I'm watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix, the documentary about the dangers of social media, and am well aware that the reason I'm watching it is because I already believe that social media is a threat to our sanity. It is reaffirming my existing beliefs and if I didn't feel this way then it would probably never make my list.
I've been very consciously noting how the various bloggers whose feeds I subscribe to have been sharing increasingly targeted and narrow content. It's only natural, we seek out what supports our ideas and point of view; it's easier that way, we don't have to think about alternatives or deal with conflict. It's validation and it's addictive.
Maybe it's the current environment: US election, ongoing Brexit fallout, the pandemic, and everything surrounding them. It was the arguments and division over the 2016 US election and Brexit that originally convinced me to delete my accounts, and it's threatening to drive me away from bloggers who I have followed for many years.
On both sides.
Listening to those engineers and executives who were at the forefront of creating the social tools but have now realised that their creations are causing so many problems reminds me of how I was back in the early days. When I decided to blog only about social media in 2008 I was so focused on the benefits it could have, how it could bring people together and allow us to interact in ways we had never before imagined or been able. There was only the upside and optimism and I devoted years to writing about how this could make things better, coming up with ways that I thought the networks could improve.
Just like the engineers and executives there was no thought of a downside, no consideration of bad actors and manipulation - it was this utopian thing, using technology to enhance society. And that can still happen, still does happen. There are countless instances of people connecting, building and using these tools for good. I can only imagine that those using the tools in positive ways are largely only using them for those purposes, they are not the ones getting lost down recommendation rabbit holes or doomscrolling, they have a purpose and a focus which more of us should aspire to.
We don't have to delete our accounts - for many it is just not feasible as the likes of Facebook are the only connection they may have with certain family members or the only way they can be part of specific groups - but the usage has to be more deliberate, more intentional, more task based than the first resort when bored.
When I used to blog about Twitter, Google+ et al I never considered they would be time-fillers but useful tools, tools that enabled and empowered not enslaved you. They still can but as long as algorithmic feeds are the first thing people see when they open an app or visit a website it feels like fighting a losing battle.
I first backed micro.blog because of its promise to do things differently, to be a network of blogs rather than a social network (essentially a social RSS feed reader) but it is still all too easy to treat it like Twitter. It has a feed and, while not algorithmic, the temptation to keep scrolling exists just as much as anywhere else, the lack of intentionality can still be a problem.
Still, the problems we face aren't restricted to what we normally refer to as social networks, they exist wherever people get together on the internet. And off.
Private forums, chat apps and groups, it doesn't have to be networks and algorithms. Those intent on doing so spread hate and lies and misinformation wherever they can and as the networks try to police their content more is going underground.
In The Social Dilemma Tristan Harris, formerly a Design Ethicist at Google and now of the Center for Humane Technology, says:
"It's not about the technology being the existential threat, it's the technology's ability to bring out the worst in society and the worst in society being the existential threat."
And that's the real problem: people. There have always been bad actors it's just that they now have the means to target millions while barely lifting a finger.
The documentary has been criticised for oversimplifying the issue seeming to lay the blame solely at the feet of the networks. Rightly so, it's absolutely not that straightforward but you can understand why this approach has been taken. These are the large organisations which most are familiar with, which most have signed up to and spend an ever-increasing amount of their time. Starting the conversation here could have the biggest impact.
The argument is that the algorithmic nature of the networks exposes you to things you wouldn't normally see whereas joining a forum or a chat group is a choice, something you have explicitly done rather than had pushed upon you.
Still, I don't have the answers. Things need to change but that will only happen if enough people demand it. Sadly, I can't see that happening. All I know is that we have to take individual responsibility for what we do and say online and see where we go from there.