We often tend to describe social media as if it were the weather: that the torrent of outrage, trolling, and negativity is just a thing that happens in these ecosystems, like the rain. Tristan Harris, in a recent interview with Ezra Klein, points out that all of these companies are very deliberately using anti-patterns to drive engagement on their platforms. In other words, since the thing that they are measuring on their platforms as benefits to sell to advertisers are clicks, comments, and time spent on the platform, they are using our own psychologies against us to drive these metrics. Since outrage drives the most “engagement” that’s what the algorithm pushes on us: that’s what it’s been designed to do. We’re subject to a constant firehose of outrage and negativity because that’s what gets us riled up, gets us to retweet, to share, to comment, thus the algorithm defaults to showing us more such content in the future and the cycle continues.
It is too early to say, but I feel that during this social winter, especially in the past two years, public opinion seems to be turning against these companies, or at least, Facebook, the one that seems the most malevolent and who has the largest footprint. People truly have begun to wake up to the fact that spending so much time on our devices, even when we are not being driven to outrage and distraction, is harmful to our health, or at least meant well-being. Perhaps Facebook will not take over the world.
What would social media look like without sharing?
When I think about the social platforms that make me the least distressed—that even seem worthwhile!—Instagram and micro.blog come to mind, as do newspapers, blogs, and other non-social online publications. One thing that both Instagram and micro.blog have in common is that neither has a sharing feature. I mean, you could conceivably hand copy someone else’s picture or post, but it’s not really designed to do that, and since it involves extra work, doesn’t tend to be a popular activity. In Twitter and Facebook, posts are easy to share, easy to promote into others’ feeds simply by liking or commenting. Since the most outrageous and provocative things tend to be the most “viral,” they are the ones that explode across the social network, riling us up. Maybe sharing is the problem. And the solution could be to make sharing harder, so that recommending something to another person required a bit more premeditation, a bit more work.
It is a choice these companies are making, to promote this type of content and these kind of interactions, it is a choice that they choose not to prioritize online brigades and extremists, as these groups and their sock puppets are very highly engaged. But always keep in mind, this is corporate strategy. It’s not something intrinsic to the Internet or even to social media. It doesn’t have to be this way.