Social media and creeping horror

One of the things my friends have advised me to do as part of building my presence as a new author is take social media seriously. Particularly Twitter. I’ve been doing that, and for the most part enjoying it, but I’m also increasingly convinced that the medium of electronic social media is terrifying, both in its power, and its implications.

By this point, many of us are familiar with the risks of not being careful around social media. The New York Times recently published a brilliant article on it.

It’s easy to look at cases such as those the article describes and to think, “well, that was a dumb thing to do,” of the various individuals singled out for mob punishment. But I’d propose that making this kind of mistake is far easier than one might think.

A few years ago, I accidentally posted news of the impending birth of my son on Facebook at a time when my wife wasn’t yet ready to talk about it. It happened because I confused adding content to my wall with replying to a direct message. That confusion came about because the interface had been changed. I wondered subsequently, after learning more about Facebook, whether the change had been made on purpose, to solicit exactly that kind of public sharing of information.

In the end, this wasn’t a big deal. Everyone was very nice about it, including my wife. But it reminded me that any time we put information into the internet, we basically take the world on trust to use that information kindly.

However, the fact that we can’t always trust the world isn’t what’s freaking me out. What freaks me out is why.

The root of my concern can perhaps be summarized by the following excellent tweet by Sarah Pinborough.

*Looks through Twitter feed desperate for something funny.. humour feeds the soul. Nope, just people shouting their worthy into the void…*

I think the impressive Ms. Pinborough intended this remark in a rather casual way, but to my mind, it points up something crucial. And this is where it gets sciencey.

Human beings exercise social behavior when it fits with their validation framework. We all have some template identity for ourselves, stored in our brains as a set of patterns which we spend our days trying to match. Each one of those patterns informs some facet of who we are. And matching those patterns with action is mediated by exactly the same dopamine neuron system that guides us towards beer and chocolate cake.

What this means is that when we encounter a way to self-validate on some notion of social worth with minimal effort, we generally take it. Just like we eat that slice of cake left for us on the table.  And social media has turned that validation into a single-click process. In other words, without worrying too much about it, we shout our worthy into the void. 

This is scary because a one-click process doesn’t leave much room for second-guessing or self-reflection. Furthermore, the effects of clicking are often immediate. This reinforces the pattern, making it ever more likely that we’ll do the same thing again. And that’s not good for us. We get used to social validation being effortless, satisfying, and requiring little or no thought.

We may firmly assure ourselves that all our retweeting, liking, and pithy outrage is born out of careful judgement and a strong moral center, but neurological reality is against us. The human mind loves short-cuts. Even if we start with the best rational intentions, our own mental reward mechanisms inevitably betray us. Sooner or later, we get lazy.

Twenty years ago, did people spend so much of their effort shouting out repeated worthy slogans at each other. Were they as fast to outrage or shame those who’d slipped up? How about ten years ago? I’d argue that we have turned some kind of corner in terms of the aggressiveness of our social norming. And we’ve done so, not because we are now suddenly somehow more righteous. We’ve done it because it’s cheap. Somebody turned self-righteousness into a drug for us, and we’re snorting it.

But unlike lines of cocaine, this kind of social validation does not come with social criticism attached. Instead, it usually comes from spontaneous support from everyone else who’s taking part. This kind of drug comes with a vast, unstoppable enabler network built in. This makes electronic outrage into a kind of social ramjet, accelerating under its own power. And as with all such self-reinforcing systems, it is likely to continue feeding on itself until something breaks horribly.

Furthermore, dissent to this process produces an attendant reflexive response, just as hard and as sharp as our initial social judgements. Those who contest the social norming are likely to be punished too, because they threaten an established channel of validation. The off-switch on our ramjet has been electrified. Who dares touch it?

The social media companies see this to some extent, I believe. But they don’t want to step in because they’d lose money. So long as Twitter and Facebook build themselves into the fabric of our process of moral self-reward, the more dependent on them we are. The less likely we are to spend a day with those apps turned off.

Is there a solution to this kind of creeping self-manifested social malaise? Yes. Of course. The answer is to keep social media for humor, and for news that needs to travel fast. We should never shout our worthiness. We should resist the commoditization of our morality at all costs.

Instead, we should compose thoughts in a longer format for digestion and dialog. Maybe that’s slower and harder to read, but that’s the point. Human social and moral judgements deserve better than the status of viruses. When it comes to ostracizing others, or voting, or considering social issues, taking the time to think makes the difference between civilization and planet-wide regret.

The irony here is that many of those people clicking are those most keen to rid the world of bigotry. They hunger for a better, kinder planet. Yet by engaging in reflexive norming, they cannot help but shut down the very processes that makes liberal thinking possible. The people whose voices the world arguably needs most are being quietly trained to shout out sound-bites in return for digital treats. We leap to outrage, ignoring the fact that the same kind of instant indignation can be used to support everything from religious totalitarianism to the mistreatment of any kind of minority group you care to name. A world that judges with a single click is very close in spirit to one that burns witches.

In short, I propose: post cats, post jokes, post articles. Social justice, when fairly administered, is far about more about the justice than about the social.

(My first novel, Roboteer, comes out from Gollancz in July 2015)

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5 thoughts on “Social media and creeping horror”

  1. I agree with the sentiment here. I have been doing some research on behavior modification, or perhaps more correctly behavior modulation, by people using Second Life. While Facebook and Twitter allow for a certain distance between people, and thus the ability to act out with no immediate consequences to bad behavior, Second Life adds another layer of anonymity behind an assumed persona. As it turns out, many people turn to Second Life when they are not so socially adept, just as many of the most aggressive on the more mainstream social media seem to be. Even when an assumed personality in Second Life is the loudest and funniest kid in the room, they log off and return to the shy and socially challenged person they had been before, the leather clad dance master folds back into the cold calling insurance salesman.

    I think your point is true both because it happens on Facebook and far less so on Second Life. The Second Life avatars have their own personalities that would be spoiled by outbursts and would take the brunt of any immediate consequences for bad behavior. Even though they appear to be anonymity, the avatars “are concerned” about their reputations in that version of a face to face world.

    You post made me think. Obviously I have more work to do here.

    1. Hi Rob!
      Thank you for your reply. Your point about Second Life is intriguing. I guess that the more a social media format resembles face-to-face interaction, the less likely we are to dispense with our instinct for social caution. Other facets of human social thinking kick in without us even noticing. This may also be why Second Life has had less traction, of course. Interaction in that format requires work.

  2. One of the most interesting “social media” networks I participate in is Nextdoor.com. What fascinates me is that it’s based on real neighborhoods with real neighbors and, as you might expect, the conversation is often quite a bit more civil and useful. As a matter of fact, civil in both senses of the term! There have been some very minor dust ups and passionate debates and at least one person that obviously missed his meds for a few weeks, but for the most part it’s just very useful.
    The reason of course, is real accountability. These people not only know your name, you might even run into them on the street! 🙂
    I do think that Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the Annoyingverse are very useful, especially for promotional purposes, but some people just aren’t really cut out for it. From what I’ve seen, you do just fine, of course, but some people only do themselves more harm than good.
    There are some train wrecks out there that can serve as lessons for the rest of us…

  3. It’s all very well & good to hope for reflection before posting but I’m watching it own the social lives of adolescent girls. I’m grateful my 13 year old swims because it’s harder to count the number of “likes” a post receives whilst underwater.

    In the last few weeks I’ve read how nothing cyber ever really gets erased, and how no link is really permanent (think of the ever overwritten Wikipedia posts.) Most posts, even ones that go viral will eventually be like Ozymandais. Go grab as many pixel views as you can now. Maybe you should get a cute cat to help with that:-)

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