How to Fix Social Media

Part I

Here’s a thought experiment: what if we wake up tomorrow and Twitter is gone? Facebook, too. All the social media sites vanish overnight. YouTube still exists, but there are no comments or likes. We have primitive blogs, although these are really just web pages that we can update. In other words, we’ll take the internet back to where it was in the early 2000s.

If this happened, what would we miss?

I know what I’d miss: the interactions with all the wonderful folks I’ve met on here. I couldn’t get and give feedback on books, or anything else for that matter. I would never have discovered this world of indie books if not for social media. I would also be severely  limited in my ability to promote my books. I’ve met so many wonderful folks–see the “People You Should Know” list in the sidebar for their names.

I know what I wouldn’t miss about social media too. The fads, the memes (some are funny but they grow tiresome quickly), the endless outrage, the symbolic gestures, and especially the politics. I used to love politics. I started blogging primarily with the idea of being a political blogger. But that was over a decade ago, and politics has become utterly noxious. Not that it wasn’t pretty noxious then, but it’s more so now, and that’s in part due to social media.

The other problem in this equation is smart phones. Back in the early 2000s, if you wanted to spend all day on the Internet, you had to be sitting at a desk. There were laptops, but they weren’t half as convenient as the true scourge of civilized discourse: the smartphone. Paired with social media, the smartphone is possibly one of the most dangerous inventions in history, enabling everyone to be plugged in at all times to the internet.

You can spend all day staring down at that screen, liking things, arguing with random people, and tweeting stuff that sounds cool in conjunction with a trendy hashtag, your every waking moment tuned into the vibrations of the globe-spanning network that in the 1990s they used to call the “information superhighway.” Well, the information superhighway looks like Interstate 405 in Los Angeles at rush hour thanks to the smartphone.

At this point, you might be feeling like Tracer Tong at the end of the classic video game Deus Ex, and wanting to destroy the whole damn insidious thing: “The net’s going black! No more infolinks, transmissions of any kind! We’ll start again, live in villages…”

But, we’ve done a more measured version of that with our thought experiment. We’ve taken the internet back to about the year 2000. (Coincidentally, the year Deus Ex was released.) Also, we haven’t abolished smart phones, but we have restricted their use. It’s sort of like getting a driver’s license–you just have to pass a test and renew periodically. And that’s only for smartphones–any adult can just wander in and buy a flip phone if they want.

Now, setting aside the question of whether this could ever happen (it couldn’t), think about how we would get back the good things that we miss about social media.

Assume comments aren’t allowed on the websites. We can make posts, and we can link to other people’s posts, but we can’t actually have a discussion forum. We aren’t even allowed to make a forum site. In this imaginary society, trying to build a site like Topix is viewed roughly the same way as trying to build your own nuclear reactor.

What would fairly quickly arise would be a nexus of linked sites, all referring to one another. We book people would link to each other, football fans would link to each other, and revolutionaries who want to conquer the planet would link to each other.

Of course, all this happens now. What I’m proposing would just make it more laborious to access. You’d have to click all the links on your favorite revolutionary webpage, rather than just follow all the right people and see your daily dose of propaganda delivered to your door.

We’ve all heard a lot in the last few months about “social distancing” and “slowing the spread” of a virus. And of course, the metaphor for an idea on the internet as a virus is a cliché. And a very fitting one, because the way a meme spreads is remarkably like a virus–it appears once, then before you know it, it’s everywhere, and then finally people get tired of it. (Read: develop herd immunity to it.)

What I’m proposing is social media distancing. We can’t stop the spread of ideas. And, unlike with a real virus, we don’t actually want to, since this would prevent the spread of both good and bad ideas. But we do want to slow it down.

Fisher Ames may have said “falsehood proceeds from Maine to Georgia, while truth is pulling on his boots.” (Contrary to popular belief, neither Mark Twain nor Winston Churchill said anything like this, even though it’s been attributed to them both–which is pretty ironic if you think about it.) But the point stands: it was true in Fisher Ames’ time, and it’s only gotten more true as time goes on.

Thus, we want to throttle back the speed at which ideas can move. While this does indeed slow the spread of good ideas, it slows the spread of bad ideas more, because they are faster. Therefore, it is a net win. (Oops, that was an unintentional pun.)

Part II

The suggestion I make above will never, ever happen. Technology increases the speed at which people get what they want; it does not decrease it. Moreover, even if we imagine a government powerful enough to impose the restrictions I’ve outlined, such a scenario would be obviously disastrous. The idea of allowing a government to restrict communication for people’s own good is an obvious prelude to horrific abuses. The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four looms. If implementing the idea which I’ve just suggested came up for a vote, I’d vote against it.

Then why the hell, you ask politely, did I just spend all this time suggesting it?

Because even though I would never want to see such a policy enforced through coercion, I still think it sounds like a pretty awesome way to live. It’s the same reason that I think Prohibition was a bad idea, while also being a teetotaler myself.

Imagine you are a good, loyal and well-informed citizen of this regulated social media world we’ve just imagined. Then, due to a transporter malfunction, you’re sent to the mirror universeour universe, where social media is totally unregulated. What do you do? (Assuming for the moment that there is no way to get back to your own universe.)

You might have fun at first. Unrestricted use of smart phones and social media would seem great. But after a while, you’d start to realize why the government in your home universe had restricted these things. As soon as you encountered the negative aspects of social media, you’d want to go back to the way it was.

It’s no use trying to convince everyone of your position, though. Unlike you, they’ve never lived in the alternate universe. They have no concept of what life with regulated social media is like. They won’t believe you.

Thus, what would you do? Well, since this is my thought experiment, and, in the words of Groucho Marx, “it’s pretty hard to be wrong if you keep answering yourself,” I would predict that a expatriated citizen of the society above would just use social media as if it were regulated. They wouldn’t try to make anyone else do that, because it wouldn’t work.    They’d just realize it’s easier to live your life using social media to connect with friends and people with whom you share interests, and not to get caught up in the nastier aspects of it.

Going back to the virus metaphor, the visitor from the alternate universe has been inoculated against social media in a way no one else has. We were a vulnerable population, with no antibodies, when social media was created in the mid-2000s. And now, even though many people can remember life before it existed, they have no immunity to it. The hypothetical mirror universe visitor does, however.

The visitor uses social media like it’s the regular internet. Having been brought up in a world that strictly regulates it, they can respond to it accordingly.

The moral of the story: imagine you came from a world where social media was strictly controlled. Thus, given the opportunity, you will pick and choose and use only the features which are good–the ones you’d miss if they were gone. That’s why I started posting indie book reviews. There’s something really satisfying about seeing an author’s excitement when I post a review. This is the Marie Kondo method of social media use: keep only the things that bring you joy.

Part III

This might sound easy, but it’s not. It takes an active effort not to engage in the bad side of social media. This is where the Star Trek metaphor fails us, and we must switch instead to less rational, more romantic analogues: to wit, Star Wars.

For much like the Dark Side of the Force, Social Media tempts us. The Dark Side of the Force tempts us with raw power, whereas the Dark Side of Social Media tempts us with the promise of attention, of likes, of followers. It tempts us with the promise of external validation.

We want to resist temptation. We want to be Jedi, dammit!

Well, we can be. But we must train ourselves for the task. We must learn to recognize the Dark Side when it tempts us, and to resist its pull.

Like most things worth doing, it’s simple, but not easy. And it pretty clearly goes against the overall design of social media. It’s natural to want to be the most-liked, most-followed person. It gives us a huge dopamine rush, which we enjoy. That’s why social media is designed the way it is. And why cocaine is designed the way it is.

When I joined Twitter, I did it with the intention of building a following–a so-called “author’s platform.”

In other words, I joined it purely for Dark Side reasons. “Give me my red lightsaber and my black cloak, and sign me up,” I said.

The call of the Dark Side is powerful, but it is ultimately unfulfilling. Because no matter how much of a following you amass, how many likes or subscribers you get, you’ll always want more.

I should pause here, because I’m about to give some advice, and since I am not a well-known author or a particularly successful social media user, it’s important to put this advice in its proper context.

Imagine you are a space-faring adventurer and you come upon a derelict ship. After donning your spacesuit and boarding to investigate, you find it deserted and badly-damaged, as if in some huge battle. Amid the wreckage, you find a lone survivor. He wears a black cloak with the insignia of the Evil Empire, and hanging at his side is a red lightsaber, but he does not greet you with hostility. Indeed, he doesn’t greet you at all–he just sort of rocks back and forth, repeating a bunch of gibberish.

You should approach pretty much everything I say like you would the ravings of the captured lone survivor. It’s possible it might give you some insight into what is going on, but it can hardly be treated as definitive or authoritative. After all, if he’s so smart, why was he sitting alone on a ship full of wreckage?

But nevertheless, you record what the prisoner says. After all, who knows? It might be relevant someday.

The mistake that social media baits us all into is thinking that quantity matters–it turns human interaction into a kind of game. (They actually use the hideous word “gamification.” Words like this, along with “content” and “branding” are strong indicators of a Dark Side presence.) In fact, what we should focus on is the quality of the relationships we create on social media.

And to do that, we must tune out all the distractions that social media offers. The Light Side of Social Media is in knowing specific people. In writing fiction, it’s always better to be specific than general, because it feels more real. So too in relationships–it’s better to have one friend you really know and trust than a hundred friends who you see at parties now and then.

But the path to the Light is difficult; it is filled with obstacles, temptations. At every turn, the Dark Side lures us with the promise of attention and fame. The Light Side meanwhile requires us to have the discipline to focus only on using it to help others, to strengthen our relationships, to build up, not to tear down.

The Dark Side promises us control over huge armies of followers and subscribers and customers.

The Light Side requires us to control ourselves.

Who would not say the former sounds more appealing? Who would not, if given the choice, wish for the alluring power of the former over the strict mandate of the latter?

Only one who knows that the Dark Side’s promise is a lie. That amassing a huge internet following is a curse, not a blessing. That those who wield the Dark Side’s powers most spectacularly are in fact ruled by it, and not ruling through it.

Did you ever hear the tragedy of Andrew Sullivan the Wise? I thought not. It’s not a story the internet branding experts would tell you.

Andrew Sullivan was one of the founders of the art of blogging. For 15 years, he ran a blog that became incredibly successful. His site, The Daily Dish, had millions of engaged readers.

And then he stopped. In 2015, with America on the brink of political upheaval like never before, he stopped. Why did he do it? In his words:

An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me.

He was one of the most successful people in history at building an internet following, and it “broke” him. What does that tell you? Even if one succeeded in the Herculean task of following in his footsteps, and building a following as large as his, how could one be sure it would not break them, too?

The ultimate irony of Andrew Sullivan’s story is that he never consciously practiced the Dark Side. Oh no; he wrote for himself and his friends. He was honest; honest to a fault, because he wasn’t afraid to say things that looked ridiculous in retrospect–and he did.

But even he fell prey to the Dark Side; quite by accident. So well did he use his medium that it consumed him.

This is why restraint, control, discipline are the watchwords for those who would avoid the Dark Side of Social Media. Ignore what the others are saying–focus on that tight-knit group of early readers who are your core community, and tune out the rest. Yes, even the big names and the blue checks. That’s what I did when I made the decision to start focusing on indie book reviews instead of politics. And I’ve never regretted it.

I see that skeptical look in your eye, though. Am I seriously daring to tell you, dear reader, that the real influencer status is all the friends you made along the way? You snort. You laugh derisively at the saccharine platitudinousness of it. Like the narrator on the Leonard Cohen track, you risked your life, but not to hear some country-western song!

Well, it may sound trite, but sometimes things are trite because they are true.

In the title, I promised I’d tell you how we can fix social media. I lied; we can’t fix social media. (Teach you to trust a gibbering man in a black cloak!) At least, not directly. Like the cave on Dagobah, what is on social media is only what we take with us.

No, my friends, all we can do is fix ourselves, and hope that it will be enough.

–B.G.

July 2020

What's your stake in this, cowboy?