“To free yourself, to be more authentic, to be less addicted, to be less manipulated, to be less paranoid … for all these marvelous reasons, delete your accounts.”
Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
Facebook. YouTube. Twitter. Instagram. Tik Tok. Chances are fairly good that you use at least one of these popular social media platforms on a daily basis. When creating a user profile, you freely volunteered your personal information, including your name, location, career, and the names of friends and relatives. You probably also shared pictures of yourself and your family, and created posts indicative about your religious beliefs, your political tribe, and your general views of the the world.
How much time did you spend considering that decision you just made? You are now sharing the most intimate details of your life not only with online friends, but with whatever private company you used to set up your account. Have you ever stopped to wonder what motivates these companies to offer you these social networking services for free? If you are similar to most Americans, you may have asked yourself some of these questions. But at the end of the day, you probably figured that it can’t be too harmful to share this information with companies like Facebook and Twitter. After all, everyone else is doing it, so it must be safe, right?
In January of 2020, Netflix premiered a startling documentary called The Social Dilemma. This documentary intersperses interviews with many insiders from companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google with fictional drama scenes of an American family trying to grapple with the conflict that social media is creating for them and their children. I honestly found the fictional scenes a bit too cheesy and heavy-handed, and I felt like they detracted from the serious message that was being conveyed during the interview portions. But despite some of the clumsiness of the execution, I, like many Americans, was both fascinated and horrified by the information that was being presented.
Many of the interviewees had been involved in the ground floor creation of social media platforms and big tech companies, and many of them had helped to build the tools and organizations that they were now expressing concerns about and critiquing. One of the most intriguing interviewees was a man named Jaron Lanier. He was listed as being the author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and he talked with humor and clarity about why social media is creating such a problem for contemporary society. I checked the book out, drawn in by the slimness of the volume and the quirky black cat on the cover.
I thought that the book would be a breeze to read, being only 147 pages. And it should have been a speedy read, if what he was saying wasn’t so utterly horrifying that I felt the need to put the book down at multiple times and take some time away to process and grapple with the information that was being conveyed. Lanier himself is very open about the fact that he is no outsider to tech culture. He was heavily involved in the process of “scaling” tech companies, which in this context means attempting to grow the revenue of a company “exponentially without spending a lot of money on resources – which means they improve profit margins while keeping costs low.” And this is, sadly, where Lanier feels that many tech companies have gone “to the dark side,” so to speak. Because while he freely admits he was involved in the creation of social media, and while he admits to the potential benefits of such technology, he cannot help but point to the devil in the details, which is how most tech companies make their money.
Many companies like Facebook and Twitter make their money not from charging users, but from private advertisers, which is also how they differ greatly from more traditional media like billboards, television, or magazines. For example, when you’re driving down the highway, you might see a billboard for McDonald’s. And when you watch television, you might see an ad for shaving cream. Finally, when you open a magazine, you may see print ads for perfume or clothing stores. But the big difference between these advertisements and the ones on the internet is that you know that you are being marketed to when you see a print or televised ad. On the internet, this is not always so obvious. In fact, ads on the internet can quite often be sly, and they are also based on what you have already shared on your profile. Many tech companies have created algorithms to track everything about you based on what you share, blog, and repost about. So they know if you like cats or dogs, if you like coffee or tea, and if you vote Republican or Democrat. And they often turn around and then sell this information to private third parties, sometimes without even knowing who or what company (or country) that might involve, and they let them show you specific ads or posts that will “influence” you to start buying a particular product over another one.
Lanier refers to this as “BUMMER,” an acronym that means “Behaviors of Users Modified and Made into Empires for Rent.” Some of the key elements of BUMMER are as follows: “A is for attention acquisition leading to jerk* supremacy, B is for butting into everyone’s lives, C is for cramming content down people’s throats, D is for directing people’s behaviors in the sneakiest way possible, E is for earning money from letting the worst jerks* secretly screw with everyone else, F is for fake mobs and faker society.”
*The words “jerks” here is my substitution for a stronger word that Lanier prefers. Please note that this book does contain some swearing, although it does not dominate the text.
BUMMER is a very appropriate word for what these companies do. They prey on the emotions of users, trapping them in negative feedback loops so that they can continue selling the data that they harvest from their users for profit. Many readers out there are probably familiar with this phrase which has become almost ubiquitous in conversations about social media tech companies, but it bears repeating here: “If you are not paying for the product, you are the product.” In short, they are offering social networking to you for free because they are profiting off of you, plain and simple. “The problem,” Lanier writes, “occurs when all the phenomena I’ve just described are driven by a business model in which the incentive is to find customers ready to pay to modify someone else’s behavior. Remember, with old-fashioned advertising, you could measure whether a product did better after an ad was run, but now companies are measuring whether individuals changed their behaviors, and the feeds for each person are constantly tweaked to get individual behavior to change. Your specific behavior has been turned into a product.”
And some people might say, who cares? I don’t mind if Facebook tries to sell my information to private companies. You may not even care that they are attempting to modify your behavior. But what about when they sell this information to companies invested in suppressing elections? What happens when this negative feedback loop starts impacting society as a whole, causing more people than ever before to feel socially isolated and divided from their neighbors (ironic for companies that claim to want to unite people)? Because even if you yourself are not directly impacted in a negative way by using social media, you are still attached to society by the sheer virtue of being alive, and what impacts your neighbors and your local electorate has a direct impact on your own well-being and happiness. As Lanier himself states: “Social media is biased, not to the Left or the Right, but downward. The relative ease of using negative emotions for the purposes of addiction and manipulation makes it relatively easier to achieve undignified results. An unfortunate combination of biology and math favors degradation of the human world. Information warfare units sway elections, hate groups recruit, and nihilists get amazing bang for the buck when they try to bring society down. The unplanned nature of the transformation from advertising to direct behavior modification caused an explosive amplification of negativity in human affairs.”
The question then becomes: how can we possibly escape this trap? Sometimes it feels as if every person from young to old is on Facebook, and we cannot escape the ecosystem for fear of being left out. In this information age, we are all suffering from FOMO to a greater or lesser degree if we do not participate on social media platforms. We fear that we won’t see baby pictures from relatives, that we won’t know what’s happening in the world, and that the events happening in our local community are passing us by. This is called a network or lock-in effect, and large tech companies use the power of this lure to continue to draw people to their websites. Basically this is what happens when a company becomes so large that you fear “opting out” because “everyone is on Facebook,” and if you or your business aren’t on it, then you feel as if you may as well not exist at all. You also don’t have a viable alternative, so you are essentially “locked in” to using specific companies because of their sheer size and percentage of users.
But Lanier argues that opting out is really our only option to try to save ourselves and our society. He argues that until enough people leave Facebook and Twitter and other enormous social media companies, then there will be no incentive for them to change how they operate. This conceptual change of how social media is run is, to him, quite simple and has been done many times before in response to toxic companies and chemicals: “The better analogy is paint that contains lead. When it became undeniable that lead was harmful, no one declared that houses should never be painted again. Instead after pressure and legislation, lead-free paints became the new standard. Smart people simply waited to buy paint until there was a safe version on sale. Similarly, smart people should delete their accounts until nontoxic varieties are available.”
Social media itself, Lanier writes, is not the problem. The underlying idea is good, and social media and the internet do possess the capacity to create positive change in society. His argument is that the revenue making model is the crux of the issue. Forcing them to sell to shady advertisers incentives them to keep manipulating user behavior and harvesting data, and the only way to fix it is to leave. Because once users leave the platform, new companies will hopefully rise up to compete with them that will generate revenue in a different manner. This will force the existing companies to also modify their platforms, and this will ultimately create a cascade effect that will change the face of social media for the better.
Lanier’s argument is compelling, precise, and packs a pretty mean punch in a compact volume. His book is well worth reading even if you would never considering leaving social media. It’s important to consider what sort of effect these companies are having both on our presidential elections and on our daily lives. It is also well worth pondering what impact your actions are having even among those who are not on social media. No matter what we do, we cannot pretend that Facebook and companies like it are not major players in our society today. It’s important to understand how they operate and what their true motivations are. As Lanier writes: “Go to where you are kindest.” I think it is now up to all of us to determine where exactly that is. And, as he recommends, “In the meantime, there is something you can do personally. If, when you participate in online platforms, you notice a nasty thing inside yourself, an insecurity, a sense of low self-esteem, a yearning to lash out, to swat someone down, then leave that platform. Simple.”
Check out Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier