The effect of social media: “Bury my art at wounded me.”
Facebook and other social media networks are under attack, not from enemies but former friends. Business Insider informs us that Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, is appalled by the Frankenstein’s monster he has unleashed: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
And in The Guardian we learn that Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice-president for user growth, complained: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”
Parker analyzed it as the exploitation of “a vulnerability in human psychology.” We expect technology to make life easier and protect us and for social media to bring us together. How could it be that the effect is to make people more vulnerable, literally more easily wounded by unforeseen events (vulnus = wound in Latin)? Perhaps we need to review the definition of vulnerability.
From a social media marketing point of view, here is its 3D definition:
The much sought after fragile, influenceable state of a media’s potential audience, who may thus be exposed and easily succumb to the pressure of both the marketing and social forces that are seeking to manipulate their emotions for profit or control
Facebook is embarrassed by the accusation of aggravating the vulnerability of its public. Faced with the criticism of its former employees, the Menlo Park company has offered this official statement: “Facebook was a very different company back then, and as we have grown, we have realized how our responsibilities have grown too. We take our role very seriously and we are working hard to improve.”
The first argument in its defense resembles that of sexual predators, from Kevin Spacey to Donald Trump: This is old news. It all happened so long ago. The second argument consists of protestations and promises of improvement. The Beatles summed it up back in the days of Sergeant Pepper:
“I’ve got to admit it’s getting better (Better)
A little better all the time (can’t get no worse)
I used to be cruel to my woman
I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved
Man I was mean but I’m changing my scene
And I’m doing the best that I can.”
Once upon a time media — whether it was newspapers, radio or television — retained the idea that people would pay for reliable information. That didn’t mean that in the good old days all information was equally reliable or that some vital information people should be aware of wasn’t neglected. It meant the professionals in the news media believed they had a serious role to play in the community by conveying reliable information. It was a kind of social contract based on an implicit notion of trust.
Most observers agree that this has changed radically in recent decades. Following the logic of free enterprise and defending shareholder interest, all commercial media are now focused on one thing: getting the biggest audience possible. Establishing the belief that they are committed to the truth may be important for their image of some news organizations, but, when push comes to shove, the truth itself takes a back seat to the race for ratings. This means more advertising revenue. And the media have discovered that certain market segments they target have their own way of defining the truth, whether it’s based on reality or something totally imaginary.
If this primary commitment to a consuming audience and only secondary commitment to the truth defines commercial media today — from Fox News, to CNN and MSNBC, to cite only American media — the phenomenon is aggravated in social media, where any source can be considered an equally reliable vector of truth. If enough people “like” something, it must be valid, if not absolutely true. Everyone is pitching to be heard, liked, shared, retweeted and believed.
Social media networks encourage the accumulation of contacts, links and friends. When you don’t even know who most of your “friends” are, the real becomes surreal. The “social environment” you believe you are occupying — to cite an older song than The Beatles’ — becomes “a Barnum and Bailey world, just as phony as it can be.” And as in Harold Arlen’s song, it all depends on everyone’s desire at least to be believed in. As Arlen concludes, “but it wouldn’t be make believe if you believe in me.”
Should we be surprised by the result? Social media are designed to cultivate vulnerability.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.