Social media is commonly hailed to be an invention as revolutionary, as the printing press, enabling mass instantaneous communication on a global scale to anyone with internet access. Proclamations that “we are more connected than ever” are not uncommon in our technophilic society that refuses to see any issues inherent to a technology, even if all evidence points to this being the case. One issue that is inherent to this particular kind of technology is that it is destructive to personal, social and environmental health — these problems can not be solved by “improving” said technology, but by ceasing and erasing it, preferably together with the broader system it is a part of.
Social and personal health
We are very obviously not more connected than ever; there is hardly anything lonelier, and disconnected than gazing at a screen, instead of being present for the world around you. Whether it be social media, video games, online entertainment, pornography, many are noticing the negative impacts of these virtual drugs, and an entire economy has formed around the subject of “phone detox,” with books, courses, camps etc. flooding the market, though it should be noted that even with all these services and products being available almost since its inception, no major decrease in social media use has occurred. Looking at the statistics paints a grim reality of a glued-to-the-phone populace: Statista.com claims that as of 2022, the global daily average of social media usage amounted to 147 minutes per day (that’s over ten percent of a day), up from 145 minutes in the previous year.
If we are all so connected, why do Great Britain and Japan feel the need to have a Loneliness Minister? Yes, you heard that right, they have a Loneliness Minister. If digital communication technologies have brought us closer together, why do twelve percent of Americans have literally no friends, an amount that has quadrupled in the past three decades? One would expect that if these moronic pro-tech slogans were correct about connectedness in their assessment, we’d see an improvement, loneliness would be a thing of the past, not the opposite.
It’s, of course, not just that the rise of social networks did not contribute to human well-being, it has actually worsened it considerably on multiple facets.
Needles to say, the so-called “social” platforms seem to bring out the worst in us. Everyone that uses sites like Twitter has probably had a moment of retrospective, where they pondered over what the hell hit them when they posted this or that thing, that they would’ve never said or shown to anyone in person — I certainly am one of those people. My personal description of the Twitter-trance would be: akin to drunkenness, infuriating, irritating, paranoia inducing, and unrestrained, drenched in nervous impulsiveness. Thankfully I came to my senses, and uninstalled this hellish app from my phone, a move that has brought a great amount of tranquillity and emotional equilibrium in my life.
Algorithms on most major social networks are designed specifically to show users content that will likely infuriate them, because (out)rage and anger generate the most engagement, and increase time spent on the site — the process is such that it even changes people through reinforcement learning to be more prone to outrage. No wonder most online discussions are composed of thousands of absolutely deranged takes about the least significant things in the world.
There is a superficial feeling that these interactions are social, yet our brain evidently remains quite unconvinced. We are driven to share as much as possible by our instincts, we feel an urge to win approval of others, to be close to one another, but can only really be satisfied by doing so through unmediated means. When I was young and my parents had just divorced, my mum once handed me her cellphone and said “it’s your dad,” to which I replied by saying “no, that is a phone.” Our subconscious mechanisms know what they need, and that’s not symbols displayed on a glowing plaque of glass, metals, silicone and plastic. However, we still get tricked into believing we can reach fulfilment through symbolic digital means, because we mistake occasional hormonal rewards, resulting from online interactions, for the real deal.
“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” Andy Warhol once remarked, and the statement almost sounds prophetic. With social media’s potential for everyone to become world-famous, a cutthroat race for attention has consumed the lives of many, both literally and figuratively. After all, people who’d actively resist what they perceive as broad societal approval are extremely rare.
A study claiming disclosing information about the self to others is intrinsically rewarding, also mentions that over 80% of all social media posts are just announcements about user’s own experiences. This further suggests we view the digital void into which we scream as valid human company — something that it is obviously not. Authentic interaction is not something that comes in the form of metrics, it can’t be reduced to calculable symbols, which is why all the likes and views and shares provide mere temporary happiness. Because these tiny crumbs of contentment can’t possibly feed us we grow desperate for attention, and focus even more on trying to make something shocking or crazy enough to get enough attention for another fix.
Even a decade ago, when social networks were not nearly as popular as they are now, a woman uploaded a video of herself bragging about stealing a car and committing armed robbery on YouTube. Fast forward to today, and people are risking their lives for attention on one of the most recent virtual scourges: TikTok. One could argue that humans have always done desperate stunts for attention, and this might be true for any civilised mass society that drowns the individual in its crowds, makes him unseen, but it doesn’t change the fact that social platforms have exacerbated it multiple-fold; wanting to be an internet sensation is now almost standard, and the consequences are dire.
Just the list of headlines about death or severe injury, relating to challenges on TikTok could fill a book. A teen girl died from Benadryl (an anti-allergy symptom drug) overdose, after reportedly partaking in a challenge which involves platform users daring each other to take large amounts of the medication, something that can result in seizures and cardiac arrests. An Indonesian man accidentally killed himself by jumping in front of a moving truck for internet fame. A 10 year old boy, a 12 year old boy, and a 10 year old girl, all died while attempting to choke themselves to the point of passing out for “the blackout challenge.” I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point clear. If we were to personify TikTok, he’d be a prolific serial killer who lures in his young impressionable victims with status-related promises, and sadistically convinces them into doing something he knows will cost them their lives, as he watches.
Even extreme amounts of hate and ridicule have been willingly taken on by people due to their insatiable craving for online clout. Trust has been betrayed time and time again, as embarrassing private clips have been released to the public by people’s “friends,” who have given in to temptation.
With all the spectacular, crazy things that circulate around on the internet people also get unrealistic impressions about life, and begin to feel like losers for not living the life they see others lead on the other side of the screen. A girl I talked to complained to me at some point, about how she doesn’t understand how it’s possible for all the people in her Instagram feed to have such interesting, fun, perfect, and amazing lives. I just asked her whether she ever posts the boring, sad, lame moments of her life — her silence made it clear she understood; what we see on social media are by no means accurate depictions of life, they are the most cherry-picked of moments, often distorted to have all the imperfections removed or concealed. I am also reminded of a song by Russian rock band Leningrad, titled Вояж (Voyage) that mockingly asks: for what other reason than taking a selfie on the Eiffel Tower, would we voyage to Paris? So many forget to live in the here-and-now just to try and impress people online.
It really is no wonder that countless folks experience anxiety as a result of social media use, they feel pressured to live and show off an unlivable existence. A survey has discovered that nearly half of participants felt ugly because of what they saw in their feeds, one third of them reported feeling lonely because of the very technology that was supposed to bring us closer — ironic; half of the surveyed also expressed they wished to quit, but had concerns about “staying in touch” with their friends if they did.
Preoccupation with social media driven by feelings of anxiety and jealousy become even harder to escape when mixed with the aforementioned addiction inducing mechanisms. Addiction to this insidious technology is a huge problem, apparently affecting over one third of its users, many of whom also displayed health issues like strain on eyes, increased anger and sleep disturbance. It is so obvious that as time goes on this particular addiction will prove to be a massive problem, that some scientists in Netherlands even developed their own scale for distinguishing between disordered (addicted) and very active non-disordered users of social networks.
Despite social media being a fairly new development, and there isn’t that much information about its long term impacts on health, we have more than enough data to see it’s probably not gonna look good when those effects finally get revealed.
It has been found that Facebook activity negatively correlates with mood, leaving the users with feelings of having wasted their time, after initially assuming they were going to feel better for visiting the site. A linear association has been established between the number of social media platforms one uses and conditions like depression and anxiety; the researchers have even suggested it “may be valuable for clinicians to ask individuals with depression and anxiety about multiple platform use and to counsel regarding this potential contributing factor.” It really is no wonder that users are likely to succumb to such states of mind, when it’s been found out that those people who spend the most time scrolling through social feeds are much more likely to report feeling a lack of belonging or meaningful relationships, and general loneliness, aka perceived social isolation.
With the rise of influencers we have witnessed a sharp uptick in parasocial behaviour, that is being gradually normalised in society due to the sheer scale on which it affects individuals. Young teens carving or tattooing their favourite online person’s name in their skin is a sight not quite as uncommon as it should be. Because the persons exhibiting this behaviour never get to see the ugly sides of the people they grow attached to through screens, it becomes possible to idolise them to unimaginable heights. One site, Onlyfans, has caught my attention for taking parasociality the furthest; users (mostly women) use it to offer paid subscriptions to those who wish to view their pornographic or lewd content, but unlike generic porn sites, it enables customers (mostly men) to pay even for things like private custom messages and videos from these sex workers. It essentially provides an illusion of an ideal relationship for the often desperate customer, commodifying the very notion of it in the process.
When looking at harms of SM we also need to take into account troubles relating to phone and computer use that aren’t specific to social media, but come with it no matter what, because the latter is always bound to devices that enable its use: phones, tablets, computers. Sore eyes, headaches, back pain, sleep problems, etc. are just a few of the most common symptoms of frequent use of digital technology.
Some people in the world of business psychology think that the envy we’re made to feel by our feeds is a good thing for encouraging us to work harder. This clear disregard for people’s well-being, simultaneous with justifying it because it forces us to do something beneficial for the system, is a prime example of the prevailing civilised thought. It matters not how we feel, what matters is that those feelings incentivize us to act in ways that bolster civilisation — or so the narrative goes. Social media serves the Leviathan, so despite all problems associated with it, no critique that seeks to outright destroy it will be taken seriously.
I came across a book by Jaron Lanier titled Ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now, and made the fatal mistake of assuming it was a truly radical critique, considering he might know the ins and outs well as a computer scientist. My mistake. Instead the whole thing is just an expression of a desire for “a humanistic setting [unlike the current setting] for social networking that can direct us toward a richer and fuller way of living and connecting with our world,” as the back cover says. The author dares not commit the heresy of saying that even just one kind of technology is universally bad.
A gap exists between the amount of empirical evidence we have stacked against social media, and the actual popular critique of it. Even though the bad effects of it are sometimes blamed on capitalism or consumerism such critiques, while still being quite surface-level, remain scarce.
No reviews of software for social interaction that I know of have ever made any criticisms beyond “this is glitchy, that is ugly,” which is like criticising Hitler for being rude to his staff, instead of bashing the ideas and actions that lead to all the atrocities of World War Two. This might sound like a far-off comparison, but is actually quite accurate — social media is a tool of authoritarian control and surveillance, and it requires militant resistance, not spineless fellatio-esque reviews.
Control and surveillance
I now expect for all the mostly right-wing folks that have been suspended on Twitter to clap like seals, expecting me to talk about this employment of “censorship,” but I’ll have to disappoint them. While I am certainly not comfortable with the amount of control social media corporations have over public discourse, I find suspensions of people who violate terms of service barely problematic, firstly because it most often hits people who deliberately spread false information in cynical attempts to make money, and secondly because this actually doesn’t have as much effect on public opinion as many like to imagine. Algorithms that wish to present users with most emotionally engaging content are actually behind the souring of the already tragic political landscape, with conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, and the QAnon movement gaining significant traction and following, despite their comically insane beliefs. Such persons and movements only get removed when their behaviour gets too out of hand, and threatens the profits of the platforms they’re using.
George Orwell’s iconic novel, 1984, is often pointed to by idiots whenever a person’s account is suspended on this or that website, as if that person’s entire existence has been deleted. I think that the dystopian world of Oceania (from 1984) does in fact have a relation with social media, however not through businesses having terms of service. The one true parallel is surveillance. Winston (the protagonist) is constantly being watched by the ruling party, not having any privacy whatsoever, which eventually leads to him getting caught having rebellious thoughts, and being brainwashed.
Just like Winston is never let out of sight, we are never let out of sight by our “smart” devices, though not because any law requires us to have them at hand (yet), but because we are dumb enough to chose to. Of course it’s not like living without having these technologies is easy, and if things end up going in this direction it will become increasingly more difficult, as Dr. Theodore J. Kaczynski has pointed out, “[o]nce a technical innovation has been introduced, people usually become dependent on it, so that they can never again do without it, unless it is replaced by some still more advanced innovation.” Think about living without a car or a cellphone; we are being pressured into owning these things because the entire system is becoming dependent on them. Rejecting these technologies is possible, but comes at an enormous social and material cost that the majority will never be willing to pay. Under these conditions it’s not even necessary for phones or social media to be mandatory. I’m sure that if our survival within modern civilisation hadn’t pretty much depended on them, and we just got them handed to us by government institutions, people would have smashed their phones en masse, or at least I hope so.
I am not going to go into the details of the mass surveillance that is being conducted on a global scale by various governments, as nothing beats the experience of actually going through all the leaked documentation provided by whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. Just know that your computer or phone is about the least safe place for hiding literally anything.
Social networks play a tremendous role in gathering information about populations, as they get fed unprecedented loads of it by perfectly willing users. Even shady tactics like clipboard snooping that TikTok and other popular apps do is not truly needed. When millions use social media for all their daily communication and attention-seeking activities they are generating a database that any previous state could have only dreamt of having. More and more data is also accessed by special features that the masses brainlessly opt for, such as allowing apps to know their location, allowing them access to their photos, the camera, the microphone etc., and then analysed extensively by algorithms in the name of profit. The said data can be, of course taken by government agencies whenever they please.
Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg was correct in his assertion that privacy is a social norm of the past. Not only are people carelessly sharing information about themselves with third parties, they seem surprisingly indifferent about it — perhaps because it’s just too hard to imagine and process the simple, yet terrifying fact, that your phone is an equivalent of some shady guy awkwardly crouching behind you as you talk to your friends, family and/or partner. If social media continues to exist, we will also continue down the path it had laid down for us; the system just benefits far too much from having everyone both addicted and dependant on a technology that controls and spies on them. As time has shown, not even the privacy-oriented software can ever be truly trusted.
Another concern also roams the space outside the domains of immediate individual and societal harm: the ecological impact of social networking. It has been said that a person’s use of just using ten (select) social media sites for five minutes every day generates 20 more kilograms of carbon emissions then what would otherwise be put out; your average person spends much longer than that scrolling in their favourite pseudo-social hellhole.
Time of use and consequentially the energy cost are likely to increase though, not just because of the expected trajectory available data puts us on, but because technological projects that aim to mediate our social interaction are increasing in complexity. One particularly bothersome project is Meta’s (Facebook’s renamed parent company’s) attempt to create a metaverse — an iteration of the internet as one whole, universal world that is made fully immersive by technologies like virtual and augmented reality — that will undoubtedly make the situation worse, not just for the biosphere, but also for the idiots who’ll attempt to find an escape from this miserable reality in a virtual fantasy-land, instead of revolting against the Machine.
In a similar manner that social media’s effects on health cannot be separated from the health hazards of phone and computer use, the existence of social media and its negative environmental impact cannot be assessed separately from the damage caused by the technologies enabling its existence. The aforementioned server-related emissions are just one part of the picture.
Production of technological goods like mining of metal, refining that results in sights like the giant toxic black lake outside Baotou, Mongolia, are all devastating enough already. BBC described the place as a sulphur-smelling, dystopian “artificial lake filled with a black, barely-liquid, toxic sludge,” just outside the city-sized industrial complex that dominates the horizon of a grey, washed-out sky.
When tech products expire, often quickly, they end up in landfills where they decay and poison the soil and water; out of sight, out of mind. There is no green alternative neither to this, nor to energy production. It is absolutely laughable to think that some believe working from home will save the planet.
Mentioning the metaverse almost doesn’t go without thinking about the teleology of technology, because it plays into what its goal seems to be way too perfectly.
If we think of technology as a self-propagating system, its goals can be quickly revealed through historical analysis. Even simple tools are far from innocent when it comes to taking control over man, but as their complexity increases, so does its totalitarian rule. Jacques Ellul adequately summed it up, in his otherwise lengthy work, The technological society, by asking and answering this rhetorical question: “The tool enables man to conquer. But, man, dost thou not know there is no more victory which is thy victory? The victory of our days belongs to the tool.”
Ellul argues in his work that what could be described as the technological system, is actually a totality hellbent on achieving ultimate efficiency, regardless of whether this benefits humans — its primary concern is with itself. What differentiates it from biological self-propagating systems like animals is, that nothing is enough for it; once the lions have had their meal, antelopes can waltz in front of their noses, and they will not care, as they are full, unlike the gullet of Leviathan that can never get tired of swallowing.
This striving for maximum efficiency can be traced down to its origins. Even though we are capable of tearing apart meat with our own hands and teeth, our ancestors must have found the use of sharp(ened) stones to be more efficient. Everything that followed was really just built on this material and ideological foundation of substituting/replacing our biological bodies with something that does our job better.
It is not hard to conceive where social media’s place in this is. It’s a supplementary reality into which the system wishes to drag the living world, unfit for the abuses it inflicts on it. We are herded around by various technological products, being moulded and manipulated to help increase technology’s efficiency up to the point at which it can hope it’ll reach independence from us — the point where we and/or life itself becomes substituted fully.
Why go on dates and have a partner, if you can just get the “good bits” of a relationship on Onlyfans, at the tip of your fingers, so you can stay focused on work? Why meet up with friends, when you can just text them all day while doing other things? These are the sale pitches of the system’s pernicious tendrils, seeking to exploit every waking second of one’s existence for its cause. The lonely and miserable civilised humans are preyed upon with promises of community and connection, vital things that civilisation has stolen from us.
Each alienated individual in this Machine is a cog that can go astray at any moment, so controlling him is of crucial importance. This includes providing him with distractions, keeping him from questioning anything of great importance, and knowing what his moves might be if he does revolt, as he goes through the torturous ordeal of civilised life. Social media is good at creating a distraction, at obtaining sensitive information, at alienating and making one live a more efficient lifestyle. If the metaverse can ever reach similar mass appeal of the contemporary social media humans will be exploited, surveilled and controlled even more than now, as they will be operating in a virtual reality, entirely constructed by computer programmes.
Believe it or not, but at the early stages of industrial age, workers came to work and went away quite casually, until clocks became commonplace, and timetables were introduced, which served to break and further domesticate people by subjecting them to the tyranny of time measurement. Clocks then moved from walls to wrists, like shackles, and now we wear around a device that makes us constantly available to the needs of Leviathan’s machinery. I can still recall how purchasing a phone brought me nothing but complaints from people that I’m not answering their calls and messages as quickly as they’d want me to. Social media is the next step in this perverse evolution.
None of the listed technologies are good for us, but we keep peddling the myth of progress. Humanity is collectively afflicted with Stockholm syndrome, and this affliction needs to end for the sake of life and independence. Technology, and therefore social media, is no benign god, nor our servant, it is our most ruthless captor. Jumping in an abuser’s embrace is not how you escape your relationship with it. What is happening to us should not drive us into a coping frenzy that can be exploited by the very force that’s generating our problems; we should not try to create an illusion of happiness through (online) entertainment, we should not pretend that lousy text messages and emojis amount to companionship and closeness; it is necessary to scrape off the facade, experience the horror of this reality to the fullest, see it for the abomination that it is, and act appropriately — destroy what destroys you!
In his 1909 short story, The machine stops, E. M. Forster describes a dystopian world of people living in underground pods, communicating with eachother only through social-media-like technology. Quite chillingly prophetic. An outside world exists, but living in it is considered impossible due to the dependency these people have on the Machine. People are toothless, bald, pale, weak, sheltered creatures terrified of direct experience. What is left of the natural world is considered silly by these frail beings, and the Machine is considered divine. When the immense technological system inevitably collapses there is mass death among these folks, and they realise how important their connection to the wild (as opposed to artificial) world actually was. My hope is we can bring down our Machine before the potential for wildness in us is extinguished to such an extent, and before the wilderness to which we can return to is gone.
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