The Tech Culture Driving Social Media and Its Manipulative Design
In the earliest days of the internet, many in the tech world thought social networks would usher in a new era of dialogue and a more informed, civilized society. This is the reverse of what happened says Jaron Lanier, one of the forefathers of the digital age. While social media seems important in our lives, we should all question: is it really serving us or is it serving commercial interests?
Some argue that social media helps link people together and support activism. However, Lanier believes that dominant social media services, mostly owned by Google and Facebook (including YouTube and WhatsApp) are driven by an algorithmic, manipulative design where money is made by third parties trying to manipulate their users—while offering some sense of social connection as part of a reward-based, addictive system. This system is dysfunctional at its core; it warps our sense of reality and greatly limits the social good.
We have been here before. People used to smoke everywhere and many were addicted. Then, enough people who weren’t addicted began an honest conversation about what to do and realized, “Hey, this is stupid; we should at least not have cigarettes in public places.” Now, we have a healthier, limited relationship to smoking cigarettes. This time, we’re talking about social media, where the side effect is disconnecting humanity from shared reality.
While corporate media like CNN, NY Times, ABC, NPR, CNBNC, and MSNBC report on Lanier’s work, they fail to discuss the underlying Silicon Valley tech culture that drives social media design. The rhetoric of Silicon Valley has a utopian spin that fosters creativity and collaboration. Yet it supports a “nerd culture” that’s largely white, Indian, and Chinese—and often male—which tends to dominate and exclude other viewpoints. For example, Twitter has a disproportionately high number of black users, yet a disproportionately low number of black employees. Resistance to diversity is part of this digital culture as it seeks to maintain its own workforce norm.
Lanier compares social media leaders to the people running a casino while everybody else is taking the risks. Through success, wealth, and tech cultural values… leaders in the tech world tend to isolate themselves. Overtime, they have less and less in common with the people whose lives they shape—lives struggling to relate to a technical design that doesn’t represent them or their real needs as they process a constant stream of information.
While profit ratios show a thriving economy, the way social media is thriving doesn’t give people a feeling of security or confidence in their lives. Many of the emotions occurring in the digital space are negative (jealousy, fear, anxiety, and anger). Conversely, research about those who have deleted their accounts, shows them feeling better informed, with more free time, and feeling more connected, healthier, and fulfilled on the whole.
Social media has a business model at its core that negatively shapes everyone using it. Until this model changes, Lanier suggests deleting your account to experience more of humanity.
Ja’han Jones, “Jaron Lanier Helped Create Social Media, and Now He’s Begging You to Leave It Behind,” Huffington Post, December 12, 2018, www.huffpost.com/entry/jaron-lanier-delete-socialmedia_n_5c0ebb5ae4b08bcb27eb661e.
Noah Kulwin, “‘One Has This Feeling of Having Contributed to Something That’s Gone Very Wrong,’” Intelligencer, April 17, 2018, http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/04/jaron-lanier-interview-on-what-went-wrong-with-the-internet.html.
Rod Dreher, “Jaron Lanier: We Blew It,” The American Conservative, April 25, 2018, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/jaron-lanier-silicon-valley-we-blew-it/.
Student Researcher: Andrew Reyes (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)