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Malignant Social Media

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Last November, two former Facebook executives lambasted social media in a pair of scathing, and unrelated comments.

The language of these criticisms is likely to raise some eyebrows, especially when they're coming from a couple of Silicon Valley venture capitalists who made fortunes at the company.

Chamath Palihapitiya, the former vice president for user growth, spoke at a business conference at Stanford University in which he took aim at Facebook and the entire internet ecosystem: "The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we've created are destroying how society works," he said. "No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. This is a global problem."

Media mogul Sean Parker—the founding president of Facebook, whose involvement with the company made him a billionaire—characterized Facebook's design as intentionally addictive, intended to exploit "vulnerabilities in human psychology."

"It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other," he said at an Axios event in Philadelphia. "It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains."

Decrying the evils of social media is hardly a new phenomenon. Even casual users of the mediasphere are probably well aware of all the commentary going on—ranging from gentle reminders to put the phone down, to bleak proclamations of the future bordering on apocalypse.

Still, the scathing comments of former Facebook bigwigs isn't anything to sneeze at. Social media—love it or hate it, or both as likely is the case for most of us—is only going to become more significant and valuable in our day-to-day lives. Individuals across the internet took time to speak their minds regarding the issue of net neutrality—including your humble writer—which poses the question, why would they speak out if they didn't feel the internet was too intrinsic for modern society to be tampered with? The internet is just too big of a beast for it to be allowed to fail. And social media, for better or worse, is a large part of that.

As we head into 2018, it may be a good idea to take a look at a few areas of concern with social media. Some are grievances since the advent of the Information Age, others are only now coming into focus.

Social Media use can lead to mental disorders

This probably isn't the first time you've come across this concept. As corroborated by numerous studies, long-term, consistent social media use tends to have something of a corrosive effect on the psyche. It can sap feelings of happiness or contentment, invoke unwarranted feelings of envy, inadequacy, and may create false or shallow impressions of personal connections that can't replace real, face-to-face interactions.

If left unchecked, these issues can manifest into genuine psychological disorders such as varying forms of anxiety, clinical depression or, in a few cases, even body dysmorphia. The top five major social media sites—with the exception of YouTube—were all judged to incur a net negative impact on their users, with Instagram taking the crown for most detrimental site.

This points to the root cause of user unhappiness: evaluations based on imperfect personal realities that don't measure up to the curated, inaccurate presentations of others' lives. In a cyber-universe where images are paramount, the impulse to give a good impression often leads to altered or—if we're being honest—fraudulent portrayals of the self. Even the most authentic profile pictures are typically viewed through filters and subtle edits. On the other hand, technology has reached a point where many images are so photoshopped that it would make a Hollywood CGI techie blush.

Beyond that, it's important to remember that people rarely post negative or mundane aspects of their lives to social media. There's nothing inherently wrong with that—good news is worth sharing—but it can create false perceptions where social media entities live more perfect and exciting lives than their real-world counterparts. As a rule of thumb, social media is like a highlight reel—it typically shows the high points, but not the low points of a person's life. For those of us scrolling through Facebook at home, the uglier side of the coin just isn't there to be viewed, while at the same time we're painfully aware of the problems in our own life that balances out the good.

Social Media is like an addictive, mind-altering drug

Dopamine. Readers may be unfamiliar with the term, but they're definitely familiar with the feeling. It's like a little shot of happiness and, yes, like any other stimulant it can become habit-forming and susceptible to increasing levels of tolerance, which necessitates more hits to get a "high." Because these highs are mostly short, momentary experiences, people naturally gravitate toward high-volume and repetitive behaviors—and there you have "upvote" society in a nutshell.

It turns happiness into a numerical value. People understand that dopamine rushes are tied in with getting "likes" or "hearts" or other forms of validation, such as comments or shares. Less well known is that watching a looping GIF or short YouTube clips or clicking a link, even simply refreshing a page, can give a similar boost. It's like staring into a strobe-light, getting brain synapses fired over and over again, for artificial pleasure.

It's an ecosystem that rewards instant gratification in short rapid bursts. Not only is this habit-forming, which may explain why hours can go by on social media without any substantive accomplishments being made, but it's also affecting our cognitive abilities. Average attention spans are reportedly dipping below that of your typical goldfish, or about eight seconds. Our ability to recall bits of information like dates, names, series of numbers or small details are hampered.

Above all, this overload of stimuli can cause a kind of psychological paralysis where the mind is trapped in a static loop, not fully at rest nor fully alert. This may cause insomnia, a lack of personal drive, an inability to concentrate or focus and inhibit the ability to read, work or pursue activities for personal enjoyment.

Social Media is deepening the political divide

No, this is not a tirade on thousands of political Facebook ads tied to the Kremlin propaganda machine—however, it's important to note that social media may have played an important role in recent elections and will continue to gain prominence as larger portions of the voting population rely on sites like Facebook, Reddit or Twitter for their information.

It just means voter manipulation happens in a different way. This issue is not so much about partisan actors manipulating the system, but partisan disconnect as the result of "bubbles" or "echo chambers" we're being corralled into.

The term "fake news" gets tossed around a lot, mostly as a cop out or deflection by politicians, but there is credence to its usage in a number of cases. One concern is that social media has little in the way of vetting news sources, which places the onus on readers/viewers to verify what is genuine journalism or sensationalist dribble. The 2016 election revealed there were plenty of sites that peddled patently false information; a scheme designed to draw recipients in and push an agenda or accrue revenue, although these sites were designed in such a way to appear professional and trustworthy.

Now, while this is an issue, it pales in comparison to the possible damages caused by algorithms already in place. Facebook specifically has functions that funnels content it believes a person wants to see based on their user history. As such, typically conservative users will likely see increasingly conservative-leaning articles, posts and commentaries. The same goes for typically liberal users, or users of any political inclination for that matter.

The result is a cultivated bubble where the only news or political content is processed through biased lens the viewer sympathizes with—irrespective of the legitimacy, bias or motive of the information source. As social media traffic during the 2016 election cycle indicated, not only does this reinforce bias, it promotes increasingly radical positions while blocking or suppressing opposing viewpoints. It creates an echo chamber.

With these algorithms in place, political discourse—where both sides have a common basis of facts and understanding on which to ground their discussion upon—is likely to suffer for the sake of self-affirmation. That's a natural byproduct of Facebook's functions currently in place, however it also does pose disturbing questions about how these functions could be manipulated to sway public opinion without their knowledge or consent.

Social Media is a crisis of privacy infringement

This last one is more a matter of perspective: whether you fall in the camp that believes no one should have unfettered access to your personal information, or if you fall in the camp that believes that real privacy is largely a thing of the past. It's only a crisis if you care.

How do social media sites infringe on a person's privacy? By taking every tiny factoid you type on your keyboard—whether its your biographical information, work history, tracking your Google and shopping searches, recording the sites you visit and how much time you spend on them, analyzing your profile's traffic, dissecting your posts, connecting this information in relation to your location, your communities and your friends, etc.—and feeding all this data to advertisers for a price.

In general, a good rule of thumb to remember is if the site is free and they're making a profit, the product they're selling is you.

Of course, this can come back to haunt a social media user in little time, often because the tracking methods extend far beyond the social media site. A post regarding the new "Star Wars" film may lead to a mysterious uptick in "Star Wars" ads that jam up one's newsfeed. After a quick Google search for kayaks or distant travel locations, users shouldn't be surprised to see advertisements for outdoor sports equipment or Alaskan cruises dotting their side bars.

However, how much of this corporate invasiveness is convenient or predatory is a matter for debate.

Social Media is what you make it

In closing, it should be noted that all of these concerns arise when people use social media too much. Networking, like any other activity, is best in moderation, especially if all the benefits can be enjoyed while unwanted side effects are mitigated.

The point is that social media is a good, practical extension of one's life as long as it remains just that: an extension, not the focus of your daily routine.

So, as the calendar shifts from 2017 to 2018, it might be wise to put the tablet or phone down and take more time to interact with the real, tectile world. Set aside time to disconnect yourself and pursue activities that aren't dependent on a data bandwidth or a Wi-Fi modem. Give your mind a chance to rest. Allow yourself to be bored from time to time. Go for a run. Get a good night's sleep. Read a book. Enjoy the company of loved ones. The mediasphere will still be there, waiting for your return.

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