar studies have piled up regarding the deleterious impacts on self-esteem, interpersonal communication, and empathy as a result of the ongoing use of social media as a primary source of news, communication and relationships. This clearly does not serve social justice.

A tenet of social justice work is to take action and live as part of the solution. We at HCG do not pretend even for a minute that we “have arrived” with respect to living socially just lives, but we do commit to the interrogation of our choices and an honest appraisal of their support of justice. And for us, social media does not at all support social justice. To organizers – yes, there is great power in social media, but is it possible that we / you are being allowed to organize so the conglomerates can find ever more insidious ways to manipulate us? To those who say it creates access – is it possible that we are being granted access only to then create more avenues for control? I could go on, but it is easier for you to read Lanier’s book. At the deepest level, it is critical to ask if these platforms truly serve justice and our society. Having had a moment to consider it and take in more information we unequivocally say no. Justice is transparent, it is rooted in love, it is connected in ways that are abiding and authentic, and it serves the greater good. Learning what we have about social media, there is no way that it, in its current form, can be framed as serving the social good.

To be sure there are those for whom deleting social media accounts is not possible economically, politically, or socially. But, for those of us where it is possible, it is a critically important move to make. Thus, HCG has deleted all of its social media accounts as of January 31st. If you would like to be in touch with us, please feel free to email us at the link on our website or at the top of our newsletter.

Jaron Lanier’s “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social media Accounts Right Now”:
1. You are losing your free will
2. Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times
3. Social media is making you into an asshole
4. Social media is undermining truth
5. Social media is making what you say meaningless
6. Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy
7. Social media is making you unhappy
8. Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity
9. Social media is making politics impossible
10. Social media hates your soul