For most of my life, the internet, specially its social media — BBSes, Usenet, LiveJournal, blogosphere, even Myspace, early Twitter and Facebook — systematically constructed people happier. But approximately five years ago it began to consistently become people more dismal. What changed?
I posted that question to Twitter a week ago, and the most notable response was the response that did not exist: not a single person disputed the premise of the question. Yes, Twitter responses are undoubtedly selection bias incarnate — but looking at the opprobrium aimed at social media from all sides today, I’d think that if anything it understates the present collective wise. Which of course can often be disjointed from factual reality … but still important. So, again: what changed?
Some argued that new, bad consumers submerge the internet then, a kind of ultimate Eternal September effect. I’m skeptical. Even five years ago Facebook was already ubiquitous in the West, and we were already incessantly checking it on our smartphones. Others argue that it manifests happiness declining in society as a whole — but as far back as 2014? I remember that as, generally, a period of optimism, compared to today.
There was one really interesting response, from a stranger:” The nature of these social networks changed. They exited from places where people debated to places where lonely people are trying to feel less lonely .” Relatedly, from a acquaintance:” The algorithm were designed to draw people spend more day on those locates. Interestingly, unhappy people expend more hour on social areas. Is unhappiness the crusade, or the result of algorithms surfacing content to manufacture us unfortunate ?” That’s worth pondering.
Pretty much everyone else talked about money, basically buttressing the argument above. Modern social media algorithms drive participation, because engagement drives advertising, and advertising drives profits, which are then used to hone the algorithm. It’s a eternal gesture involvement machine. Olden epoches social media, early Facebook and early Twitter, they had advertising, sure — but they didn’t have anything like today’s eternal gesture engagement.
Even that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that there’s apparently a whole other perpetual flow machine at work in similarity, too: engagement drives unhappiness which drives engagement which drives unhappiness, because the kind of content which drives “the worlds largest” engagement apparently likewise drives anxiety and outrage — cf. Evan Williams’ notion that social media optimizes for vehicle gate-crashes — and arguably likewise, in the long run, dislodge additional activities, which do make happy and fulfillment.
I don’t want to sound like some sort of blood-and-thunder Luddite preacher. There’s nothing automatically incorrect with maintaining a thriving actuality on Facebook and Twitter, specially if you carefully prune your feeds such that they are asshole-free zones with minimal dogpiling and fruitless cruelty.( Some anger is important. But most isn’t .) Social media has done a lot of excellent things, and still wreaks a lot of happy to very many people.
But also, and increasingly, a lot of hardship. Does it currently bring us net happiness? Five years ago I think that question would have seemed ludicrous to most: the answer is traditionally have been a quick yes-of-course . Nowadays, most would stop and wonder, and many would answer with an much faster hell-no . Five years ago, people who worked at Facebook( and to a lesser extent Twitter) were treated with respect and admiration by the rest of the tech industry. Nowadays, somewhat or not, it’s something a lot more like dislike, and sometimes outright contempt.
The solution is obvious: change the algorithms. Which is to say: make less fund. Ha.They could even remove the algorithms alone, switching over to Strict Chronological, and still make money — Twitter was profitable before stock alternatives before it switched to an algorithmic feed, and its ad offerings were behavior less sophisticated back then — but it’s not about making money, it’s about shaping “the worlds largest” money possible , and that necessitates algorithmically curated, engagement-driven, misery-inducing feeds.
So: Social media is increasingly manufacturing us miserable. There’s an obvious solution, but fiscal realpolitik means we can’t get to it from here. So either we just accept this spreading privation as a normal, unavoidable, fundamental part of “peoples lives” now — or some broader, more drastic answer is asked. It’s a quandary.