Social Media - The Dangerous Obsession?

Jaron Lanier and Russell Brand aren’t often mentioned in the same sentence.

The former is a hippy coder with who was part of the Silicon Valley scene since the earliest days; now a leader in virtual reality, he heads up Microsoft’s VR development; and he is a deep thinker about all things digital. He writes books. He loves playing obscure instruments such as the Latvian mouth flute. He has been a goatherd and an assistant midwife. He meditates.

We all know Russell Brand and have watched him move from comedian to actor to social activist with a mix of surprise and admiration.

Last week I listened to both talking on very different stages about addiction and social media.

Russell was at Stylist Live in Olympia, talking to Stylist’s editor, Lisa Smosarski about his addictions. He has been as open about his addictive personality as he has about everything else in his life. His addictions have encompassed chocolate, drugs, pornography, alcohol, fame and sex.

Now he has added social media to the list.

Russell explained just how powerful a drug social media platforms are for him with their instant hits of audience response, be that love or hate, hero worship or derision. “People are reacting to what I think and say. I must be important. And then I need another hit. And another... I am just an extreme version of us all.” Russell must ration his time on social media otherwise he can easily lose day after day wrapped up in this addictive interplay.

"Just stop doing it. Get off those networks."

Jaron Lanier was on a very different stage – the Emmanuel Centre near Westminster – talking to the BBC’s deep voiced, poker-faced economics correspondent, Kamal Ahmed. Quotations from the bible rose high above him.

Lanier has long argued that social media has deeply addictive qualities built into its algorithms. This is inevitable, he argues, since the companies that run them are commercial beasts motivated to addict you. He argues that social media companies are the new tobacco companies.

“Just stop doing it. Get off those networks. It is the only way, I am telling you. There is an instant feedback loop built in and you’re just a lab rat when you’re on these things.”

This may sound extreme but let me explain Lanier’s argument, one that he has been making for a decade, since the early days of social media when such voices of concern were almost non-existent.

Engagement is at the heart of social media. Facebook and Snap need their users to come back more often to spend more and more time with their services. Audience time is the source of everything for the platforms – more time spent means more learning about users’ habits, interests and attitudes, it means more media consumed, more advertising served, more revenue and more opportunity to test out new ideas and to see how the user reacts to them. It also embeds the services ever deeper into users lives, allowing fresh services such as messenger and the attached payment services to be built on top.

Social media owners are driven to make people as committed to their services as is possible. They will, therefore, use mechanisms to make them as addictive as possible. “What more is an engaged audience in a social media world other than one that is progressively more and more addicted to the service?” Lanier asks.

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop… exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

Sean Parker, an important figure in the early development of Facebook, memorably played by Justin Timberlake in the Social Network backed up Lanier’s argument two weeks ago.

“How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” This was this mindset that led to the creation of features such as the ‘like’ button that would give users “a little dopamine hit” to encourage them to upload more content.
“It’s a social-validation feedback loop… exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

It is this vulnerability to a constant flow of mini dopamine hits that Lanier saw early on. Unlike traditional media, where the programme maker, advertiser or writer is engaged in a constant creative process to keep the audience involved and has only a rough guide of audience response through time-lagged viewing figures or sales, the feedback of social media is instant, allowing the platform owner to constantly and instantly test your response to whatever stimulus they choose to try out on you.

Lanier takes this a step further; a step that has particular importance for those like Russell Brand, who hold strong opinions and are politically engaged. The algorithms behind social media are naturally designed to create engagement and, Lanier predicted, would naturally use content that is defining and tribal to generate more response and more engagement from other, conflicting tribes. In a world of deep political fissures, be it Brexit or immigration or Donald Trump, the algorithms will naturally grow them as a mechanism to achieve their own purpose – more time, more interaction, more engagement.

After the talk, Simon Terrington, my friend and former business partner and I were discussing Lanier’s solution in the well-fed, liberal sanctum that is the Cinnamon Club. Lanier argues that the best solution is the market. We should all have the choice to pay say $5 per annum for social media platforms that don’t collect data, don’t apply algorithms to learn how we react and think and don’t have targeted advertising. This was his only solution apart from dropping off the social media grid. This sounded naïve to us. We all know the power of free for the consumer. And $5 per user does not look very attractive to Facebook Inc shareholders in a world where Facebook’s average revenue per user has already broken this level globally and has reached $21.20 in the United States and Canada.

FacebookARPU

So what are the other options? Regulate the way Facebook operates or the extent to which is able to collect and use consumer data? That would be a huge task and one that would require an exceptional regulator with a team that could understand the dynamics of the code of Facebook. It is hard to imagine that could ever be done by a single, domestic regulator. Perhaps the European Commission might have the strength to take on Facebook but it looks way beyond the powers of a domestic regulator such as OFCOM.

As two middle-aged men remembered the highly regulated media of their childhood, one in which the arrival of a fourth channel with strict public service programming objectives seemed like a huge increase in choice, the table next door overheard our conversation and joined in. They had been to the same talk and left with equally big questions and no clear answers. They remembered an even more restricted environment even more influenced by public service values.

Should perhaps the most psychologically powerful form of mass media yet to be created be controlled entirely by a handful of companies and a few dozen executives in California, entirely outside the influence of government? How would we feel if Facebook was a Chinese or Russian-owned company?

Our two tables combined to have a great discussion. We found no satisfactory solution. It was a pity to leave but it was getting late.

The couple asked our names. By the time I got home the couple had used the best platform available to keep in touch at an appropriate distance and to share ideas and thoughts without meeting up.

I had pressed ‘accept’ and had two new friends on Facebook.

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About Tim Ewington

Co-founder of Shortlist Media. Previously co-founder of media strategy consultancy, Human Capital. Still innovating, consulting and investing.
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