“It takes me back to feeling like a left-out teenager,” says beloved Seattle singer-songwriter and new mother, Shelby Earl, when speaking about her recent experiences using Facebook. “Feeling like someone’s relationship looks healthier than mine, or their music career looks like it’s thriving more than mine. In our regular lives, we compare ourselves to other people, but not as readily. We’re not seeing so many people and what they’re up to all the time the way we do with social media. It can make you feel like you’re the one doing it wrong.
Earl weighed in with a post on her personal Facebook page recently. She asked, “On a scale of 1-to-5 (5 being, “like garbage”) how bad does social media make you feel on a regular basis?” She continued,
Maybe it’s just me, but I find that any time I’m feeling crappy for what seems like no reason, if I stop and search myself/isolate the emotion, I find that it’s often something to do with social media that caused the bad feels. Then again, I also genuinely enjoy seeing what everyone is up to and staying connected with people I care about through these channels.
Earl received 50-some comments in response, many of them agreeing with her plight. So, given that spending time on Facebook, and other social media platforms, so often creates unpleasant experiences, why do Earl and so many others keep using social media? Israeli writer and philosopher Sam Vaknin, who recently appeared in the 2016 Vice documentary, “How Narcissists Took Over the World,” says it’s because we’ve conditioned ourselves to do so–and it’s by design. Social media, Vaknin says, exploits an often ugly incentive structure in our psyche, one based on “likes” and little else. This new dynamic then pushes us toward anxiety inside a platform that too often relies on anger for fuel.
And Vaknin is not alone. His theories are supported by many in the world of tech, including former Facebook higher-ups Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya. An early investor in Facebook, Parker spoke at an Axios conference in Philadelphia in 2017, “It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” In December of that same year, former Facebook VP Palihapitiya offered his thoughts to the Washington Post, “It literally is a point now where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
While Shelby Earl is not the first artist to bring up the problem in Seattle, she is a respected voice in Seattle’s creative community. Earl, who sells out shows at prominent venues across the country and has played with a myriad of talented musicians, says that using social media regularly leaves her feeling socially and professionally inadequate. She finds herself comparing her career or her relationship to others on a seemingly endless loop. And these comparisons, she notes, are rooted in curated, often two-dimensional exposures that don’t give the full picture of anyone’s real-life day-to-day.
According to Facebook, there were 2.32 billion monthly active users on the site as of December 31, 2018, and 1.52 billion daily active users. Twitter boasts 326 million monthly active users with 500 million Tweets sent per day. Instagram has over 100 million monthly active users. These numbers stagger the imagination, especially when considering these platforms didn’t exist 20 years ago. It may even be the case that you, dear reader, are on social media right now. And if you are a social media user, has this thought ever run through your head? “I should delete my profile…” Probably.
At the outset, social media was sold to the public as a tool for communication and connection. Information is power, we thought, so let’s share as much of it as we can. And if we can achieve this new sense of “closeness,” perhaps all our troubles will diminish. But, Vaknin argues, it’s now evident that social media encourages negative behavior and interactions. And this leads many users to wonder if the platforms are destroying communities, rather than building them.
In a detailed piece released in January 2018, the BBC says that over 3 billion people use social media, about 40 percent of the world. In the report, social media is said to contribute to heightened levels of stress, lowered moods, and an increase in anxiety. The same report, however, noted that social media has some benefits if used wisely. Social media, the report says, is a tool that can help lower depression depending on the type of community one keeps on the platforms. In short, connection to negative responses lowers happiness, while positive reinforcement can raise moods. But can a platform that incentivizes negativity, as Vaknin claims, really ever be ultimately good?
Vaknin, whose work focuses on narcissism and psychopathy, asserts in a recent interview for the documentary, “Plugged-in: The True Toxicity of Social Media Revealed,” with life coach and journalist Richard Grannon, that social media programmers knowingly “built addiction into” their systems. For one, he says, there is no usage time limit. You can essentially chain smoke social media. Secondly, the platforms are built to produce immediate gratification that, when it subsides, causes the user internal frustration similar to withdrawal. As a result, Vaknin believes, social media is a contributor to rising levels of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression and, worse, even suicide. This is especially true among young people who have never known a world without it, Vaknin says.
Again, Parker agrees, saying at the Axios event, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” And a 2018 study, conducted by the University of Southern California, found that adolescents exposed to social media see a “statistically significant” increase in symptoms of ADHD compared to their counterparts.
Further, Vaknin says, social media tends to create digital clusters of like-minded people in mediated interactions. It’s purported that these clusters are groups of friends, but in reality, that’s often not the case. Instead, he claims, people interact with “digital renditions” of each other and enough of this behavior can make the user think the digital world is reality. Human interactions, Vaknin concludes, tend to decrease and the user becomes more accustomed to screen-experiences where intimacy is unfamiliar, even threatening.
While it’s clear that millions of people use social media, and that all of this information might sound like a far-off Doomsday scenario, it’s more real than one might like to admit: all over the world, people engage in online communication on social media platforms, regularly expressing hate and anger, even plotting violence. Google the term “InCel” and you’ll quickly find message boards, web pages and chat rooms laden with sexual frustration, racism, and misogyny, all heightened by isolation and incentivized by negative attention.
But is there any going back from a world drenched in social media? For Earl, whose job often relies on it for communication and promotion, the answer is likely no. “I don’t think there’s a very good chance of that,” she says. “Certainly, I know people who are off social media entirely but my sense is that there is no going back from here. I don’t think social media is destroying us, but I do feel like it’s rewriting us. Personally, I would love to take a break from it. But I work in media and entertainment and it all happens online.”
In the end, there are ways to be more impactful and thoughtful on social media. There are worthwhile charities on the platforms that you can engage with. There are new bands to check out, new fashion and art to discover on their web pages. But ultimately for Vaknin, if someone is looking for true closeness or real humanity, social media is not the place to find it, despite what is claimed by the platforms’ CEOs. And reliance upon social media, Vaknin says, breeds connection, but all too often it’s a connection with negativity, addiction, and narcissism, not love and affection.