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.
- Get rid of the like button or any other reaction functions which work as rewards, or alternatively, bury ideas which deviate from the norms.
- Stop user reports of other users and encourage blocking. People who use social media with ill-will would then find their world shrinking and have incentive to become a better person. Bans make bad users feel like martyrs, and strengthens their ideas among peers who agree.
- Stop curating the feeds. Just show people the posts of the friends, pages and groups they subscribe to in the order those posts are made. Put your ads wherever you want, but leave the rest of it alone. Neither Facebook’s internal values or the number of reactions should determine what gets seen, and by whom.
- Do not allow comments on links that have not been opened by the user for the amount of time that content would take to consume. An article that takes 4 minutes to read on average, or a four minute video, should produce an effect in which the post the link came from cannot be commented on during that time. Too many people are just having automatic reactions to the title, introduction or pictures of links; and not engaging with the content itself. This feeds click bait producers, creates groupthink and erodes critical thinking. It will not work all of the time,but it is a start.
- Create a reputation community by having user reviews. However there is a real danger of quantifying such a system, which means any arbitrary ratings should be avoided. Instead there should be mediated forums with testimonials of users by users. And there should be open and transparent mediation systems in place to resolve reviews deemed unfair, cruel or patently false. Mediation should not be strictly rules-based, but social roles filled by trustworthy members of the community.
If Facebook, and social media in general, cannot work ethics and self-awareness into their products then there will eventually be a backlash against them. The self-preservation of these technologies requires this sort of adaptability, so in the end there will not be a choice. But there can be a choice to engage sooner than later, before the unintended consequences of these problems themselves become social viruses that erode our humanity further.
As a final note of interest, the article linked and quoted near the top was sent to me by a friend who has abandoned social media, which is where we met. Shortly after his disappearance I did a little sleuthing and got his e-mail address and we have kept in touch since. He says I was the only one of his Facebook friends not from his real life who had done so – a heavy indictment of the fragility of friendships predicated on a medium of validation-loops. But also an example that there can be distant friendships outside of social media, and the monopoly they think they have on our social lives is not as complete as they believe it to be. If your friends are really your friends, it would take more than no social media to keep you apart.