After the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, many people have started leaving social media including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram en masse. However, social media culture, like hook-up culture on campus, affects everyone regardless of whether they opt in or not. I myself have thought about quitting social media many times, yet I never successfully made the transition. I simply have too many accounts. My life is too reliant on social media. The system of social media accounts is too convoluted that as an individual if I delete all, I would become empty. I am afraid of that void. While looking for some ways to rationalize the decision to be less connected in this networked world, I picked up the book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts by Jaron Lanier to learn how he justifies the decision to delete all social media accounts.
In a nutshell, the book “argues in ten ways that what has become suddenly normal – pervasive surveillance and constant, subtle manipulation – is unethical, cruel, dangerous, and inhumane.” In other words, Lanier suggests that in totality a system of all social media accounts has become “unethical, cruel, dangerous and inhumane.” Therefore, one should not participate in it, support its existence, and its reproduction.
The ten arguments are summarized on the back cover as follows:
Argument one: You are losing your free will.
Argument two: Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.
Argument three: Social media is making you into an asshole.
Argument four: Social media is undermining truth.
Argument five: Social media is making what you say meaningless.
Argument six: Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy.
Argument seven: Social media is making you unhappy.
Argument eight: Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity.
Argument nine: Social media is making politics impossible.
Argument ten: Social media hates your soul.
He works out the argument one by one using the term BUMMER which stands for “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” It is “a machine, a statistical machine that lives in the computing clouds.” There are two main parts to his definition of BUMMER: modification of users’ behaviors, and rent seeking endeavor.
How do social media companies modify users’ behaviors? This question leads Lanier to give us a brief overview of what behaviorism is, and how this approach has become very influential in social media companies. In brief, behaviorism is a scientific movement that studies ways to train animals and humans. It arose before computers. Behaviorists focus on the environment where certain behaviors are produced, and reproduced. The implication is that when the environment is changed, the behavior is also changed.
What is rent-seeking? This is an economic term that describes one’s activity to increase one’s share of existing wealth without creating new wealth. This behavior can have harmful effect to the economy because of poor allocation of available resources.
In many ways, social media companies seek rent by offering a free platform for users to exchange information while altering their behaviors via algorithmic manipulations. Since users’ behaviors can be manipulated via these platforms, they can be also manipulated by other factors such as their social networks, bots, and foreign intelligence agencies during elections, etc. The one sharing place on the Internet that Lanier believes to not have been colonized by corporate interests is podcasts. I share his view on this, and have blogged about the democratization effect of podcasting, where individual broadcasters can reach out to their audience directly, instead of going through various distributional channels that are known to be biased, and dominated by a certain group of people. Lanier suggests that it is possible to corrupt the podcast space. However, given the current technology, it is very difficult.
I am buying into various arguments that Lanier brings up to convince each individual to quit social media. From a sociological point of view, Lanier is setting up a system of arguments to show detrimental effects of social media to each individual in a society. It is also harmful to society at large when each individual is easily manipulated.
On the macro-level, Lanier is right that social media as the whole has done more harm than good to society. Yet, on a personal level, I feel so conflicted about deleting one account at at time. For example, I belong to the Facebook generation. Everyone keeps in touch with their friends (childhood friends, college friends, backpacking friends, etc.) on Facebook. It is a casual place to strike a conversation. Now if I close Facebook permanently I dont know what my friends are up to. Keeping in touch with them will be more difficult. Even my parents follow me on Facebook to get a glimpse of what I do sometimes. Then my Twitter account is explicitly used for academic purposes such as following eminent public sociologists, whose ideas, and insights are relevant to my work. Now if I get rid of this channel, I feel as if I dont know what my field is talking about any more. The fear of losing out is taking over my thought processes. Then should I trust Lanier at all if he has never started a social media account to start with?
As a scientist, I see that the book comes short because it only presents a rough sketch of ten arguments with not much substantial evidence. Call me dogmatic if you will, but I would prefer some rigorous research to tease out each one of the ten arguments that Lanier makes. He presents many theories, hypotheses, insider’s information, and sometimes good stories. These hypotheses could be tested in the real world. For example, Argument Five states that “social media is making what you say meaningless.” The logic is that when everyone can broadcast their own opinion, the meaning of what one says decreases significantly. From a neoclassical economic point of view, this makes sense because when there is more supply of words/ messages, the price (here is meaning) of what one has to say should reduce. But how can I see this in real life? Is there a way to quantify meaning? How do I know that social media is the main factor that causes quality of conversation and messages that I broadcast to decrease? Or is it a general trend in an info-glut society, and social media is just one of the many tools that inundate each individual with information? There are too many confounding factors to have a conclusive statement about effects of social media on meaning. That said, I still agree with Lanier that social media plays a decisive role in eroding real and meaningful conversations.
In conclusion, the little book called Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts gives social media users a lot of ideas why they should leave these platforms at least for a brief period of time. As an insider, a computer scientist, and someone who cares about the effects of digital technology on society, Lanier gives us many insights to appreciate. As a social scientist, I think this book contains many valuable hypotheses to test. That is to say, one can use this book as a guide to come up with some extensive research agenda that examines effects of social media on society.