It is impossible to ignore the influence of social media. In the years since Facebook and Twitter, in particular, have exploded onto our browsers and mobile devices, many millions have found themselves spending more and more time watching their feeds update. “Doomscrolling” became a common word during the Trump years. Social media has connected us with people across the world with shared interests and hobbies. In too-many instances, it has also allowed the worst aspects of human nature to flourish. In Social Warming, Charles Arthur takes a deep dive into the ways in which social media has changed the world and today we have an excerpt for you. First, though, here’s the synopsis:
Nobody meant for this to happen.
Facebook didn’t mean to facilitate a genocide.
Twitter didn’t want to be used to harass women.
YouTube never planned to radicalise young men.
But with billions of users, these platforms need only tweak their algorithms to generate more ‘engagement’. In so doing, they bring unrest to previously settled communities and erode our relationships.
Social warming has happened gradually — as a by-product of our preposterously convenient digital existence. But the gradual deterioration of our attitudes and behaviour on- and offline — this vicious cycle of anger and outrage — can be corrected. Here’s how.
Now, on with the excerpt…
Regulation: Cutting the Problem Down to Size
The purpose was to help us find friends, to stay in touch with our families, to cultivate new interests, make the world more ‘open’ and ‘connected’. Not to destabilise democracies, to incite the killing of innocent people and the displacement of entire populations, or to polarise societies and undermine politics.
But it is happening. The social temperature is rising. Disagreements and collisions of views happen more easily, misinformation and disinformation spread more quickly, outrage is weaponised, the people who are meant to be leading countries are instead being distracted by how people on social media, rather than the population at large, will respond to their policies. We are drawn back to the social platforms by a simmering unease that we are missing out on something important or interesting. Then when we start scrolling, we find ourselves overcome by outrage, polarised by artfully evolved scissor statements.
Even where the penetration of social media isn’t widespread, its effects are significant. A comparatively small but vocal group can start or influence social trends as well as distorting national politics.
‘People developed planes first and then took care of flight safety,’ Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview in 2016. ‘If people were focused on safety first, no one would ever have built a plane.’ He was talking in the context of artificial intelligence, and any risks it might pose, but the metaphor works for the attitude that social network executives have taken to their responsibilities: let’s first take flight and then figure out how not to crash.
That approach, however, has brought measurable costs to society that everyone else has had to bear, while Facebook, Twitter, Google (through YouTube) and other social networks have grown rich. The warming effect of the networks – the by-product of their widespread, uncontrolled use exactly in accordance with the instructions – is observable everywhere. The effects on democracy alone, particularly the opportunities that they allow for foreign governments to influence election outcomes, warrant oversight in their own right.
Every day, around 1.8 billion people log into Facebook. In a month, if you add in users of Instagram and WhatsApp, the total is more than three billion unique users.3 Twitter reaches 190 million users worldwide each day. On YouTube, around five billion videos are watched each day, and during a month, more than two billion people visit the site.
These are numbers our minds struggle to comprehend. In simpler terms, in the US, about three-quarters of adults look at Facebook at least once a day, almost the same number look at YouTube, and one in five use Twitter.
Yet despite overseeing that colossal amount of interaction, the platforms are comparatively tiny employers. Facebook employs fewer than 60,000 people; Twitter, a little over 5,000. Google has about 200,000 staff, though it has never released figures for YouTube (since the two companies are not distinct). Even Google’s numbers don’t put it in the top thirty largest employers in the US. All these companies were created to grow fast and lean. In the hacker culture espoused in Silicon Valley, the most important question is ‘will it scale?’ – meaning, will we be able to off er this service to a far larger number of people without increasing our staffing or costs at the same rate? Social networks have been marked by the pursuit of growth at all costs, and ignoring the costs of externalities that can be denied.