The gist of this book is "Social media is making us assholes. Don't be an asshole, stop playing the social media game."
There is merit to this. Social media comes at us uncurated and at ungodly speeds. We are easily manipulated (see 2016 elections and Twitter Outrage du Jour). Having a larger view of life, of issues, of the crisis, is very, very difficult in the moment, and lashing out to destroy is far, far easier than reaching out to build.
Lanier gives many compelling arguments: SM companies mine data about your without your knowledge and sell it, SM is addictive, SM turns us all into assholes.
If I hadn't already cut back on social media for other reasons, I suspect I'd be going through withdrawal trying to be less active on social media. As it is, I have my journals, and this site, and, yeah, I'm pretty okay with that.
This book is worth reading for everyone. Unfortunately, the people who are most likely to listen and agree with Lanier are the people you WANT on social media, because they care, because they are trying NOT to be assholes, because they want social media to be a good place to be. Alas, the sucky people will be the ones to stay. Fortunately, we don't have to stay with them.
The core process that allows social media to make money and that also does the damage to society is behavior modification. Behavior modification entails methodical techniques that change behavioral patterns in animals and people. It can be used to treat addictions, but it can also be used to create them.
The addict gradually loses touch with the real world and real people. When many people are addicted to manipulative schemes, the world gets dark and crazy.
We know that relevant companies take in an astounding amount of money and that they don’t always know who their customers are. Therefore, there are likely to be actors manipulating us—manipulating you—who have not been revealed.
To free yourself, to be more authentic, to be less addicted, to be less manipulated, to be less paranoid … for all these marvelous reasons, delete your accounts.
The problem occurs when all the phenomena I’ve just described are driven by a business model in which the incentive is to find customers ready to pay to modify someone else’s behavior. Remember, with old-fashioned advertising, you could measure whether a product did better after an ad was run, but now companies are measuring whether individuals changed their behaviors, and the feeds for each person are constantly tweaked to get individual behavior to change. Your specific behavior change has been turned into a product.
As explained in the first argument, the scheme I am describing amplifies negative emotions more than positive ones, so it’s more efficient at harming society than at improving it: creepier customers get more bang for their buck.
If we could just get rid of the deleterious business model, then the underlying technology might not be so bad.
How about “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent”? BUMMER.
BUMMER is a machine, a statistical machine that lives in the computing clouds. To review, phenomena that are statistical and fuzzy are nevertheless real. Even at their best, BUMMER algorithms can only calculate the chances that a person will act in a particular way. But what might be only a chance for each person approaches being a certainty on the average for large numbers of people.
One of the secrets of present-day Silicon Valley is that some people seem to be better than others at getting machine learning schemes to work, and no one understands why.
To avoid being left out, journalists had to create stories that emphasized clickbait and were detachable from context.
I don’t want to be an asshole. Or a fake-nice person. I want to be authentically nice, and certain online designs seem to fight against that with magical force.
In the early days, before everyone was doing it, the air was clearer and it was easier to notice how bizarre it is when your inner troll starts talking. It’s like an ugly alien living inside you that you long ago forgot about. Don’t let your inner troll take control! If it happens when you’re in a particular situation, avoid that situation! It doesn’t matter if it’s an online platform, a relationship, or a job. Your character is like your health, more valuable than anything you can buy. Don’t throw it away.
The pattern is found whenever people form into groups. Street gangs perceive only pack concepts such as territory and revenge, even as they destroy their lives, families, and neighborhoods. The Pack setting of the switch makes you pay so much attention to your peers and enemies in the world of packs that you can become blind to what’s happening right in front of your face. When the Solitary/ Pack switch is set to Pack, we become obsessed with and controlled by a pecking order. We pounce on those below us, lest we be demoted, and we do our best to flatter and snipe at those above us at the same time.
collective processes make the best sense when participants are acting as individuals.
Full disclosure: I have a professional connection to LinkedIn that might impair my objectivity (even though I don’t have an account on the site). You should not accept what I say without thinking about it critically, and my disclosure of a conflict of interest is a great starting point to do that. Think for yourself!
most people will choose to be something other than an asshole, given the choice. A
If, when you participate in online platforms, you notice a nasty thing inside yourself, an insecurity, a sense of low self-esteem, a yearning to lash out, to swat someone down, then leave that platform. Simple.
Your character is the most precious thing about you. Don’t let it degrade.
Truth, meaning a claim that can be tested or events that are honestly documented—the stuff that all people can hold in common—
Leaving aside explicitly fake people like Alexa, Cortana, and Siri, you might think that you’ve never interacted with a fake person online, but you have, and with loads of them. You decided to buy something because it had a lot of good reviews, but many of those reviews were from artificial people. You found a doctor by using a search engine, but the reason that doctor showed up high in the search results was that a load of fake people linked to her office. You looked at a video or read a story because so many other people had, but most of them were fake. You became aware of tweets because they were retweeted first by armies of bots.
Whatever you can do, bots can do a million times while you blink. Fake people are a cultural denial-of-service attack.
You might think I’m being elitist when I am more appalled that “educated” parents, who are more likely to be affluent, foment dangerous nonsense, but isn’t the whole point of education supposed to be that it diminishes people’s susceptibility to dangerous nonsense?
People are clustered into paranoia peer groups because then they can be more easily and predictably swayed.
The ability of humans to enjoy our modern luxuries, such as a diminution of deadly epidemics, while even temporarily rejecting the benefits of hard-won truths is a testament to how far we’ve come as a technological species.
Public health measures and modern medicine have doubled our life spans. Doubled! The unintended result is that now some of us can believe nonsense and not pay for that belief with our lives. At least for a while.
What you say isn’t meaningful without context.
The advertisers are the true customers, so they have a voice.
The most common extreme examples, however, might arise when women and girls who attempt to express themselves online find that their words and images are sexualized or incorporated into a violent or manipulative framework.
These extreme examples occur only because the rules of the game in BUMMER are that you don’t know the context in which you are expressing anything and you have no reliable way of knowing how it will be presented to someone else.
We have given up our connection to context.
Speaking through social media isn’t really speaking at all. Context is applied to what you say after you say it, for someone else’s purposes and profit.
To become a number is to be explicitly subservient to a system. A number is a public verification of reduced freedom, status, and personhood.
A news source will keep tweaking what it does until further tweaks no longer yield better results. After that, repetition. That’s why so much clickbait is so similar. There’s only this one weird trick to optimize clickbait. 6
Feedback is a good thing, but overemphasizing immediate feedback within an artificially limited online environment leads to ridiculous outcomes.
What if deeply reaching a small number of people matters more than reaching everybody with nothing?
But when everyone is on their phone, you have less of a feeling for what’s going on with them. Their experiences are curated by faraway algorithms. You and they can’t build unmolested commonality unless the phones are put away.
The ability to theorize about what someone else experiences as part of understanding that person is called having a theory of mind. To have a theory of mind is to build a story in your head about what’s going on in someone else’s head. Theory of mind is at the core of any sense of respect or empathy, and it’s a prerequisite to any hope of intelligent cooperation, civility, or helpful politics. It’s why stories exist.
When you can only see how someone else behaves, but not the experiences that influenced their behavior, it becomes harder to have a theory of mind about that person. If you see someone hit someone else, for instance, but you did not see that they did it in defense of a child, you might misinterpret what you see.
What’s really going on is that we see less than ever before of what others are seeing, so we have less opportunity to understand each other.
Yes, of course it’s great that people can be connected, 12 but why must they accept manipulation by a third party as the price of that connection? What if the manipulation, not the connection, is the real problem? 13
Since the core strategy of the BUMMER business model is to let the system adapt automatically to engage you as much as possible, and since negative emotions can be utilized more readily, of course such a system is going to tend to find a way to make you feel bad. It will dole out sparse charms14 in between the doldrums as well, since the autopilot that tugs at your emotions will discover that the contrast between treats and punishment is more effective than either treats or punishment alone. Addiction is associated with anhedonia, the lessened ability to take pleasure from life apart from whatever one is addicted to, and social media addicts appear to be prone to long-term anhedonia. 15
An insecurity, a feeling of not making the grade, a fear of rejection, out of nowhere.
This feeling was coincident with discovering my inner troll, which I described in the argument about assholes, but it could also be felt distinctly. I took an experimental approach to myself. If I felt bad after using an internet design, what were its qualities? How was it different from designs that left me happy?
More and more people rely on the gig economy, which makes it hard to plan one’s life. Gig economy workers rarely achieve financial security, even after years of work. To put it another way, the level of risk in their financial lives seems to never decline, no matter how much they’ve achieved. In the United States, where the social safety net is meager, this means that even skilled, hardworking people may be made homeless by medical bills, even after years of dedicated service to their profession.
I hate raining on dreams, but if you think you are about to make a living as an influencer or similar, the statistics are voraciously against you, no matter how deserving you are and no matter how many get-rich-quick stories you’ve been fed.
The problem is that BUMMER economics allow for almost no remunerative roles for near-stars. In a genuine, deep economy, there are many roles. You might not become a pro football player, but you might get into management, sports media, or a world of other related professions. But there are vanishingly few economic roles adjacent to a star influencer. Have a backup plan.
Before the BUMMER era, the general thinking was that once a country went democratic, it not only stayed that way but would become ever more democratic, because its people would demand that. Unfortunately, that stopped being true, and only recently. 2 Something is drawing young people away from democracy.
What social media did at that time, and what it always does, is create illusions: that you can improve society by wishes alone; that the sanest people will be favored in cutting contests; and that somehow material well-being will just take care of itself. What actually happens, always, is that the illusions fall apart when it is too late, and the world is inherited by the crudest, most selfish, and least informed people. Anyone who isn’t an asshole gets hurt the most.
A year after the election, the truth started to trickle out. It turns out that some prominent “black” activist accounts were actually fake fronts for Russian information warfare. Component F. The Russian purpose was apparently to irritate black activists enough to lower enthusiasm for voting for Hillary. To suppress the vote, statistically.
Most of what happened was probably the “redlined” promotion of cynicism, a dismissive attitude, and a sense of hopelessness (“ redlining” refers to a sneaky way that U.S. banks historically biased creditworthiness algorithms to disfavor black neighborhoods). I
(As it happens, the individuals who work at BUMMER companies tend to be liberal and are probably mostly sympathetic to black activism, but that’s utterly irrelevant to their effect upon the world so long as they adhere to the mass manipulation business model.)
BUMMER is a shit machine. It transforms sincere organizing into cynical disruption. It’s inherently a cruel con game.
One activist reportedly said, “They are using our pain for their gain. I’m profoundly disgusted.” That is an informed, reasonable statement, and a brave one, for it is not easy to accept that one has been tricked.
Each of the arguments for deleting your accounts is at first glance about a practical issue, such as trust, but on closer inspection, the arguments confront the deepest and most tender concerns about what it means to be a person.
So BUMMER intrinsically enacts a structural, rather than an ontological, change in the nature of free will. It will continue to exist, if under a barrage of insults. The important change is that you now have less free will, and a few people whom you don’t know have more of it. Some of your free will has been transferred to them. Free will has become like money in a gilded age.
Believing something only because you learned it through a system is a way of giving your cognitive power over to that system.
The Enlightenment emphasized ways of learning that weren’t subservient to human power hierarchies. Instead, Enlightenment thinking celebrates evidence-based scientific method and reasoning.
Here are some tough truths: We currently don’t have a scientific description of a thought or a conversation. We don’t know how ideas are represented in a brain. We don’t know what an idea is, from a scientific point of view. That doesn’t mean we never will understand these things scientifically, just that we don’t yet understand them.
The foundation of the search for truth must be the ability to notice one’s own ignorance. Acknowledging ignorance is a beautiful feature that science and spirituality hold in common. BUMMER rejects it.
The purpose of life, according to BUMMER, is to optimize.
Facebook has pulled ahead: A recent revision in its statement of purpose includes directives like assuring that “every single person has a sense of purpose and community.” 5 A single company is going to see to it that every single person has a purpose, because it presumes that was lacking before. If that is not a new religion, I don’t know what is.
The best way you can help is not to attack those who would manipulate you from afar, but simply to free yourself.
You can even still watch YouTube videos, for now at least, without a Google account. Watching without an account and with some privacy plugins will give you access to a much less manipulative experience.
You can’t use the internet well until you’ve confronted it on your own terms, at least for a while. This is for your integrity, not just for saving the world.
However, unless and until you know yourself, even you won’t have standing to argue about what’s right for you.
You need to make sure your own brain, and your own life, isn’t in a rut. Maybe you can go explore wilderness or learn a new skill. Take risks. But whatever form your self-exploration takes, do at least one thing: detach from the behavior-modification empires for a while—six months, say? Note that I didn’t name this book Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and Keeping Them Deleted Forever. After you experiment, you’ll know yourself better. Then decide.