Let’s take a short walk down memory lane.
It’s 1995. A man stands on a busy street corner yelling vaguely incoherent things at the passersby. He’s holding a placard that says “THE END IS NIGH. REPENT.”
You come upon this guy while out getting the paper. How do you feel about him? You might feel some flavor of annoyance. Most people would also feel compassion for him as he is clearly suffering from something.
No reasonable person would think of convincing this man that his point of view is incorrect. This isn’t an opportunity for an engaging debate. This guy doesn’t kill at parties. This guy doesn’t go to parties. He’s only out here because he’s not violent and there’s no room for him at Bellevue.
Now fast forward to 2020.
In terms of who this guy is and who you are absolutely nothing has changed. And yet here you are—arguing with him on Twitter or Facebook. And you, yourself, are being brought to the brink of insanity. But you can’t seem to stop. You have to respond or read the comments of the other people responding and your cortisol and adrenaline levels are spiking and your blood pressure is rising and you’re suddenly at risk of a heart attack.
And the ugly truth is that you’ve become addicted to arguing with the “End Is Nigh” sandwich board guy. The guy you used to quietly skirt, you now seek him out and you bring your friends and for some idiotic reason you think that if you just post a little bit more you’re going to get him to see reason. Or put him in his place.
Or maybe you don’t even know why you’re doing it. But you can’t stop, won’t stop.
Back in 2011 Chamath Palihapitiya left Facebook and said of his former company, “It literally is a point now where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
Keep in mind that was 2011. Which we now think of as a lost Golden Age.
I’m here to make the case that all modern social, political, and sociological ills can be traced to social media. It is single-handedly responsible for the tearing apart of our social fabric which Palihapitiya so presciently predicted. It’s not “part of” the problem. It is the problem: An insidious malware slowly corrupting our society in ways that are extremely difficult to quantify, but the effects of which are evident all around us.
Anti-vaccers, anti-maskers, Qanon, cancel-culture, Alex Jones, flat-earthers, racists, anti-racists, anti-anti-racists, and of course the Twitter stylings of our Dear Leader.
All this nonsense is here for your endless irritation, consternation, bewilderment and ultimately outrage. And it’s all brought to you exclusively and specifically by social media. It is exacerbated by two things:
(1) The fact that your phone in your pocket guarantees that you can get your fix at every minute of every day.
(2) The unfortunate reality that media organizations are so starved for content that every time something outrageous garners a small buzz on social media they immediately project and amplify it out to the masses.
However, if we compare this with the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, social media is Death. The other horsemen are playing supporting roles but without Death their effects would not be particularly detrimental.
Before the internet people socialized in relatively small, geographically constrained groups. They had friends and colleagues and relatives and they communicated with these people largely in person or via the phone using the rules of engagement that have been evolving generations. These include facial movements, and vocal intonation or more global cues such as “does this person look and smell like they haven’t showered for a week?” These are tried and true and essential components to a healthy social “network.”
In such an environment the only place for the “End Is Nigh” guy to get an audience is on the street corner. He wouldn’t have been allowed to do this at work during his smoke break. He probably didn’t have friends who would grant him an audience at birthday parties. He was insane and his insanity was relegated to the corner on which he stood. And we ignored him.
But along came the internet and the EIN guy became an anonymous Internet denizen who could insert himself into conversations across the globe. First he did this on listservs and chat rooms and message boards. Then he did it in the comments sections. And with the advent of social media, he did it right in your face, courtesy of The Algorithm (peace be upon it).
But you know how it is: On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. And so now the EIN guy isn’t a dude wearing a sandwich board on a street corner. He’s in your feed and basically looks like everyone else.
He uses the same fonts as you. His icon can be just as cute as your icon. His rants are laundered by the mediation of the internet so that you can’t see his deranged glare, and vocal tone, and the fact that he hasn’t showered in two weeks.
EIN guy is now just part of the crowd. And what’s worse, while every town has one EIN guy, the internet has allowed all of the EIN guys to find each other so that now they think they’re just as normal as everyone else.
And what are you supposed to make of their little brigade? Now you’re doubting yourself, too, because it’s one thing to ignore one crazy guy—but a crazy movement? No—you can’t ignore that—it’s your duty as a responsible citizen to quash it before it gets out of control and you don’t even realize that instead of quashing it, you’re now part of it.
Because what EIN guy always wanted—more than anything—was for the normies to stop walking past him. He wanted them to notice him and argue with him because that would be a sign that what he had to say was important and legitimate.
And here you are. Standing on the corner. Arguing with the crazy guy wearing the sandwich board saying that the “End Is Nigh.”
Which, actually, kind of makes you look like a crazy, too.
Social media has made it possible for deranged people to break through what I think of as the holistic herd immunity of sanity which geography has traditionally conferred.
And once they broke through, thanks to social media, the traditional media decided to start elevating them.
Perhaps you have noticed that journalistic outlets now rush out to broadcast anything weird enough to draw an audience. Which, practically speaking, means taking people from social media and holding them up for all to see. Which is a form of validation, even if the media disagrees with them. Because otherwise, why would they even bother presenting it as a debate?
Maybe the earth is flat?! Maybe Qanon is right?! Maybe vaccines are super dangerous ?!
Of course, these are patently insane ideas that don’t deserve consideration. But there you are considering them. And it annoys you and you turn to your spouse and say, “What the heck are these people talking about? Who could believe this nonsense? Why the hell are these people being quoted on TV?”
And all the time your cortisol levels are going up, up, up.
Have you heard of “incels”? If you haven’t I’m genuinely sorry to bespoil you of your ignorance.
The incels were a big deal a couple years ago. They are (were?) a cohort of college-age men who are celibate and that celibacy is involuntary and they were pissed that women aren’t having sex with them. So they posted really ugly diatribes that explain how the women who rejected them were just angry self-righteous “bitches” out to wield power. Their language was substantially more acerbic; I’m sure you can imagine.
And right on cue the world’s media swooped in to see what the fuss was all about and re-broadcast their concerns to the world. And before you knew it, the incels were a movement.
Social media made those people, full stop. No social media, no incels.
I’m not here to outrage you about the incels—they’re so 2018. My point is that the incel phenomenon is just one molecule of lead in our water and we’re all drinking from the heavily leaded well of social media.
So what’s the answer? It’s shockingly simple.
Leave all social media. Try it for one month.
Just 30 days!
Depending on how addicted you are, it might be hard. You can’t peek. Uninstall it. Add a blocker to your browser so that it won’t let you see TwitterDOTcom.
But you should do it because the incels and the Qanon imbeciles and the people who think the Earth is flat—they aren’t going away. Those genies are out of the bottle and we’re not putting them back.
There may (or may not) be a way to quell their cacophony eventually but there’s nothing you can do about them right now. And listening to them or arguing with them is definitely not the answer.
There are very real actions that social media companies can take to help move things back towards sanity. People like Tristan Harris and Jaron Lanier and Roger McNamee have been discussing this for years.
But social media companies aren’t going to do anything helpful so long as the incentive structure is what it is today.
Like most evil things that are bad for you, social media has enough attractive, useful, and even beneficial components to give you the false impression that it’s actually a good thing. Or at least harmless. I mean, smoking helps you control your appetite and focus your attention. This does not mean that smoking is, net-net, good for you.
In the future, we may be able to defang and declaw it and everyone can have it as a pet. But that’s somewhere down the road when Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the most powerful man in the world.
We’ll get there. But for now, go uninstall it, and take a walk with a friend whom you haven’t seen since the plague began.
You’ll thank me.