Sunday, September 27, 2020

Social Media is not the Root Problem

It's easy to blame social media for everything wrong in the U.S. today: the political polarization, the inward focus, the short attention span. And of course, it's part of all these problems, any of which we could look at in more depth. However, I believe that social media exploded as an attempted work-around for problems that already existed in society.

By the time personal computer access became wide-spread, followed by the rapid development of the smartphone, U.S. society was already fragmented. Again, many factors played a part in this, many of them economic. More people were working less regular schedules, more of them had multiple jobs, more of them were moving around to follow employment. This always existed, but as government polices began the process of dismantling social safety nets and privileging corporate interests, widening the gaps and destabilizing the middle class, it began to affect more and more people. Many factors work against social cooperation and promote an individualist, "go it alone" mentality.

As a quick piece of evidence, Robert D. Putnam's best-selling book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, came out in 2000, and was an expansion of an essay from 1995 on this very subject. To let Wikipedia do the work for me, "Putnam surveys the decline of social capital in the United States since 1950. He has described the reduction in all the forms of in-person social intercourse upon which Americans used to found, educate, and enrich the fabric of their social lives. He argues that this undermines the active civil engagement which a strong democracy requires from its citizens." 

The first version of Facebook didn't exist until 2003, the same year pioneering social media site MySpace started. Twitter launched in 2006. While cellphones existed, the smartphone as we know it didn't exist in the U.S. until after Putnam's book came out. 

While there's evidence that our clicking and scrolling feeds endorphins in the brain and whatnot, making them psychologically addicting, I think it's also true that the development of these social media fed the social needs that had been lost in society at large. And, sure, probably exacerbated them later. But what I mean is: people already felt separated and isolated before these technologies came along, which was part of the appeal for joining them. 

In many ways, the structure of society has changed, and we haven't come to grips with the effects of this. For example, in general, people are much less likely to know their neighbors than they once were. People move around more. When I was growing up, "house flipping" wasn't a concept. Not saying it's wrong, just a sign of changing attitudes towards the purpose of property, as an investment rather than a home that people would put down roots in.

At various places I've worked, the old-timers have had stories about the social events, formal and informal, that used to be supported by the organization, before rapid turnover, policy changes, etc. squashed all this socializing as unnecessary or inefficient, and mostly something individuals do completely apart from work. 

Anecdotally: even the college alumni organization my parents belonged to was very different from the ones that were offered to me. Theirs included regular physical social gatherings, and personal participation, Christmas card lists, etc., that were largely run by alumni volunteers. While the social, keep-in-touch element of the old organization was largely in support of underlying fund-raising for the campus, by the time I graduated, alumni organizations seemed to exist solely for fund-raising. It had all been professionalized, so I got generic fund-raising form letters, and occasionally an invitation to a golf outing. This was one of the types of social capital that had declined, from something people actively participated in, to something that was being marketed to us.

When social media came along, it was embraced as a way to counteract this isolating tendency in modern life. It made it easier to keep in touch with people who had moved, friends and family both, and that's still one of its primary benefits. You could find old friends that had drifted away in the currents of time. As the internet developed, it became a way to connect with people who have common interests, some of whom might become actual friends. 

If people hadn't felt so much of this need, social media might have become a passing trend, like CB radios. Instead, it's become a major factor in life, and the downsides -- encouraging short attention spans and reaction without reflection -- have become evident. It can be depressing to find out that you and people you care about have drifted apart for good reasons. But social media use is less the source of our problems than a self-medication for our real problems, which are a lot more complicated, and will take more work to overcome.

Food for thought. Don't forget to like and subscribe, LOL.