How Social Media Is Dumbing Down Our Society
Communication overload encourages thoughtless commentary, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
by Angelo YoungIn our digital era of smartphones and social media, it seems nearly everyone suffers from communication overload. Less than 15 years ago, most netizens had just one or two email accounts, texting was tedious and costly, and mobile phones were primarily used to make, well, phone calls.
Today, it’s common for people to manage numerous social media accounts and email addresses. One recent estimate claimed the average internet user has seven social media accounts — excluding email. Chunky mobile phones have been replaced by pocket touchscreen computers that constantly jingle and buzz notifications, pulling their owners away from face-to-face encounters with other human beings into a constantly churning social networking vortex.
Experts who look into such things say that while social networking has its benefits — professionally, personally, politically — it’s also dumbing down the ways people communicate with each other. Having so many channels of communication has overwhelmed our ability to thoughtfully interact online, encouraging cheap and easy forms of communication.
Instead of taking the time to formulate a thoughtful reply to an online friend’s social media post, social media users tend to gravitate to using an emoji or firing off a brief comment meant to convey little more than acknowledgment.
“When you look at social media apps, particularly Facebook, the most common action is to ‘like’ something; it’s not to comment, it’s not to post, it’s to ‘like,’” Larry Rosen, co-author of “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World,” told Salon. “The reason for that is because it takes minimal cognitive effort.”
Indeed, Facebook’s “like” icon has been such a popular way to communicate that last year the world’s largest social network expanded its thumbs-up icon into a suite of five “reactions” icons that represent anger, sadness, surprise, laughter and love, giving users the same depth of communication that could be taught to a chimpanzee.
These icons may be overly simplistic and ambiguous, but studies have shown that receiving even these tiny and insignificant gratifications has a neurological effect on social media users that is similar to what we feel when eating delicious food, after an intense workout, or during sex. (Anyone who has seen one of their Facebook posts amass dozens of “reactions” and comments has experienced that little boost to self-esteem.)
Facebook’s long-established resistance to adding a “dislike” button suggests it is trying to emotionally engineer its online community toward uplifting and positive interactions. This would make sense, since a happy and content (and troll-free) Facebook community is a more appealing consumer target for the company’s advertisers. Income from advertising was Facebook’s main source for its $27.64 billion in revenue and $10.22 billion in profit last year.
That Facebook is constantly tweaking what we see and how we interact on its platform has led to past controversies. In 2014, the company admitted to secretly manipulating the content on 689,000 users’ home pages in a test to measure if content could cause users to share positive or negative content on their own feeds.
The study, conducted by Facebook data scientists and researchers from Cornell University, secretly filtered users’ Facebook news feeds of comments, pictures, videos and news links from others in their social networks. One group was subjected to a flow of mostly “positive emotional content” while the other group was shown posts with “negative emotional content.” The researchers concluded that users subjected to predominantly negative or predominantly positive emotions on their news feeds were more likely to express the same emotions in their own posts.
“The emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods,” the study concluded.
While Facebook won’t comment on how its system decides what users see on their news feeds, it’s clear from the study the company is aware of the relationship between user-provided content, what users see on their profiles and what kind of feedback these users might provide to their online friends. Steering users toward sharing positive and uplifting commentary is a potent incentive for advertisers, who might balk if Facebook had more negative emotional content.
So with Facebook and other social media constantly nudging you toward shallow, happy thoughts that can be turned into advertising dollars, what can users do to improve the quality of their social media communications?
Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, says you should consider what psychologists call your core social media group. These are the people whose so-called social capital has the most value to you. This could include family members, real-world friends, colleagues or the few social media connections who provide substantive and thoughtful feedback. (These are the people in your life who, for example, would remember your birthday without you setting up Facebook to remind them to send you a happy birthday greeting.)
“What’s really important [for better social media feedback] is to define where you want to amass your social capital from,” Rosen said. “Figure out your core ties, figure out who you want to be part of that group and focus on them.” This includes, Rosen says, using more private rather than public communication.
People use social media for many different reasons, but if you desire constructive criticism, thoughtful commentary and engaging group conversation, your best bet might just be to cull your herd of followers, cut back on social media accounts, and be more thoughtful in the content you share. There’s no emoji that can replace real effort at human interaction online.