Saturday, October 24, 2020

On Social Media


Dave and I watched Netflix's fascinating documentary "The Social Dilemma" last night -- about the ways that social media not only monitor our online lives but also influence our lives offline, transforming politics, relationships and more. It discusses the ways social media make money by gathering data about us and feeding us advertising tailored to our interests. It also explores the idea that by helping individuals "gather" in virtual communities of like-minded people, those media increase polarization and extremism.

(I'm using social media in the plural sense, referring to many different platforms, rather than in the monolithic singular. Evil Google says it's correct either way.)

I'd call myself a casual user of social media -- very casual. I usually check Facebook once a day, and I'm on there maybe half an hour, if that much. I don't have accounts on Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn or Reddit, though I occasionally look at those sites when I want something specific. I use YouTube, but again, only when I want to find a specific video, or when I upload my own videos for blogging purposes -- I don't usually pay much attention to YouTube's recommendations for me.

When it comes to photography, I have a dormant Instagram account, but I mainly use Flickr -- and although Flickr allows commenting and other social media functions, I don't really use it that way anymore. I'm on Blogger more than anything else, and although I'm sure Blogger gathers data about me on Google's behalf, it's not showing me ads.

I've never been too troubled by the commercial angle of social media. I don't care that they harvest data about my interests or send me targeted advertising -- that seems harmless enough, and I rarely click on any of it anyway. (I have occasionally bought t-shirts recommended in Facebook ads because, let's face it, they were perfect for me!) It's reasonable to expect Facebook and Google to want to make money, and it's not much different from being subjected to advertising on television or even in print, as all of us have been for decades -- except that the ads more closely hew to our desires. Which, it could even be argued, is a good thing.

But the second issue, polarization, is a huge problem. The argument, basically, is that social media group people into like-minded virtual communities and feed them false or ever-more extreme content (which gets a lot more clicks than moderate content or real news) through recommendations. Thus, they gradually turn people with a conservative bent into ravening right-wingers, and turn liberals into ever-more-shocked-and-offended snowflakes. We see the evidence in our daily lives, our current politics, and even in people's reactions to the coronavirus pandemic -- all those who believe it's caused by 5G technology or that it's a hoax or that mask requirements are a totalitarian infringement on personal liberties.

I think the biggest problem arises when people rely on social media recommendations for their news. I don't mean to suggest that I'm playing this game perfectly, but I do not get news from social media -- I read The New York Times and The Guardian and other reliable media sources, and I occasionally look at Fox News and even Breitbart to see what the "other side" is saying. (Admittedly, I seldom believe them, though!) In other words, I go to the source, and I know my sources and where they stand, which helps me comprehend that news.

I also don't de-friend people who think differently from me. I don't mean to condemn those who do -- I totally understand the impulse. I try to remember that behind those political views, however repugnant I may find them, there's a person who at some level means something to me -- even if it's an old acquaintance from high school who I haven't seen in person in forty years. (!)

The movie made some recommendations for managing our lives on social media. Limiting screen time is an obvious option, as well as turning off notifications -- those little messages that ping our phones with supposedly urgent news or updates. (I've always kept all notifications turned off. In fact, I mostly use my phone as a phone -- or a camera -- and seldom use it for web browsing. I just can't deal with that tiny screen.)

Removing oneself from social media is an option too, but honestly, my Facebook account is too valuable to me -- I like being in touch with all my friends. I think deletion makes sense for social platforms we feel we can do without. For example, last night I deleted my TikTok account, which I created several months ago out of curiosity (after reading about TikTok in The New Yorker) and almost never used. I won't miss silly videos of teenagers lip-synching songs I don't know.

Anyway, it's a very interesting movie, and definitely food for thought!

(Photo: Autumn color in West Hampstead.)

17 comments:

gz said...

A good reasoned post.
More people seem to be coming back to blogging, I wish that blogger still had the random (sort of) next blog button!
Gradually friends are leaving FB.Like you I keep in contact with friends and family as well as potters printers and cyclists on that platform although the latest version doesn't make it so easy.
I am still in two minds about Instagram, partly because it is fb owned.
Flickr is good , possibly more a photographer's angle than Insta?
Then there is the website..but there you rely on all the others to bring traffic and hopefully sales.
It is a minefield and also time-consuming! Balancing getting on with work and promoting and selling it...I would happily pass that over to someone else.

Yorkshire Pudding said...

I will make a point of watching that documentary Steve. Thanks for the heads up and for the thoughtful consideration that followed.

P.S. grammatical error on line eleven
P.P.S. "medium" is the singular of "media"

Sabine said...

I gave up on fb a couple of years ago and can admit it was easy because the people who matter to me did likewise.
My family, immediate and extended, is spread all over the planet and is held together by whatsapp and we often joke about being a plaything of sinister forces.

One of my nephews works in research on algorithms and he did a check on my social media footprint in terms of what I am worth to the social media industry. Not much, it turns out, as I am mostly ordering second hand books and follow climate change activists on twitter.

Andrew said...

I totally agree with you about social media and I don't understand why it is a problem for so many. Who cares what it harvests. I will click on what I want to click on and if something is suggested to me, fine. I will click if I am interested.

I just wish companies would know when I have bought a new something and cajole me into buying something else.

Ursula said...

Andrew, the reason "why it is a problem for so many" is that the "problem" goes largely UNNOTICED. We kid ourselves that we are in control. Enter the neurologist's hollow laugh.

The point of "The Social Dilemma" that social media (and its off shoots) fucks with our minds - unnoticed. That's the fright.

U

ellen abbott said...

I have a FB account and Twitter and Instagram (which I use the least). I stay on FB because it keeps me connected to the art glass world and I see lots of cool art in other media. I do get most my news from FB but it's from reliable sources like NYT and the Guardian, even the Washington Post a bit when I can get past the paywall. a few others. I never click on ads, and like you don't care that info is harvested for targeting, never play those games, avoid clickbait. it's all in how you use it, how discerning you are which plays into how educated you are I think. I admit I have either unfriended or hidden a few people. I make no apologies for it. past a certain point their views are deal breakers for me and I have no desire to have that person with their poisonous views in my life regardless of whatever relationship I had with them in the past. I don't think it shapes my views though. I belong to some groups of like minded people. I don't see anything wrong with that. I agree that we have become more polarized, or maybe it was always there just not so blatant. Heather Cox Richardson's letter today sort of addresses that polarization of the two Americas...the one that thinks government should help and support the citizens and those who think it's sole purpose is, I'm not sure what, but the list of things they think the government shouldn't impose or do is long indeed with interfering in business with regulations top on their list. they want to undo every protection and support provided by the federal government and that's what the Republicans have been engaged in for decades, why McConnell is pushing through this SC nominee. but back to social media. all those things they say about it that are bad may well be true but it also gets information out there that people ordinarily wouldn't see or have available to them.

Ms. Moon said...

I really don't want to watch that doc. Like you I've long given up on any sort of privacy. I actually laugh at the "suggestions" Netflix sends me and it's reassuring in a way- they may think they know me but obviously, they REALLY don't. FB is my main time-sucker. I have an Insta account but really don't get it. The appeal, I mean.

Marty said...

My Facebook time is probably even more limited than yours. I never post anymore and much of what I see has been reduced to ads and demonstrations of recipes. I'm guilty of narrowing my own field of information since I make dormant any notifications from holy-roller or rabidly right wing acquaintances.

Ellen D. said...

I have refrained from watching that movie as I don't want to give up the connections I have through Facebook or blogs. I do believe that social media seem to have caused groups to grow further apart but actually when you think about it we have probably always been further apart. I never really knew what other groups thought unless they did something outrageous and it was covered on the TV or in the Chicago Tribune. Those views are skewed and slanted too so it has often been hard to know what to believe!

robin andrea said...

I have a Facebook account and a blog. I have never used the other social media platforms. I do look to youtube for music, and they make suggestions. I subscribe to NY Times, Washington Post, and San Francisco Chronicle. I'm a big fan of actual journalism. I think I'm just too old for the whole social media thing.

Red said...

Yes, much food for thought. One the horse is out of the barn it's too late. Companies are making fortunes in this situation.

Sharon said...

That show sounds very much like a 3-part series that Frontline did on the same subject. I deleted my Facebook account a year ago. I don't miss it. I have an Instagram account but so far I've managed stay out of political conversations there. In fact, I don't converse on that platform at all. I had a Twitter account at one time but I never go there except to look at tweets when someone sends me a link. I really do believe that the emergence of social media has played a huge role in dividing us so these days I tend to be suspect of all of it.
I have feared for true journalism ever since DJT started screaming Fake News all the time. A trusted news source is so important. Far too many people are relying on sensationalized sources for their news.

Allison said...

It's good you're not on twitter, it's addicting. I got my husband on it and now he's in thrall to the beast. It is good for showing two minute clips of what the orange wombat is saying, they only show the really outrageous ones to elevate our stress hormones. Now that the weather is finally cooling off, I think we'll take ourselves outdoors more and leave it all behind.

Edna B said...

I check in to Facebook to keep up with friends and family, not to post anything. And I keep a blog. When I watch the news, it's usually Fox News. That's it for me for media. I love the colors on that vine that grows along the building pictured here. Enjoy your day, hugs, Edna B.

Linda Sue said...

Watched it after having dumped Facebook- mostly because of the doxing event. I do not miss it at all. Better off for it, actually. I have a blog but that is not really social is it, especially when i only have , like five followers. We are all in the system somewhere, if FB makes you happy , that is just fine. You are aware of the tricks.

37paddington said...

I don’t think if blogger as social media actually. It far friendlier, and does feel communal. I enjoy posting on insta, and following my kids there, but my account is private and I don’t accept followers I don’t know so it feels relatively “safe.” I also hardly ever go on Facebook anymore but Twitter, hoo boy, that is toxic. And yet I don’t quit it, as much as it raises my blood pressure, because it usually the first place that breaking news shows up. Still, it really gives the sense that the nation is aflame. Maybe because we are? Interesting post!

Steve Reed said...

GZ: I hope more people come back to blogging. I feel like blogging is more like an extended conversation, with more room for explanation and subtlety than something like Twitter. I often feel like those of us on Blogger are dinosaurs in the social media realm.

YP: Thanks for catching my typo. You would like the film, I think.

Sabine: Interesting that you could see your social media footprint! I tried to do that myself a couple of months ago using Spokeo, but with limited success. I never made the leap to Whatsapp or Snapchat. Those are for the young whippersnappers.

Andrew & Ursula: Yes, the point is that these companies harvest data and aren't always transparent about doing so. (Unless you read all that gobbledygook when you agree to their terms & conditions, which nobody does.) I think you'd have to be an idiot to NOT know they're doing that, though, and as I said, it doesn't bother me.

Ellen: I think you're absolutely right that successful use of social media is a matter of being discerning. If you allow the companies to direct your attention willy-nilly, clicking on whatever gets fed to you, you're bound to run off the rails. Who does that, though? I mean, I ignore virtually all the ads and the stuff they try to "suggest" for me.

Ms Moon: I found it quite fascinating, honestly. You'd think that as a photographer I'd be all over Instagram, but I never warmed to it. Mainly because I don't use my phone as my main camera, I guess.

Marty: Sometimes I like seeing those notifications from my crazy friends, mainly so I can yell "WHAT?!" and read them out loud to Dave for amusement's sake.

Ellen D: While it's true that there have always been extremes, Facebook and other social media reinforce those extremes by grouping like-minded people together. They then lose sight of the fact that they're not thinking like most people, which makes them louder and more assertive. If you're an oppressed minority, this is a good thing, but if you're a white supremacist, it's not!

Robin: I agree. I depend on REAL journalism, and I worry about the fact that so many people have lost sight of what that is.

Red: Well, we can't walk back the harm that's been done, but I think there's still room for regulation.

Sharon: I'd like to see that Frontline series. A lot of people don't pay any attention to the source of their news -- they just post whatever looks interesting. THAT's scary.

Allison: Exactly! Because those stress-elevating posts are the ones that get the most clicks and the most attention, which brings the companies more revenue. Moderation has no voice.

Edna: I think it's always good to get news from a variety of sources. You don't have to give up Fox, but you might think about checking in with CNN or the networks as well.

Linda Sue: Doxing event? Do I know about that? I think being aware of the tricks is indeed the key. Which I guess is the point of the movie.

37P: Yeah, Blogger is a little different, but it certainly counts as social media in my book. Here we are, being social! :) I think Twitter is the most toxic of all, because its format demands short, punchy phrases with little room for subtlety or nuance. (And the snarkier or more outrageous the tweet, the more traction it gets.)