How social media ruined our lives

by Tom Albrighton 19 August 2011 Digital and social, Popular

Social media. It promised so much, didn’t it? Friends, fun, entertainment. And while it certainly has given us a lot, it’s taken a lot away too. Maybe too much, in fact. Let me explain…

It wasted our time

I’m not saying social media delivers no benefit. Fun can be had, opinions shared, friendships formed, contacts made, business won. But most social media is like the first pint out of the barrel: 95% froth. For every useful or gratifying transaction, we have to wade through acres of footling irrelevance – other people’s, and our own.

There seems to be a conspiracy of silence about this in business circles. No one talks about how many hours they’ve sunk into social media, as if those thousands of Tweets and replies somehow didn’t take hours to think up and type.

I can only presume that the employers of some of my Twitter friends deployed a similar doublethink when they drafted their social media policy. Or maybe they’ve decided that legislating against social is like Canute ordering back the waves. Either way, I guess they’ve decided to disregard the many hours that their people spend on marginally relevant Tweeting in work time.

The truth is that social media is a formidable time-sink, delivering questionable returns on the hours we put in. Just ask yourself: does your social media time seem well spent? Do you feel you’re investing your time, or frittering it away?

It spoilt us

Social media brings the rolling, never-ending format of modern current-affairs TV to written media, presenting us with a stream of links to fascinating posts and pages from which we can pick and choose.

Sadly, as Thomas Paine noted, ‘that which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly’. When it comes to it, none of those writings are actually quite interesting enough to read to the end, or perhaps even click on in the first place.

When you look at our passive, lazy consumption of digital media, the term ‘feed’ seems completely apt. The more delicacies are laid on our table, the less grateful we become.

It humiliated us

Social media pulled a major bait-and-switch on us. First it kidded us that we were worthwhile. Then it rubbed our faces in our own inadequacy.

The very format of social sites, based around personal ‘updates’, made us feel that every detail of our lives was worth sharing. Social media gave us a new layer of self-consciousness: the restless search for something we can share.

Before long, we were casting about for things to post or Tweet that would make us look interesting or cool. But when we posted, we quickly saw that there was always someone cooler and more interesting out there.

I used to think I was quite funny. Now I’m getting ground down by the way Twitter has the perfect smartass comeback for absolutely every life situation, news story and cultural event. In the same way, dauntingly intelligent comments on news sites are eroding my ability to form opinions on current events. Forced onto a global stage, the ego withers like an old sprig of parsley.

It made us needy

Phil suddenly realised there was no wi-fi at the hotel. How would everyone find out what he thought about The Apprentice?

Humans are naturally social animals, and have always craved the affection, recognition and respect of peer groups. But social media straps a rocket to that instinct – and not in a good way. It allows us to build networks far larger than anything we could maintain in the real world, and cram far more interactions into our daily lives than would otherwise be physically possible.

This has two results. One is dilution of experience, as the ‘currency’ of interaction is debased. As Umair Haque argues in this brilliant article, social media is characterised by ‘thin relationships’ conducted via ‘low-quality connections – linkages that are unlikely to yield meaningful, lasting relationships’.

The other result is addiction. As our interactions are watered down, we need more of them to get the same hit. Social media use becomes a psychological crutch, just like using nicotine, alcohol or caffeine. Checking our @ replies, counting followers or retweets, checking Facebook updates – all easily become compulsions. And all the more so because they’re so easy and convenient to carry out – with a smartphone, the means of addiction is always to hand.

The acquisition and comparison of numbers and totals (followers, friends, RTs) adds an extra edge of digital materialism. Who’s got the most?

Most users would admit to some level of addiction to social media. Recently, Ofcom found that 60% of teenagers admit to being ‘highly addicted’ to their smartphones, primarily due to Facebook use. And we’re still talking about services that offer only the most basic means of interaction – posting messages, replying, sharing and tagging photos. Tomorrow’s social media will be to Twitter and Facebook as heroin is to cannabis.

It wound us up

Social media gets us all steamed up by exposing us to two kinds of opinions: those we like, and those we don’t.

Confirmation bias means we tend to build networks of people we agree with – single-issue Facebook pages being a prime example. Frequenting such networks validates and entrenches our opinions, as we see the same views expressed over and over again.

In some contexts, extreme views are inflamed as people incite each other to go one step further and say the unsayable. We saw this most recently with the response to the UK riots, as Twitter users whipped up each others’ desire to see brute force used against citizens, more to gain revenge rather than to restore order. At heart, the mass hysteria of the commenters wasn’t so different from that of the rioters – it just wasn’t expressed physically.

If we do find an opinion we disagree with, chances are we will have the opportunity to respond to it online, which draws many of us into that blind, righteous anger that characterises so many online comments and reactions. The more we read, the more extreme our views get – the phenomenon known as attitude polarisation, which forms the basis for Godwin’s law.

Discussion and disagreement are part of life. But the nature of social media – anonymous, hard to stand out – turns the volume up to 11 on everything. Instead of chatting with a few friends round a pub table, we’re deluged with an infinite digital cascade of industrial-strength opinion. Unable to digest it, we’re left with an unhealthy residue of acid emotions – coupled with a weird alienating distance from our digital interlocutors.

It shattered our attention

Zen teaches that concentrated mindfulness of the here and now is the way to enlightenment. Truth is not somewhere else, but can be found in the sights, sounds and people that are present, right now.

Social media delivers the exact opposite, diffusing and fragmenting our attention over a multitude of ‘somewhere elses’.

The next time you walk out on a beautiful sunny morning, check out how many people are scurrying along hunched over their phones. Or observe the couples having lunch, each with a phone on hand for that side order of interaction to complete their meal. What did we do before we had these crutches? Did we just walk when we were walking, and talk when we were talking, and think when we were thinking?

It hardly matters, because there’s no going back. We’re never alone – and even when we’re with someone, we’re always with someone else too.

The idea of getting a second helping of social is apt, because digital media has become rather like food for us. It’s not hard for us to get as much as we need, or find whatever we want. It’s about choosing what, when and how much is healthy for us to consume.

It’s not too late. Social media is still young. But pretty soon, we’re going to need to stop obsessing over what all the great things we could do, and start thinking about the better things we should.

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