Creative Cultural Critique
Customers Or Contributors? The Social Solutions
Advocacy for the healthy positive future of humanity in the age of social media
By now, you’ve probably seen the documentary The Social Dilemma. To summarize, the film explains all the ways in which social media subtly and insidiously manipulates its users, to the detriment not only of certain vulnerable demographics, but also shockingly broad groups of people, at times influencing things as crucial to human society as elections. If you haven’t watched it yet, it’s definitely recommended viewing.
This newest foray into exposing the ugly truth about technology under runaway capitalism paradoxically came out during the coronavirus pandemic, a period marked by terms new to our generation such as social distancing, safer at home, and shelter in place. Cornered by an invisible, existential threat, we have been forced to relegate most of our communications to handheld & desktop devices, a trend which was already in an upswing and has now taken over as our primary means of connection. I had previously worried that we were widely losing our grip psychologically — it was already apparent that we’d been getting worse at creating relationships in person — and recently now I’ve feared that this extreme (while perhaps necessary) virtual elimination of real interaction could spell disaster for humanity.
One Social Dilemma interviewee in particular, Jaron Lanier, known as the father of virtual reality, was a personality with whom I’d been familiar for some time. Having already seen several of his talks online, I was aware of his points against the widespread overuse of (or perhaps more properly termed — addiction to — ) social media and his advocacy against reliance on exploitative platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Without realizing that such a documentary was just around the corner, right before The Social Dilemma was released I had actually purchased four of Lanier’s books and began reading Who Owns The Future? to start seriously delving into this very topic. The first major point emerges in his initial ‘Prelude’ section, where he affirms that Instagram had only thirteen employees when it was sold for a billion dollars in 2012. Conversely, photography company Kodak employed 140,000 associates at the height of its value, when it was worth $28 billion. His point, one that he would continue making in interviews, Ted Talks, and most recently in this recent eye-opening documentary, was that there are a very select few earning a living by working for social media and other tech companies today.
The biggest takeaway from Jaron Lanier’s outcries is that when we use free services like Twitter and Facebook, we are not the customers. We may consume the content, but we also create it. These companies do not serve us— they serve their advertisers, and they do it with our contributions, which we offer up willingly without compensation — save for the privilege of accessing such misinformation-addled and distraction-ridden services at no cost... unless or until you consider the expenditure of precious time and genuine damage to real lives.
But The Social Dilemma didn’t readily offer up ideas on how to amend this issue. As I have only just begun to scratch the surface of Lanier’s wisdom, which he has garnered from being involved in tech startups since the early ’80s, I can only guess that he and others may have entertained similar solutions I’ve pondered, aside from outright quitting or overtly dismantling the services — I just haven’t come across them yet. He maintains that there are no intentionally malevolent evildoers at the helm of the uncontrollable beast that social media has become, unchecked and unregulated, but rather that these hopeful young startups initially had noble dreams of connecting the world and have only fallen into treachery by accident. So let’s not point fingers or cast blame — let’s just fix it.
After all, in a capitalistic society, how can any company expect to thrive while it offers its services for free, without being forced to offer advertising to cover its costs and turn a profit? While the innovation of algorithms to these ends is a massive and respectable achievement of modern technology and brilliant programming, the outcome has become wildly despicable. And although the use of psychology in advertising is nothing new, these targeting functions are literally altering our psyche and driving us to depression. A market cannot be sustained if cataclysmic faults eliminate or otherwise disable a majority of its audience. If they’re to continue operating, these platforms need both revenue and healthy users to comprise their network. So here are a couple of suggestions I’ve come up with for maintaining social media’s presence and positive attributes in our lives while protecting society from its overreaching oppression — plus an argument for disengagement.
The Sensible: Make Them Paid Services
Everyone likes free stuff. But as The Social Dilemma warns us, when you don’t pay for the product, you are the product. Imagine a Facebook without advertising or algorithms, no tracking or targeting. You might be outraged at the idea of paying for access to something you’ve become accustomed to getting for free, but wouldn’t an ad-free experience be quite the utopia in our virtual world?
Moreover, many of us already pay for services which actually serve us. As of this writing, Netflix plans start at $8.99 per month, and Spotify costs $9.99 per month just to remove ads. (Sidenote: Spotify still doesn’t pay its content creators — musicians—adequately, but that’s another issue.)
According to statista.com, Facebook’s 2019 revenue was almost $71 billion, with 2.89 billion users at the end of the year, reports zephoria.com. Dividing revenue by users yields a result of $24.56 generated from each user that year. Based on that data, to proportionally replace advertiser revenue with that of paid subscribers could cost users as little $2.05 per month, each.
Alternatively, it’s genuinely possible to create a paid version of Facebook alongside its current model, still reserved for those who may be unable or unwilling to to pay a few bucks for, let’s say, for a service that actually has their well-being in mind. In an update like this, I’d also personally like to see the option to turn off the algorithm-driven feed. I still miss the days of the time-based stream showing all of my friends’ posts as they happened.
The Precarious: Pay Content Contributors
With regards to users being the product, I believe it was Lanier who clarified: it’s not technically you being monetized, but your content. So what if we were paid for our posts? What if helpful, insightful, beautiful, and truthful posts were the most highly prized, rather than the sensationalism and clickbait that currently drives algorithms? We could have a micropayment system for the most original content, perhaps driving innovation rather than extremism.
Advertisers would still be a part of the game, but users would also benefit financially from their activities on the platform, rather than it feeling like a rigged game where the dealer always wins and we’re risking our well-being to participate.
Unfortunately, this suggestion then begs the question: how would the value of posts be determined? Could we really rely on algorithms to assign worth to a subjective scale of fact vs. fiction, honesty vs. falsification, and beneficence vs. harm? Or do we simply assign value based on other users’ engagement, which could easily perpetuate the current status quo of subversion via hype and hyperbole?
This middle road is a somewhat tantalizing concept, but it comes with its hurdles. I’d say, if we’re to keep these networks around, they must conform to my first suggestion. And if they don’t — if they never offer a way for users to liberate themselves from servitude to overly influential apps with paid subscriptions— to me the most surefire solution is clearly…
The Absolute: Quit Social Media and Focus On Real Connection
Dunbar’s number suggests that humans on average can only reasonably maintain a social group size of about 150 people. Beyond this, are we truly capable of real connection? Or do we simply become zombies clamoring aimlessly for attention and drones embedded in mindless scrolling? What is the value, if any, of collecting acquaintances and preserving some kind of connection to practically everyone we’ve ever met?
British anthropologist Robin Dunbar first proposed his theory in the early ’90s, but little did he suspect the evolution of social media as we know it — and now he wonders if that number may be shrinking because of our overcrowded friend lists. He’d originally deduced this hypothetical number from the ratio of grooming primates in a group relative to the size of the animal’s brain. Extrapolating the data to humans, he posited that 100–200 would be the number of guests invited to large party; around 50 is the amount of acquaintances with whom one might engage in a group dinner. The inner circle of fifteen friends is the cluster with which one would share sympathy and secrets. Within that, an average of five primary people would represent one’s closest bonds.
Historical studies have since backed up these claims, though social media’s meteoric rise has sought to challenge them. While collecting friends and followers may make users feel more powerful and popular, we still seem limited in real life connections by Dunbar’s number. Shared analog experiences cannot truly be replaced by digital relations. The fixed constructs of time and the capacity of our brains simply can’t be divided among more people while maintaining a reasonable quality of emotional investment. What’s more, physical closeness, shared presence, and human touch can never be replaced. Our bodies simply crave the endorphins of real interaction; whereas the dopamine rush of social media attention is just a hollow substitute.
So how about the most obvious solution? It’s the one Jaron Lanier specifically advocates in his 2018 book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now — which is currently on my bedside table in the queue to be cracked open and absorbed. At this point, I most likely won’t even need to read it. Even if it might still take me a some time to take the plunge, I know now that getting off these platforms, at least partially, is a necessity for positive growth, change, and a fulfilling life not lived in the abstract.
But how, many of us ask, can we live without social media? We’ve all become so enmeshed in it and used to its existence in our everyday lives that it’s practically a crutch preventing us from real-world interaction. We must re-learn, and practice, how to make friends and maintain relationships the old-fashioned way.
First, let’s collectively find our Dunbar 150, 50, fifteen, and five — and make a serious effort to nurture those relationships via direct outreach. Let’s make sure we save their phone numbers and email addresses, heck — maybe even their postal addresses — and keep in touch. For real, not just with a button, a keyboard, and a declaration shouted into the void. Let’s spread love and information using the advanced tools in our pockets, but without the distraction of advertising or people we can’t remember how we met.
Save your favorite people’s contact info, and then delete — or at least reduce your dependence on— social media. When you want to share something, think about you who want to share it with, and then do so with intention. Make it special. Create content and swap it with those who will truly appreciate it and care. Prize the private response over the public comment. Verbally, calmly debate someone you’re more likely to stay friends with after a heated argument. Read books and exercise your thoughts and imagination so your brain cells and perspective can grow. Congratulate an achievement or send a compliment with a phone call. Get vulnerable and vocalize your frustrations to your dearest friends. Be real. Find out who your closest ally really is when a handful won’t reply to your frantic text, and keep them close. Revisit intimacy, and renounce celebrity.
Use these tools as they were intended and quit wasting your precious time earning money for a handful of techies and investors. You are more than just your data. You are not anyone’s follower. You are an extension of the mighty planet Earth with important stuff to do, helpful things to create, incredible ideas to contribute, and mutually healthy bonds to nurture — all in real life. Your true friends are waiting.