Facebook staff are now coming clean about the unintended consequences of social media, but nobody seems to have any suggestions on how to fix it. I do.
It seems that those who have had a big hand in how Facebook functions are now coming around to concerns I was sharing a few years back, that is, that the dynamics of its platform reward behavior which is detrimental to critical thinking and self-awareness.
“There are likely millions of ways in which our ‘likes’ may have…unintended effects. And these effects, though perhaps not intentional, are shaping the world we live in. While using social media reward tools is a conscious action, the outcomes it produces are something far harder to determine. So we should exercise a high degree of awareness about our use of this tool. We should reserve our ‘likes’ for things that we not only truly and actually appreciate, but only for those that we find great meaning in. We have cheapened likes through overuse and as a result it is cheapening our values. We may give these likes with the very best of intentions, but that is merely the content of ‘liking’. Far more influential on the world we live in than content, is context. And the context of the like mechanism is incredibly complex. When something is incredibly complex, it is wise not to use it unless you are certain it is absolutely appropriate.”
Recently the first and former president of Facebook – Sean Parker, as well former vice president of user growth – Chamath Palihapitiya, expressed their concerns.
“I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because of the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people and it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other,” Parker said.
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” Palihapitiya said. “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem—this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”
Here is where I do a bit more telling you I told you so.
“How do we get billions of people to stop engaging in a behavior that provides dopamine hits and gratification of their Id, especially when they are in denial and the behavior itself digs them deeper into the pit? We are on the precipice of a social and intellectual crisis, that if unchecked, will beget even more serious existential issues for humanity in the coming years.”
“Human beings do have social needs, to varying degrees for each individual. Another issues of memes and rehashing tropes is that it buys social currency with almost no effort. When ones social needs are met too easily, they become less valuable. When social standing is paid for in clicks, those clicks become less meaningful over time, which means that the people dependent on them will need to click more to get the same effect. Eventually their entire social life becomes predicated on getting more low-paying clicks to feed their addiction. And during this time the individual stagnates and perhaps even regresses from the heights of their potential.”
“It feels good to score dopamine hits via cynical virtue signals. Feeding into the nihilism that underlies modernity has its rewards. But it is also irrational and tends to traumatize rather than inspire. If you think exchanging fatalistic symbols for social status is worth a lifetime of self-righteous dread, horror and anxiety – well, I hope that works out well for you.”
Now I haven’t engaged in this little game of told you so merely because it feels good to be right. In this situation it is actually pretty horrifying to be right. I did it because I have some suggestions that I hope somebody with the power to do so will take seriously now that we can rule out that I am just a paranoid crank.
As a post script to my original article, Facebook has since responded to the accusations by former employees. Here is what they had to say:
“Chamath has not been at Facebook for over six years. When Chamath was at Facebook we were focused on building new social media experiences and growing Facebook around the world. Facebook was a very different company back then and as we have grown we have realized how our responsibilities have grown too. We take our role very seriously and we are working hard to improve. We’ve done a lot of work and research with outside experts and academics to understand the effects of our service on well-being, and we’re using it to inform our product development. We are also making significant investments more in people, technology, and processes, and — as Mark Zuckerberg said on the last earnings call — we are willing to reduce our profitability to make sure the right investments are made.”
Either Facebook does not understand the criticism, or it refuses to address it directly. Throwing more controls and busy body omnipotence over peoples social interactions is not the answer to the problem which was proposed. The very structure of social media is conducive to corrosive outcomes. Unless the fundamental metrics and rules by which those mediums are composed are examined and retooled, those who do not adapt will continue to damage the human psyche before making themselves obsolete through their stubborn naivete.
As a final suggestion, hiring science fiction writers ala Black Mirror to explore the potential pitfalls of your product might be a damn good idea. But they will need to be valued for their skepticism, not their compliance.