I originally made this post on medium.com on January 9, 2018 and never copied it over to this blog, which I am doing. To view the post there click here.
You don’t have to look far for people who will tell you social media is bad for you. We can feel it reading through a friends posts about how wonderful and photogenic their life is, only to reflect on our own and feel like we’re not living the fulfilling lives of our peers. Whether it’s your own personal experiences, a friend or article ranting about it (hey, here’s another!), or the countless countless experiments that tell us unequivocally that social media is making us unhappy. We know something is fundamentally wrong with social media.
The History: A Tool To Connect Online
Social networks began as a way to connect with friends, organize meetups, meet new people, and coordinate online. More recently however, they seem to be trying to replace social interaction rather than encourage it. They might be free, but the commodity that their collecting is our attention, which means more time on social media means more money for them (in the form of advertisers dollars).
Giving or receiving likes or commenting on a post FEELS like we’re interacting socially, but we’re not. The social media interaction is missing all the fine minutia of a face to face interaction. Seeing people’s expressions and getting that nice dopamine boost when you really bond with someone.
A face to face conversation is eating a delicious and nutritious meal. Social media is eating a bag of chips. Both will fill you up, but one will leave you much more satisfied.
Social media, like any technology is a tool. It would be too easy to label them all as “bad”. Like any tool, they can be used to make your life easier, or they can be used to make your life harder. There are plenty of things social networks do right (see below). Perhaps through, it’s time that we restructure how Social Media works.
Tools that make us better (The Abacus vs The Calculator)
For the sake of analogy, consider the old mathematical tool, the abacus. To those who don’t know, before calculators, large numeric computations were handled by an abacus. This tool basically allowed you to more easily add and subtract large numbers without having to use paper.
This tool had two really great features. First, and most obvious, is the obvious one. To help in solving large number addition and subtraction. The second is less obvious.
By allowing us to see how large numbers are added and subtracted, humans as more visual learners learned to understand addition and subtraction better. By using an abacus, the user actually becomes BETTER at adding and subtracting in their heads.
Calculators, on the other hand, don’t provide this learning. By mindlessly entering numbers into a computer, we’re not teaching ourselves anything.
As the analogy goes, the calculator gives us a fish, while the abacus teaches us to fish.
This is where I’d like to see social networks move to. To become a tool that helps facilitate social interactions, and ultimately, build better real world friendships and social interactions in the process.
Things Social Networks Do Well (What we want to keep)
- Messaging — as an avid traveller, my phone number is not always consistent so I lose SMS 3 to 4 months out of every year. Facebook messenger has been my best friend throughout these experiences. Also, their calling feature is near perfect and totally free.
- Sharing social movements — after all, I typed this post in Canada and it could arguably be shared with someone on the other side of the planet. Lots of social movements might have lost their footing early on without the ability to share them on Social Media. However, Facebook has monetized this idea by giving preference to posts from advertisers, regardless of who is sharing the content.
- Giving companies a face — this could also be called “brand building” but I love the way that Twitter accounts have given companies a face. Wendy’s Twitter account alone is a joy, and I encourage anyone to check it out who hasn’t.
- Meeting new people — Facebook has the ability to connect people who might otherwise not meet. By creating virtual interest groups, it becomes much easier to find people with similar interests. People across cities, countries, and even continents.
Things I’d like to see social networks START doing
- Un-recommendations — this was originally mentioned in a TED talk in 2013 as your Google Bubble which I believe has already come to fruition. I’d like to see social media feeds give us the option to see things they think that we WOULDN’T like or agree with. Also, what about stuff that I might just be neutral about? At any social event, you’re probably going to meet a lot of people you are neutral about, a few people you really like, and the occasional person you don’t want to speak to again. All those interactions are important. We don’t learn anything by staying in a bubble of stuff we like in real life. Social media should give us that same option to step out.
- Encouragement to go offline — social media can track our location and usage. Why not force us to go offline for awhile? If you can detect someone is on Instagram while they’re at an event for longer than X minutes, bar use for half an hour. Encourage some face to face interaction
- Detecting people going through hard times — with machine learning taking so many wild steps including being able to predict suicide risk why not add features in social media that might alert you to a friend who is in need. We hear all about the good things happening in people’s lives. Why are we so quick to ignore or block the bad?
- Alert us when we’re being antisocial — in a similar vein, social media should be able to predict a post or comment that you’re about to make that could be offensive without our knowing. In the spirit of teaching people how to be social in social media, this would be a GREAT learning tool to see what you’re saying that might be doing you more harm than good.
What do we do now?
This isn’t to say existing social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc) need to be replaced with something new. In fact, these social networks are in the best positions to change and adapt. They could refocus on becoming tools that encourages people to bond, go offline, and help support those face to face interactions instead of trying to replace them. To focus on building relationships rather than focusing on making their feeds addictive to get more eyes on ads.
That said, they can refuse to change and go the way of MySpace. Innovation is the only way forward in cyberspace, and social media is no exception. There will come a breaking point social media where people will say “enough” and the exodus to something better will begin. Already, there are tools like Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator (which I personally recommend) that removes the news feed from Facebook altogether.
What are your thoughts?
Are there social media innovations I missed?
Are there new social media tools that are already doing this?
Comment below and let’s build the next era of social media!