Note: I originally posted this over on Medium, but have now decided it'd be good to post on The Admin Zone as well. Enjoy the article!
In recent times, we’ve seen a lot of articles about the problems caused by social media. It’s been accused of spreading fake news, it’s been said to bolster extremism by herding people into echo chambers, and it’s been attacked on all fronts for its supposed effects in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US election. Indeed, when it comes to Facebook and Twitter, it seems open season has begun for everyone on the planet.
But while these are perhaps legitimate concerns, I personally feel they’re not the most important ones. Instead, I feel many of the issues caused by social media come from a very simple fact that people have overlooked for years.
Namely, the very concept doesn’t work. It’s a broken, bad idea that goes completely against how society should function.
And this comes down to three things such sites do differently to real life. Three simple ways in which their processes screw up civilisation and make it harder for people to get along.
These are as follows:
So what do I mean by this?
- They make it too easy to find out that different groups and communities exist.
- They stop people using different identities for different audiences and sub groups.
- As well as force communities and audiences that simply cannot get along onto the same platform.
Well for the former, I think the key to realise here is that social media sites haven’t increased the number of lunatics in the world. There’s been no jump in the numbers of facists or Neo Nazis or Communists or SJWs or whatever else since Twitter or whatever came into existence. To much of a degree, these groups have been there since the beginning.
However, prior to these platforms, they were much harder to find. I mean, try and find a far right organisation in the real world. You’ll have to actually go out of your way to hunt down either niche political parties or semi underground groups that are insanely paranoid about detectives and undercover police officers. Or be from an area/family/background that has many of these types of individuals.
Either way, it means ‘normal’ people won’t know they exist, since they’re not really too visible in the public sphere. And that’s the same (on some level or another) for every interest group, niche subject, fandom or even fetish. It exists in the real world, but unless you deliberately seek it out and know who to talk to, you’ll often be none the wiser to it.
The internet obviously changed this a bit (since hey, Google and other search engines let you look for content you’re interested in, and groups for everything you can imagine sprung up online), but even then, there’s a key difference between a forum and a social media site.
You have to explicitly go looking for the forum. Cause anything about a niche subject, will simply not fly onto the radar of an everyday Average Joe.
And that’s good for society. Cause at the end of the day, we don’t all agree on anything, and we all have interests that will come across as strange, disturbing or just wrong to the people around us. That’s how society stays sane and people can live and work in harmony. They simply don’t know what other people do with their lives, and often don’t care.
Hell, you could even be in a room with both a Neo Nazi and an Antifa member right now, and neither would know the other one’s ‘secret’ (or political views). Obscurity keeps a diverse world together.
However, social media sites destroy this precious fabric. Now the groups and people you’re inclined to dislike are visible all around you, and one wrong move on Reddit or YouTube will drop you right into a community you didn’t know existed and have no reason to want to be a part of. Hence why now we get all the complaints about Nazis and SJWs and other fringe loons; the platforms we use have made them more visible to those outside their peer groups and given them the appearance of being more common than they would be otherwise.
But that’s not the whole picture. No, the problems with social media site don’t just stem from visibility, they stem from making it too easy to know about every aspect of someone’s personality.
What do I mean by this?
Well again, think about the way you treat people in real life. In 99.9% of cases, it’s not ‘the same’ in all situations. You interact with family, friends, your significant other, your colleagues, your boss and the government in completely different ways to one another.
And that’s perfectly fine and normal. It means that those who are okay with one thing but not another don’t have to be subjected to the latter, as well as that your personal and professional lives are kept entirely separate from one another.
But social media services don’t do this. Now you have one profile, which is linked to almost everything you’re interested in (unless you’re one of the old school folks with multiple accounts on Reddit). Problem is, that’s not a good thing.
That’s because well, you are never going to agree or like 100% of someone’s personality or ideas. Or perhaps more cynically, everyone has skeletons in the closet.
It’s kind of the logic behind the famous Cardinal Richelieu quote really:
Everyone has dark secrets, and the ability to display different parts of their personality keeps the world functioning regardless of them.
So by sites like Reddit giving everyone access to the full profile and history of anyone on the service, well they’ve basically doomed society to an eternity of witch hunts and personal strife. Jokes and comments that don’t work with one crowd are now displayed to them, personalities more complex than a fictional background character are reduced to a caricature of themselves and everyone now has enough evidence for the court of public opinion to tar and feather them for life.
Which means when you add these factors to the final item on our list, well things get a tad heated…
Because there’s one more problem social media sites have.
One company or organisation owns the whole platform and dictates what can be allowed there.
Yet because they’re so popular, they’ve become the only practical option for many people to communicate. Problem is, these people are often part of groups/political sections/have opinions that make it impossible for them to get along in the same place.
And that causes much of the strife these communities have. I mean, look in the real world. What do people do if they don’t get along with a group/don’t share an interest/can’t be friends with someone?
Simple, they stop talking to each other on a personal basis, find a company or organisation with similar values and end up living with those they agree or get along with. It’s why internet forums worked so well in the early days of the internet. Because people could find communities they got along with, or setup their own if they had a falling out with others. They weren’t stuck with audiences that didn’t like or appreciate their interests.
Reddit doesn’t work like this. Now anyone can walk into any one community, or see content they think shouldn’t exist/be legal/be ethical at any time. Same goes with Twitter, Tumblr and other services. They ‘bring communities together’, by bringing together communities who see each other as the problem with the world and humanity.
They’re really like school when you think about it. Everyone’s stuck there, no one gets along that much because of differences in worldviews and opinions and everything devolves in a bunch of cliques that fight and bully one another over their disagreements. Like the situation between liberals and conservatives on Twitter!
So that’s why social media sites don’t work. They remove the necessary aspects of real world socialising that keeps everyone together, and force groups better off on individual forums on a single platform.
Let’s hope people realise that in time, and federated services like Mastodon and GNU Social take over here… Or that internet forums as a whole take over their rightful place as discussion corners for the web.