2017-07-05

Antisocial Media

Yesterday, I happened across an article about how Ed Sheeran "quit Twitter" because he thought it was nothing more than a place to be mean.

By coincidence (or perhaps Big Data knew this about me, and fed me the Ed Sheeran article in response), I happened to have recently uninstalled Twitter. I don't miss it. Like Ed, I noticed that nothing good gets said on Twitter. People mostly just exchange escalating levels of 140-character snark.

Some people are "good" at the skill of delivering extremely insulting one-liners. In the old days, these folks would have become comedians. Today, they just disappear into the endless pool of ill will that Twitter has become. Comedians have the social benefit of providing entertainment to an engaged public. People on Twitter confer absolutely no social benefit whatsoever. It's not clear that they want to entertain anyone. More often than not, they're serious in what they say, ie. they're not doing it for cheap laughs but rather to have the last laugh. We've all seen humorous tweets before, but they usually come at the expense of someone's art, someone's thoughts, someone's opinions. Whole lives have been destroyed on Twitter, from the women who get "doxxed" to the guy who suffered a seizure from a tormentor's animated gif, to the employees who got fired for bad tweets, to the CEOs who had to step down. And so on, and so forth. It's a race to the bottom on Twitter.

Whether Twitter is mean because people or mean, or people are mean because Twitter makes them mean, is a question for open debate. What matters here is the simple reality that the more time a person spends actively engaging on Twitter, the more that person acquires a Twitter-based psychological rewards system.

It is generally a bad idea to craft every thought in such a way that it garners the widest possible audience and the largest number of favorable opinions. At best, you'll communicate nothing other than vapid pleasantries ("Have a great day, everybody!") and at worst you'll ignore unpleasant truths in favor of narcissistic supply. Actually, at worst, you'll become an insufferable monster, eager to shout down anyone if you stand to gain a few likes from a broad audience. But either way, you get my point.

All this suggests that, for the sake of your own happiness and common decency, you should probably avoid hanging out in situations that bring out the worst in you, starting with Twitter. In time, you will develop a rewards system based on the other ways you choose to spend your time. If you're like most people, that will likely involve time spent with family and friends, who generally reward you for behavior becoming of yourself. That's a Pareto-improving move.

I'm not sure other social media are any better. Facebook -- once a good place to post pictures of last weekend's shenanigans, then later a great place to share family photos with loved ones around the world -- has become more of a long-form Twitter. Instagram appears to be a marketing vehicle more than anything else. Snapchat seems to be nothing more than an Instagram that destroys the evidence a short while later.

Across all of these media, one thing stands out to me: Despite the name, these media are not particularly social. In the olden days, "being social" meant going out to where other people were and interacting with them in a way that made them think more highly of you. You might have gone to the store and run into your neighbors; you might have gone to church and shared a prayer; you might have gone to a club or a public meeting of some kind. You'd go out into the world and say something to others, and then they'd make eye contact with you and say something back. If you didn't say it correctly, you'd insult each other and make sometimes lifelong enemies, and this was considered bad. The community would try to bring you together, or else laugh at you behind your backs, but in no case would you actually come out ahead by making enemies of people in the public square.

We live in an anthropologically interesting age. Never before have human beings interacted with each other so much, and yet never before have our interactions been so simultaneously vapid and infuriating. Still, this is one social change that will not come from within "the system." If you want to become a happier, nicer person who is better able to communicate with others, at a certain point you will have to stop using all these social media in lieu of real, face-to-face interaction. The person who masters the ability to make eye contact and deliver kind, confident statements is the person who will rule the world of tomorrow.