If there’s anybody who is writing more incisively about social media culture right now than Freddie deBoer, I don’t know who it is. There are quite a few valuable points in his latest post, but I want to focus on one in particular.
The modern internet, particularly social media, is essentially a vast positive reinforcement machine. Note that positive in this context doesn’t mean “leading to positive outcomes,” just “an active system of reward.” We’ve built these systems into every major online platform there is, the likes and favs and retweets and reblogs and shares. And the thing is that they work. They are powerfully influential on people’s behavior. But people’s rational minds rebel at that and insist that they don’t care about such things. The problem is that you might not care, in terms of your conscious mind, but your brain cares. Check the literature on behaviorism. In the video game you jump up to get the coin even though you know it does nothing to help your life, even in the context of the game. You do it because you’re rewarded for it, in the simplest and least consequential way, and so the pleasure centers of your brain light up and you are conditioned to do it again.
Every time someone who is extremely online and yells about politics all day and all night says to me “I know social media doesn’t do anything,” I check and they’ve tweeted like 250,000 times. That’s behaviorism at work.
I’m not an expert on digital technology or neurology, and I don’t think Freddie is either, but almost everything I’ve read about the internet and the psychological dynamics underpinning social media affirms what he says here. The reason Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are some of the most financially valuable companies in the world right now is not mainly that they give us something we can’t get anywhere else, it’s that they give us the same thing over, and over, and over, and over again, in a way that embeds itself into our consciousness. Think of the last shot of the movie “The Social Network,” in which Jesse Eisenberg’s character mindlessly refreshes his Facebook page multiple times to see if his ex has accepted his friend request. That’s an accurate picture of how most of us use social media–not really to discover anything new, but to discover how others have discovered us in some way.
Why should we remind ourselves of this? Here’s one reason: Because social media has such a powerful neurological imprint, we should be extremely skeptical of our motivations while using it. We should assume, all variables being equal, that we have mixed motives at best for how we utilize the medium, how we present ourselves, what we say, and how we respond to others. We should not, in other words, assume that our social media “community” is merely a digital version of flesh and blood company, or that our posts and Tweets and “Likes” are representative of how we would think or behave in that moment if we didn’t have the technology.
Now, there are going to be some who really–and I mean really–resist what I’m saying here. Why? Because what I’m prescribing is that we consciously undermine the mentality and emotions that go into the vast majority of social media trends, attitudes, and politics. Social media righteousness, the kind of social media righteousness that chastises others for not Tweeting about something fast enough or that builds walls of moral superiority around hashtags and threads, is a righteousness that has been polluted with a uniquely strong toxin. The reward mechanism that Freddie mentions here is pervasive, and it builds platforms and people who appear thoughtful but in reality calculate who they are and what they say to climb up the social media ladder. This is just reality. It’s reality we don’t like hearing, but it’s reality nonetheless.
This is exactly why there are a handful of topics that I will almost never talk about on social media. Some of these topics are incredibly important, and I’m sure some have noticed my silence and have chalked it up to cowardice or siding with “the powerful” or just apathy. I don’t care. Silence is not apathy, and no matter how many times your tweet saying otherwise gets Retweeted and Liked, that’s a fact. Refusing to jump into a particular conversation looks like the wrong decision to people who are trapped into this mental reward mechanism.
So here’s the takeaway. I think the best way to use social media is to open up communication between people who might otherwise not engage. I think the best thing you can do is find people like you and unlike you, people whom you respect (don’t follow people you don’t respect–you’ll discover the magnitude of the time waste only after the fact), and share ideas and stories and perspectives. I also think social media works best when people realize that, yes, it is absolutely an inferior mode of communication and relationship, and it’s not just millennial bashing to say so. Save the majority of your righteous mind for longform writing, for conversations with friends in person or on the phone, for letters and emails and Skype chats. And when you need to engage in something more serious on social media, do so with self-awareness, and tell yourself that no matter how serious the topic being talked about, no matter how passionate the emotions get–it really is just the Internet after all.