This fall, I’ve been engaged in the process of re-defining my relationship with social media. My effort started for very practical reasons. By blending my personal and vocational lives online, I didn’t have a place that was just “mine” to interact with my personal friends and family. I also found it was impossible to get away from my vocational life for even a moment – as people could use social media to contact me even when I turned off my cell phone and vocational email notifications. That’s why about a month ago, I deleted everyone I knew from my vocational life from my Facebook friends list.
While the process of re-defining my relationship with social media began for practical reasons, over the past several weeks my reasons for limiting my participation in it has continued to expand. And last night, I saw a documentary on HBO Max that beautifully captured what I was wrestling with: the film was called “15 Minutes of Shame”.
The documentary tells the stories of several people who were “taken down” because of social media. One story was that of a military veteran who had purchased a huge stock of sanitizing products just before COVID hit. Once COVID hit and the demand for the products increased exponentially, he sold them on Amazon at increased rates. The New York Times then ran a story on the individual – and the story has nearly destroyed his life. He has been viciously threatened constantly on social media and is now struggling with severe mental health issues.
Another woman who worked for a hospital made a comment on her personal Facebook page suggesting that those who refused COVID vaccinations should be refused access to ventilators. It got picked up by a social media giant who identified her as a villain, and she was fired from her job with two days. Her subsequent treatment my national media outlets was devastating as well.
Each of the stories they told about public shaming via the internet was difficult to hear.
The piece that most fascinated me was the conversation about what happens when people experience something online. One researcher shared a study she had done in Europe that explored how people reacted when they watched soccer (or football) on screens. One of the results, in particular, caught my attention. They noted that while people responded favorably when their favorite team experienced success (i.e., scored a goal), people responded much more enthusiastically when a player from their most-hated team (aka their archrival) experienced. The study suggests many people derive more pleasure from seeing those they hate fail, than when they (or their loved ones) succeed. How sad it that!
As I thought about the way I hear people in my life talk about social media, the study hit the nail on the head. Many of the people I know spend WAAAAAAAAAAY more time focusing on those people or organizations they hate (i.e., “Can you believe what Robert just posted this about Trump?!”) than they ever do talking about those people or things they love.
Why is that?
Because the algorithms that drive the internet have been created in such a way as to draw us to things that get us angry or agitated. People spend more time on sites/stories that anger or irritate them than they do on sites/stories that affirm them and what they believe. And the more hits a site/story gets, the more money it generates. Those algorithms have caused so many to live in a world of perpetual anger and irritation. Sigh …
My favorite quote in the documentary came from a technology ethicist who said this in regard to what social media values about us: “We are more valuable if we’re addicted, outraged, irritable, disinformed, and polarized than if we’re a human being.”
All of this is why I’m pulling back intentionally from social media.
This awareness is not just driving those on my friends list on Facebook. It’s affecting me in other ways as well. For instance, I’m paying more attention to the news links I click on when I’m surfing the internet these days. I try to steer clear of clicking on article titles that use extreme language (even when I agree with what appears to be the content of the article) and click on those articles that seem to present a balanced, thoughtful presentation of the subject matter.
I may not be able to change the state of the world myself. But I can take back some degree of control in my own little corner of the world by paying more attention to the algorithms I am playing into. I want to magnify the algorithms that grow things like fairness, thoughtfulness, and compassion than those that grow anger, self-righteousness, and polarization.