Social Media: The one thing you can control is yourself

Social media concept with social media icons, megaphone, and emoji

We are living in a world that becomes newer by the day. Our brains and bodies haven’t evolved significantly since long before Biblical times, yet technological eras are leaping figurative light-years in progressively compressed fashion. 100 years ago, most people walked or rode animal-driven transportation to work and watched movies with no sound. 27 years ago, there was no such thing as our commercial Internet. The smartphone, the indispensable companion to nearly all human activity today, is less than 13 years old.

Now we have robots performing surgery, making our cars, vacuuming our floors. Via Skype, Zoom, etc., anyone can communicate instantaneously with any other person on the planet, often for free.

That same instant communication, easily one of the most democratic, caste-leveling innovations of the past century, is our new prison, locking us in a Möbius strip of misinformed, toxic, inflammatory content.

The Internet’s emphasis on interconnectivity and communication inevitably spawned social media, which was a trailblazing achievement. Long-lost friends and relatives could easily reconnect. Peaceful activists could call attention to oppressive regimes that previously stayed off the radar. Anyone could share knowledge with anyone; you could learn how to do anything from a generous peer you never met.

Before social media, the early Internet’s peer-to-peer nature was cheap, as it was one computer to another. But once the Internet got good, it got expensive. If you want instant answers to everything, Google’s gonna have to build a few million servers. If you want someone to host 80 billion photos and videos of your kids and pets, Facebook will need to build servers of its own.

Consequently, I don’t begrudge either company, or any company offering a “free” service, for funding those significant expenses with advertising.

What I do oppose, however, is social media services amplifying political unrest, hate speech, and conspiracy theories to keep your eyeballs glued to the screen, heavily influencing and enabling citizens to organize and commit mayhem on an unprecedented scale.

According to a January 2021 article in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Business Review, “News feeds on Facebook or Twitter operate on a business model of commodifying the attention of billions of people per day, sorting tweets, posts, and groups to determine which get the most engagement (clicks, views, and shares) — what gets the strongest emotional reactions.”

That makes sense. Facebook and Twitter are corporations; by design, they are attuned to what makes them the most money. Unfortunately, what provokes the “strongest emotional reactions” is invariably negative, scandalous, incendiary subject matter.

MIT Business Review also had this to say about YouTube: “YouTube’s recommendation algorithms, which determine 70% of daily watch time for billions of people, ‘suggest’ what are meant to be similar videos but actually drive viewers to more extreme, more negative, or more conspiratorial content because that’s what keeps them on their screens longer.”

A YouTube page with suggested videos on the right, including 5G conspiracies, Princess Diana conspiracies, and government conspiracies.

It’s all pretty bleak, but the MIT Business Review article imagines a solution that allows social media companies and their users to mutually benefit. It’s too long to include here, but a great read.

While we wait indeterminate years for MIT’s suggested solution (or some other one) to play out, let’s be part of the solution right now. Since we don’t have an election coming up (thank God), let’s turn off all those misinformation / commentary / political feeds and get back to our peer-to-peer roots with social media: Connecting with loved ones and treasured friends. Watching our nieces, nephews, and grandkids grow up. Learning/teaching stuff. Laughing at crazy pet videos. Helping each other.

YouTube is an awesome (for once, that word applies) information resource. Generous YouTubers will teach you how to do anything, usually for free. I use YouTube to learn how to dissemble the dashboard of our aging car and, more importantly, how to reassemble it; how to rewire a malfunctioning wall phone jack; how to replace a pool pump motor; how to improve every detail of my photography hobby; and to learn more about the natural world. Remarkably, conspiracy theories, hardcore left/right-wing propaganda, or hate speech never litter my YouTube, because YouTube knows I’m not interested. Instead, YouTube caters to my insatiable desire to know more about interesting, enlightening, and fun things.

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube may appear omnipotent and uncontrollable, even with politicians and other tech leaders calling for a reckoning. However, those services are merely tools. It doesn’t look like it right now, but you have a lot of control over what you see. Tell your followers to keep it light and civil. Click on what will uplift and enrich you, not outrage you. Be suspicious when every link seems to “agree” with your worldview. Get your news from trusted news sites. Refrain from watching anyone shout their “opinion.” Give yourself a permanent vacation from the extreme and the confrontational.

Then marvel at how well-mannered and subservient those services become for you.