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What Social Media Cannot Do
A Story in 3 Parts
#1) Social media cannot effect meaningful change.
Since the internet became a mass phenomenon in the mid-90s or so, there’s been this committed effort to see the technology as a revolutionary tool, an effort to almost will into being new political possibilities owing to digital interconnectivity. During the Arab Spring the press was filled with breathless claims that social media had created that movement, all facts to the contrary. And with Twitter in particular you see this dogged insistence that simply by creating an audience for regular people there’s some sort of egalitarian power at play. But 20 years after MySpace began the first real social media craze, I think it’s safe to say that the jury has come back in: social media can’t make anything happen. It can occasionally ruin the life of individuals, almost none of them powerful or rich, but it can’t create any structural change. How could it ever? Sure, a completely random regular person can suddenly have an audience in the hundreds of thousands on Twitter, if things break right. But so what?
#2) Social media cannot create good writers or thinkers.
#3) Social media cannot make people happy.
Social media isn’t like rat poison, which is toxic to almost everyone. It’s more like alcohol: a mildly addictive substance that can enhance social situations but can also lead to dependency and depression among a minority of users…
Why would social media affect teenage mental health in this way? One explanation is that teenagers (and teenage girls in particular) are uniquely sensitive to the judgment of friends, teachers, and the digital crowd. As I’ve written, social media seems to hijack this keen peer sensitivity and drive obsessive thinking about body image and popularity. The problem isn’t just that social media fuels anxiety but also that—as we’ll see—it makes it harder for today’s young people to cope with the pressures of growing up.
There are three main defenses of current social media technology. First, we are told that it’s a necessary mechanism of democracy and activism, giving a voice to the common people to speak truth to power. Second, we are told that the writing and journalism economy has permanently evolved so that if you want the best information and the best access to the best thinking, you need to be plugged into these channels. Third, we are told that if nothing else, social media connects us to each other and cultivates friendship and makes us happier.
All three of these defenses are essentially appeals to effectiveness. Social media makes you, reader, more effective in your activism, more effective in your writing and news-reading, and more effective in your social life.
If these defenses were true, we would expect to see a cultural climate much different than the one we have.
We would expect to see a dynamic generation of culture changers who use technology to build alliances and bolster leadership. What we actually see is a decadent political culture, beholden to the Boomer generation, and a multiplicity of outrage contests and cancellations toward people who have no meaningful power.
We would expect to see an information economy that is sharp and fact-based, wielding the Internet powerfully to uncover the truth behind the spin and a cacophony of voices interrogating official narratives in all corners. What we actually see is a journalism industry that needs clickbait, needs to make non-news into news, and needs to gatekeep journalistic prestige through personality subcultures.
We would expect to see an unprecedented age of connectedness, especially between the sexes, and a vibrant Gen-Z whose blossoming friendships are creating a strong social of cultural cohesion and mobility in society. What we actually see is desperately lonely country, filled with people who don’t know how to talk to one another, much less marry each other.
So the question is: If social media cannot do these things—what, exactly, can it do?