Social media probably not a deathtrap

by eukaryote2 min read7th Oct 20176 comments

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Social Media
Personal Blog

I'm underwhelmed and unconvinced by the recent burst of content that has strong flavors of “social media is a deathtrap, millennials are consumed in a never-ending race to signal status, and technology devouring people’s lives is a huge problem.” I think it's getting at something, but to me, none of it adequately addresses:

  • You can get large amounts of value out of the internet, etc, that you literally couldn’t get otherwise.

    • Sure, Facebook is a website that profits off of my use and operates via a slot-machine type content dispenser. It's also how I plan to go to events, talk to my best friends, and stay up to date on developments in my field.

    • More broadly: online friendships, learning everything about anything, finding communities, making art for fun, finding out you're not alone in meaningful ways, changing your life path and worldview, watching Jessica Jones, etc. This includes reflection, relaxation, connection, opportunities for introspection, etc.

    • A lot of social media is mindlessly looking for attention and crafting an image. Sure. I guess this is a little concerning, but a lot of any interaction is this. Did you know people used to wear corsets? Daily? That was probably just rich people, I'm not sure, but... petticoats? Bustles? What do you think makeup or a tie is? At least when I spend five minutes anhedonically refreshing Tumblr to see if anyone liked my meme, I can do it from my home in sweatpants.

  • When people have no enjoyable spare time, or literally cannot take a day off work once a week, I think that mostly, they already have correctly recognized that this a problem, and would vastly prefer that this not be the case.

    • (I wonder if the authors are thinking specifically of Silicon Valley-type people who make vast amounts of money and still work 10-hour days and don't take weekends off. If this is the case, I'm sympathetic but perhaps a specifically directed appeal is in order - I think these are the minority of people who are overworked.)

  • It would certainly be nice if I could walk to my friends' and partners’ houses, but this problem is actually frequently solved by public transit and cars. When it's not, or you know you'd be much happier if you moved but can't, see the previous bullet point.

  • Etc.

I'm sure lots of people could use more slack or leisure in their life, or the ability to step away from technology, and should try these things out and critically examine their relationship with social media and how it makes them feel. I think some of the described dynamics are real.

Nonetheless, I'm unconvinced by the implication that social media and technology don't afford slack or leisure, that a person using a lot of social media "lacks free speech, free association, free taste and free thought", or that I'm in danger or that my life is actively falling apart. Maybe I'm not seeing something, but what I've read on LW feels like slightly-better-thought-out “selfies are the downfall of civilization”-type thinkpieces, and I’m about as motivated to do anything now as I am after reading those.

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The problem with Facebook specifically, is that it's anti-web. It breaks linking. It breaks searching. It's impossible to archive. And it penalizes you for linking outside content, as opposed to authoring that content directly inside Facebook. In Facebook's ideal world, there would be no Internet. There would only be Facebook. You wouldn't have a home page, you'd have a Facebook Page. You wouldn't have a blog, you'd have a Newsfeed. You wouldn't link to things, you'd Like them. I oppose Facebook because I think there's something inherently dangerous about even wanting that much power, much less making moves to actually acquire it.

I think this would benefit from being more specific about what "burst of content" it's addressing. I think the answer is: some bits of Zvi's "Slack" and "Out to get you", and maybe some of Benquo's "Sabbath hard and go home". But it's hard to be sure, and it seems like the arguments deployed here aren't addressing quite the same questions as the ones this is a response to. I mean, Zvi says "some people have their lives consumed by social media" and this says "some people find social media a useful way of keeping in touch with their friends". It seems obvious that both of those can be right.

So what's the actual disagreement? I expect there is one, but it's hard to tell at present. It may just be, e.g., that Zvi feels generally negative, and eukaryote generally negative, about social media...

You can get large amounts of value out of the internet, etc, that you literally couldn’t get otherwise.

Out of the internet? Yes. Out of social media? No.

Please don't conflate these, because much of the point that those of us who rail against social media are making is that there is much value to, and on, the internet, that social media is killing. (Sometimes: has killed already.)

[Facebook is] also how I plan to go to events, talk to my best friends, and stay up to date on developments in my field.

I do those things too.

Without Facebook.

"Alas!" you say; "You might be able to do those things without Facebook; but my friends are only on Facebook and refuse to communicate with me otherwise; they only plan events via Facebook; and Facebook is the only way to stay up to date on developments in my field."

This may be true—but whose fault is that, but Facebook's??

If I am an apple-seller, and I come to your town; systematically murder all of the apple farmers that live there; burn down their apple groves; and then offer my apples for sale—am I "creating value" by providing a tasty good, which no one else is providing?

More broadly: online friendships, learning everything about anything, finding communities, making art for fun, finding out you’re not alone in meaningful ways, changing your life path and worldview, watching Jessica Jones, etc. This includes reflection, relaxation, connection, opportunities for introspection, etc.

Those are great. I like those. I enjoy having them.

I do NOT need social media in order to have them.

A lot of social media is mindlessly looking for attention and crafting an image. Sure. I guess this is a little concerning, but a lot of any interaction is this.

One person's modus tollens is another's modus ponens. Social media is bad. So are those other things you listed, for the same reason. (But social media is worse, because it's more mindless and more addictive and more socially corrosive and more destructive of value and much more effectively consumes all that it touches.)

Above all: you see people making an argument against something bad, but you don't understand their argument, and so you mentally generalize it, and it seems to you as if they're making a much more vague argument against a much broader class of things; and so what they say seems nonsensical to you.

No one is railing against all technology, in general, period. That would be nonsense.

Until you can at least roughly accurately summarize the argument of the people you claim are wrong, your counter-arguments will forever lack credibility.

"Alas!" you say; "You might be able to do those things without Facebook; but my friends are only on Facebook and refuse to communicate with me otherwise; they only plan events via Facebook; and Facebook is the only way to stay up to date on developments in my field."

This may be true—but whose fault is that, but Facebook's??

You could wield a similar criticism against any communication technology that people like. If there was no Internet, and people preferred to speak with each other via phone (as opposed to, say, writing letters), it would be a little odd to blame the phone company of destroying value and being at fault for everyone preferring to use a phone. Many people prefer Facebook, because it's genuinely a better way of staying in touch than many other methods.

I do those things too.

Without Facebook.

There's deep connections and there's light connections. Deep connections are the kinds of friends you would always find a way to stay in touch with; light connections are those who would probably drop off your radar if there wasn't an easy way of staying in touch with them, because although you do like them and like hearing about them, there's only that much time and energy that you have for staying actively in touch with people.

With Facebook, I can stay in touch with many, many more light connections that I could stay otherwise; if there wasn't a form of social media, these people would just vanish from my life. There are people like former classmates, who I genuinely do enjoy hearing from, but who had totally dropped off my radar until I reconnected with them on FB.

And it's in part through social media that complete strangers may turn into light connections, and light connections may turn into deep connections. I wouldn't be exposed to anywhere _near_ as many different perspectives and fascinating articles without social media; the simple numbers of how many people it's possible to follow with active vs. passive effort, means that this kind of a diversity of views would literally be totally out of reach for me without social media.

Many people prefer Facebook, because it's genuinely a better way of staying in touch than many other methods.

Better how?

I wouldn't be exposed to anywhere _near_ as many different perspectives and fascinating articles without social media; the simple numbers of how many people it's possible to follow with active vs. passive effort, means that this kind of a diversity of views would literally be totally out of reach for me without social media.

That is not a function of Facebook vs. not-Facebook. I encounter many different perspectives and read many fascinating articles, without social media; many, many more than the overwhelming majority of people who do use Facebook. (Frankly, the idea that this would be impossible without Facebook is somewhat absurd. This sort of meme—"without Facebook I couldn't do thing X!"—is excellent for Facebook, since it makes you think you need it; but it's just not true.)

Even if true for you, this "diversity of views" business you're talking about is extremely atypical, in terms of how people use Facebook and what they get out of it. (Or perhaps it is, in fact, illusory? How sure are you that you're really getting a diversity of views?)

You could wield a similar criticism against any communication technology that people like.

Wrong. A phone vs. a letter is a huge practical difference: instantaneous communication vs. really-not-instantaneous-at-all communication. Facebook, on the other hand, is the same capabilities that can be had without it (but actually worse in almost every way); so value is only destroyed, and not created.

(I wonder if the authors are thinking specifically of Silicon Valley-type people who make vast amounts of money and still work 10-hour days and don't take weekends off. If this is the case, I'm sympathetic but perhaps a specifically directed appeal is in order - I think these are the minority of people who are overworked.)

My sense was indeed that the authors were more thinking of people like that, and I also think that that kind of person is very common in my social circle (and I guess kind of includes me, as someone who is foregoing large amounts of salary to work at charities in the community). My guess is that the average salary for people in my immediate social circle is quite high, and that I know very few people who are overworked because they are forced to work extremely hard to fulfill their basic needs.

I agree that in the world at large this is much more common, but I would expect any post addressed to this community in particular to point to people being "voluntarily" overworked, as opposed to working that much because they have to.