Oh, cool, Chnerk Mandog joined Mastodon. Honest.
It’s interesting; as another non-techy person, Chuck’s initial experience seems to have been largely like mine. “Hey this is neat, with caveats.”
I stopped using Mastodon a few months ago because trying to use four networks at the same time was like trying juggle four cannisters of other people’s shit; it makes you anxious and you’re bound to get some on you.
Then a little after that I stopped using social media almost altogether, and I’m still in that limbo. These blog posts get auto-cross-posted, (I know it’s not a word, that’s why I frankensteined it together with hyphens), and I sometimes go on Twitter or Instagram to check they’re still there, but otherwise, I’m social media free, at least in my personal life.
I’m still not sure whether that’s a long term thing. The idea of deleting my accounts altogether seems drastic.
Cal Newport talks about social media in his TED talk, and his book, Deep Work (that gets a recommend by the way). His approach is nice; he basically asks everyone to conduct an impact assessment. Ask yourself “Do the specific benefits of using social media outweigh the specific negative effects?” And if they don’t? Deletion time, folks.
Let’s look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
First up, the Bad.
Social media is an anxiety hosepipe, at least for me, anyway. A visit to Twitter usually makes me want to start day drinking.
That feeds into the next point, its mindless quality; I used to spend a lot of time mindlessly scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, in an unhealthy way. It seems to bypass the usual mental pathways of self restraint that prevent me from doing other unhealthy things, like stuffing down that forty-fifth mince pie in the upcoming holiday season. I can get too full of mincepie, you see, where as my capacity to consume articles about the depressing state of the world is endless.
Franklin Foer talks about this in his RSA talk. Social media sites are designed to hook you and keep you hooked, in the same way as highly processed food.
You combine those two things, anxiety and addictiveness, and what you get is several unproductive evenings a week spent being depressed and tense. Not good.
I’m notably more productive since I’ve stopped using social media daily. That’s a Good, for me, but it’s in the Bad for social media. I can’t say for sure that there’s a causative link, but there’s definitely a correlative one.
I don’t believe that it’s a net good for society. Like Tim Berners Lee, I think it encourages us to think shallowly and react purely emotionally instead, as well as allowing simple interactions that feel meaningful but aren’t. “I liked and retweeted that news article. That’s my political engagement done.” We’ve all been there; I certainly have.
Next up, the Good
If you have something that you want to get to a lot of people, it’s hard to imagine an easier way, although the number of people that you can get it in front of depends on your ability to use the service and build a network.
I’m struggling to come up with anything else; most of the positives that I can think of, things like democratized and easy publishing, massive connection with people, opportunities to express yourself easily and to many people, seem to be characteristics not specific to social media, but to the internet. They’re not solely characteristic of social media sites, but of websites in general; blogs, video hosting sites, sound hosting services, and even email provide the tools to connect people or allow them to express themselves. Social media just makes it easier, and addictive.
Those things concern me; I’d one day like to make a living from writing, and the current orthodoxy is that if you’re not using social media, you’re not reaching your biggest market. That you can’t be effective selling something if you’re not on social media. Cal Newport would suggest otherwise, but Cal Newport is a successful academic; if he keeps doing good research and publishing good papers, it won’t matter whether or not you can retweet photos of his breakfast or his dog. His success without social media is not necessarily representative of all careers.
One of the common criticisms is that if you’re not on social media, you’ll find it hard to stay connected with the world around you. The thing is, I’m not using social media for that anyway. I get daily briefings to my inbox from newspapers I trust, and my job necessitates that I keep up with current affairs through RSS news feeds, at least once a day. I’m covered, no Twitter involved.
Then we come to the Ugly, the things that might not impact on your life specifically, but which should give anyone pause for thought before diving right into the cesspit.
First up, there’s the appalling effect that it’s having on our democracy. The fact that ‘fake news’ was Collin’s phrase of 2017 should terrify most people to their core; social media networks played a large part in that. There’s little to no human oversight of the algorithms that favour sensationalist “news” and outright lies over sober reporting. Add to that the people who are intentionally using these systems in order to subvert democracy in ways that benefit them, and you have an unhealthy mix. One of the key aspects of a well functioning democracy is an electorate with access all the information required to make an informed choice. Social media sites have actively hindered the access to information by making the spread of misinformation easier.
There are many examples of this, but here are just a couple. Freedom House has reported on countries where social media has been used to influence elections during 2016. In advance of the General Election 2017 researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute worried that social media had influenced elections already.
Of course, there are tales where social media has a positive effect, and I would be remiss if I didn’t include them too. The New Statesman made comment that social media allowed ordinary individuals the influence of newspapers, and that kind of grass-roots engagement helped Jeremy Corbin dent the Tories’ majority during the general election. This kind of increased political engagement is good, but it doesn’t outweigh the pernicious nature of allowing people to be served junk because it taps their emotional buttons and drags them back to your site.
Ultimately, although making an assessment of whether social media has a positive impact on your life before using it is a sensible idea, it would wrong not to take into account wider issues like the social responsibility (or more accurately, lack of it), displayed by the companies involved.
We haven’t even touched on what a nightmare they are in terms of privacy and data collection, mostly because diving into that subject and its implications makes me feel ill.
Maybe the answer really is sites like Mastodon.
I hate to end over a thousand words without a definite conclusion, but as so often happens when I’m writing, examining the subject turns up more questions than answers. Is there a way to use social media so that specific benefits outweigh the numerable ills, so that you get the benefits of easy connectivity without the broken concentration and supporting a socially irresponsible monopoly? Possibly, but at the moment, the ratio definitely seems skewed towards the ills.