Counterfactuals about Social Media

Response To (Marginal Revolution): Counterfactuals about Social Media

See also: Against FacebookAgainst Facebook: Comparison to Alternatives and Call to Action

The idea that the primary problem with such programs is ‘they make political fights weird’ or that ‘they enable censorship’ is to miss the bigger problem. Social media is ruining our lives. Directly.

They also degenerate our politics. That’s mostly a side effect.

Social media succeeds largely because of network effects. One uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or the others mostly because others you want to interact with are using them.

Many people know social media to be terrible for them and for their lives. Many people know Facebook is terrible, in particular (whether or not the photo-based Snapchat and Instagram, which my circles never used, are even worse, as I suspect they are). Many of those would love a better alternative.

But coordination is hard. By the time many people figured this out, it was too late.

Shifting the equilibrium by force is a reasonable response.

Even if it wasn’t too late, it’s not clear many or even a majority of people knowing it is a trap are enough to stop the trap. If Facebook is where the discussions are, and Facebook is where your friends are, that is where you will be unless you are willing to pay a heavy price. The default outcome is for Facebook to continue optimizing for its usage and revenue in ways that make our lives worse, until most people are worse off than without social media and know it, but think they are better off than if everyone else was on social media without them.

I did manage to get a bunch of my friends and readers off of Facebook, such that the equilibrium shifted to a better one. It can be done. But it is damn hard.

These companies also are engaging in a bunch of profit-maximizing and power-maximizing actions, like not letting users have control over what they see, that force users to learn to do what Facebook wants and be who Facebook wants them to be, addicts constantly producing free content. All communication between friends becomes optimized to reinforce the platform. The system rewards and shows all communication based on its anticipated reinforcement of user addictive behavior. This declares war for coalition politics and playing popularity and social games, and war against truth or any attempt to accurately map or model the world. 

And yes, at some point (if they haven’t already) they will increasingly inevitably use that power more explicitly. To favor people and ideas and information they like over others they don’t. In ways far less nice than censoring ‘hate groups’ and ‘obscenity.’ To directly guide us and tell us what to think.

I don’t know what ‘censorship’ means in a world where a self-reinforcing algorithm determines whether or not anyone sees your post, ever, if it doesn’t mean what we already have.

Unless it is the distinction between ‘no one sees your post’ and ‘no one sees your post and the system punishes you for posting it, and we’re not just talking about making all your posts less visible.’ Which is, for now, an important difference, but less important and less sharp than one might think.

Where everyone is forced to look at a constant stream of low-bandwidth clay tablets chosen by a company with a profit motive, because the only way anyone sees anything is to look at the clay tablets, and we have the technology to use pen and paper and address letters, but you can’t because no one checks their mailbox, then yes you should go after the companies making the clay tablets. You definitely should not ‘equip yourself to win the hearts and minds of the people using the tactics of clay tablets.’

What we should infer about the intellectual vigor of a society that does so is that they recognize that the organizational forms of information matter and are worth fighting for.

What we should infer about the intellectual vigor of a society that chooses instead to fight with clay tablets is that they care about winning hearts and minds. Good. But they do not look at the big picture, and they can’t coordinate.

Suppose television was as bad as its earlier critics said it was. That it rots brains, turns people passive, eats their lives, makes them less happy over time. This does not seem like an unlikely hypothesis. Do you like it when you see your kids watching? Should we have done something about it when we had the chance? Were the regulations we did put on it, to require actions in the public service and prevent obscene and inappropriate content, bad for the people? Should we have just let whoever first thought to run stations run wild? Should we have done far more?

Do past examples show that such technologies can’t be improved, in their impact on us, by smart intervention? That we shouldn’t try?

So, what is to be done?

You, yes you, should abandon Facebook and its ilk to the extent feasible in your life. Encourage others to do the same and provide real incentives and reasons. Be willing to pay a real price for all this. See my previous articles on the subject.

But what is to be done as a society? With our collective action and enforcement mechanisms?

At a minimum, we should require that users have full control over the form with which they interact with major social media platforms.

They should be required to use open protocols that allow third parties to see all information the user has access to. Organize it in the way the user wants. Combine it with information from other sources and platforms. Sort and present it in chronological order, threaded order, specified priority order, a chosen machine learning algorithm with goals the user shares, or anything else the user desires. It must also allow users to post back to the platforms, including comments and reactions and everything else one can in theory do on a platform. It must be impossible for others to know which one you are using.

People could try RSS feeds, emails, email digests, custom apps and websites and programs. They could be as exact or as broad as desired. Over very little time, many free, open and very good alternatives would arise. So would a few paid ones, up to and including ‘have someone else whose job it is to read all this and curate it for me and their other clients.’

We should also ban especially vicious brain-hacking techniques like the ‘snap streak’ that reward periodic repetition of behavior to build habits. Anything that makes people feel like they have to log in constantly.

Tumblr’s requirement that each comment quote the entire post, the impossibility of reasonable sorting, and its relative ease of using photographs and videos versus text, lead to one type of social group and interaction. Facebook’s system does a second. Twitter’s does a third. Blogging does a fourth, Instagram a fifth, email a sixth, and so on. All are very different from each other. The details of the platform we use to communicate have profound impacts on how we talk, how our social groups function and how our lives work. We have a choice. We need to care, and choose wisely, how we put ‘all our ideas out there.’ 

Social media lives on network effects. Thus, we can impose rules on it. Hopefully we use that power to make the services compatible with life, and not for censorship. So far, it seems we only use that power for censorship.

The counterargument is that between different requirements, rules and jurisdictions, all we would do is impose increasingly onerous and contradictory requirements (see European privacy regulation) that would keep out challengers and reinforce the current monopoly. That’s what regulation does by default. So we should keep a light touch as much as possible, if only to discourage other actions in the future.

What would happen if we outright banned Facebook and other major incumbents?

My guess is social disruption on the order of a week, net improvement on the order of months as groups use more healthy mechanisms and the successor states are forced to fight for users.

If all we did was clear out current incumbents, we probably end up back where we started as clones rise up as the natural coordination points. People want what they’re comfortable with, so Facebook clones fight to be the new Facebook, Snapchat/Instagram clones fight to be the new that, and so on. We already see some of that with Tumblr. There would still be shifts towards healthier platforms, such as blogs and email, that survived the purge, and those effects would persist long term.

If we alter what is permitted in ways that effectively ban similar replacements, there will be an innovation race to find what is still allowed. In the meantime, the things that survived – presumably email, blogs, message boards and RSS, at a minimum – would have a window to regain coordination power and have the edge of being refined versions. People’s lives would be destroyed much less.

I don’t see how the threat of censorship gets worse by taking out the people doing the censorship.

I do think that we mostly can shut them down, and we might. Social media lives on network effects. It can’t do its job underground. Depending on what exactly we ban, and what we allow, it could be a great boon. But it would come at the cost of the precedent, the growth in government power and the resulting decay of our basic freedoms. Let us stay as much a nation of laws, not men, as we can.

There’s also risk that we end up doing what most regulations actually do, which is favor those with money and power and the ear of the legislature, and we end up even more captured by monopoly. That the law tries to dictate what comes next, imposes a bunch of terrible rules, and everything gets far worse. I don’t want to make the mistake of asking for something to be done, and accepting the something that emerges, merely because I saw a something worth doing.

So I’m not there yet. But I understand. Oh boy, do I understand.

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26 Responses to Counterfactuals about Social Media

  1. deluks917 says:

    I don’t think Facebook has caused me much of a problem. Perhaps I am in a minority but I think there is at least a sizeable minority of people who don’t waste much time or energy on Facebook. so any attempt to coordinate against facebook is going to run into resistance from some people who are getting value from the current site. Probably the site I waste the most energy on is Reddit. And Reddit is a relatively free and open platform compared to the other social sites.

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  3. Enough people tell me they spend too much time on Facebook and it makes their lives worse that I can’t doubt it’s a thing; it’s just strange because I seem to be somehow immune. Yeah, every once in a while I’ll get in a political debate that’s unnecessarily nasty, but for the most part I use the Events and Groups in ways that improve my life, occasionally ask for advice, fish for minor ego strokes with photos of cute animals or food, and generally find it mildly useful.

    • TheZvi says:

      I agree that there is a narrow, useful way to use events and groups, especially events (see my other posts for details), and that it is possible to extract positive value on the margin. I’m not sure if it’s possible for a social group as a whole to in practice net benefit, versus non-use when others are using being isolating and thus it being right to use ‘on the margin’ for yourself, versus some people can handle it but in so doing they make things worse for others.

      I also think a lot of people *think* they’re in the spot you describe and are wrong. I’ve seen that a lot, and convinced a number of them in their particular case with concrete analysis.

  4. Tulip says:

    I doubt your implied premise that social media as it currently exists is bad for most of its users. It’s definitely the case that a nonzero number of people are hurt by it, but I’ve encountered no evidence to suggest that being-hurt-by-it is the default state of users and not the unusual exception. As such, while I agree that there are plenty of ways we could potentially make a social media platform better than Facebook, I’m deeply dubious that killing facebook in favor of that platform is a crusade worth pursuing at the levels of significant-cost-in-the-meantime that you seem to be in favor of.

    Possibly relatedly, I’m also much more confident than you seem to be that, if anyone were to actually make the hypothetical Perfect Platform Like Facebook Except With All The Bad Parts Taken Out that you were suggesting, people would switch to it en masse even if you didn’t directly destroy Facebook first. Small communities aren’t unwilling to switch from worse platforms to better platforms; the one Facebook-based community I used to be a part of moved to Discord about two years ago, and various previously-forum-based communities have done the same, due to Discord serving their purposes better than their prior platforms. Furthermore, after a few iterations of that happening with various sub-communities I’ve been in, large enough fractions of my social circles were on Discord that it became one of my new general-purpose default social platforms, and the same happened for many of the others in the communities that made the jump. I don’t see any reason to think the same wouldn’t happen for Hypothetical Perfect Facebook Alternative, if it were really as good as your account of it suggests that it would need to be.

    • TheZvi says:

      If one could make the truly perfect in every way replacement, with no selling out to its own commercial interests, in one step, then it would at least have a fighting chance. I don’t think anyone has come close to doing this. I also think there’s a direct conflict between ‘healthy alternative’ and ‘short-term attraction of users’ for obvious reasons, and if you’re trying to draw people away, it’s hard.

      I too have managed to shift a community away (in my case, mostly to blogs and email) so yes it is possible. But mostly I mostly despair. I’d love to be proven wrong.

  5. Everyone reading this who also uses Facebook should absolutely install a newsfeed blocker.

    FB Purity is excellent:

    Regardless of your opinions about Facebook, using a newsfeed blocker will absolutely make your Facebook experience better (i.e. it makes it much closer to the platonically awesome social network we all want).

  6. jeray2000 says:

    Personally I like Instagram, I can’t speak for any other platforms because the only other one I use is reddit which I think most are fine with. Instagram let’s me see how my friends are doing, and it’s lets me have group chats with several of them at once. That’s a useful function that adds to my life, and doesn’t take anything away(besides occasional ads I guess, very small price to pay). If I was dictator of Instagram, besides reworking some buttons to make them more intuitive to use, I wouldn’t change anything.

  7. The main thing I use facebook for is occasionally checking if Eliezer posted anything new … apart from that, I pretty much don’t use it apart from a few messages with a distant relative once in a blue moon.

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  9. What are the most concerning use patterns with Facebook, and how common are they? I actually don’t think Facebook particularly causes that much trouble any more. In my own experience, it has become a combination of message service, event calendar, birthday reminder, and a catalog of friends’ major life events. It’s not much of a time sink. Occasionally I’ll blow some time scrolling through my news feed when I don’t want to go to sleep but I’m too tired to do anything more mentally taxing.

    I think a lot of the Facebook Social pathologist are best understood as adoption or transition pains, and have largely gone away as the general public becomes more familiar with the platform and its limitations. While Facebook is the hot new thing (2013- Present) you could be forgiven for thinking that it was going to become the medium for all social interactions. But I think that, as people have become more familiar with the platform, two things are happening:

    1) People are beginning to figure out better ways to use the platform, e.g. by blocking the people who routinely post shallow, political diatribes.
    2) People are beginning to turn to other platforms for the sort of content that Facebook doesn’t provide

    Facebook, as a non-anonymous platform, lends itself to image and reputation crafting. For most users, the motive for posting or sharing content is to create a particular, curated image of oneself itself to an audience of one’s friends and acquaintances. It seems like people tend to gravitate towards a healthy equilibrium where they engage in online image crafting in moderation and turn to other platforms for less shallow, performative content.

    I think the main legitimate complaint about facebook is that it encourages us to engage in its core function, online image crafting, in a way that’s not healthy. But even there, I’m not sure how much facebook’s particular design choices add or subtract that much from the inherent potential for nastiness in status jockeying and reputation management.

    • TheZvi says:

      I do think you raise *additional* very valid concerns to what I’ve already addressed, but if you want my answer in full, I encourage you to look at the links at the top to Against Facebook. I do think that growing familiarity can offer mitigation, but I do not think it changes the fundamental problem much.

  10. sniffnoy says:

    I’m definitely a bit confused about the claim here. Like, OK, yes, Facebook is nasty, but how does that generalize to other social media sites/networks? And what’s the reason for asserting “Social media is ruining our lives. Directly.”?

    • TheZvi says:

      After writing the Against Facebook posts, I realized that mostly the same issues or similar ones generalized to all popular existing forms of SM, and largely are inherent to SM, at least when combined with capitalism. I told myself for a while Twitter was better than FB, then realized Twitter was doing the thing to me I didn’t want FB doing, despite the improvements. Tumblr, Instagram and Snapchat I model as actively *worse* than FB given how they operate.

      But this is very much not claiming to *prove* the claim that our lives are being ruined. I instead prioritized getting it out quickly and responding to other claims in another post, and keep it short. I don’t have the bandwidth to properly expand the claim properly to all SM, and there are some “and how do you know THAT, sir?” issues with how to present that that I don’t know how to easily solve, but I do think it works well.

      • sniffnoy says:

        Hm, OK. Would be interesting to get a sense of where you’d put the boundary. Like presumably LJ/Dreamwidth is OK, because that’s basically just blogging, right? I remember Sarah talking about how she quit anything that allowed you to see who liked/upvoted your post, but there’s enough dimensions that things differ on that I’m guessing the two of you didn’t hit on the same distinguishing features.

      • TheZvi says:

        I think LJ is a good edge case. It’s *basically* just blogging and has proper comment threading and doesn’t use most of the hack tricks, so it’s mostly basically blogging and seems mostly fine. It’s still a central feed of stuff coming at you, which worries me, so I’d rather see an RSS feed, but certainly using LJ via RSS is fine.

        I do think that Sarah’s line is a good rule. I can’t think of any false positives that would red flag that are actually fine (technically WordPress does tell you who liked your post but luckily about 0.1% of people who read a post bother doing that, it’s even rarer than a comment, and it doesn’t change visibility at all, so it doesn’t matter). I also can’t think of a major social media platform that has the primary bad stuff and hides that information.

        I think an improvement on Sarah’s rule is “Any system that allows you to see who liked/upvoted your post, where liking/upvoting impacts visibility.”

  11. > RSS feeds, emails, email digests, custom apps and websites
    With the right tools, any site can be read from a rss feed reader. That is what I do. Helps a lot.

  12. Kenny says:

    What’s your epistemic rating of this?

    I’m a little worried about this – this post.

    > Shifting the equilibrium by force is a reasonable response.

    “Force”, to me, cashes out to ‘up to and including executing people’. And cheap paper printing was arguably a catalyst to much much bloodier social, cultural, and political turmoil, so, based on the ‘mood’ of this post, we should be contemplating violent revolution and protracted terrorism to protect people from an otherwise unstoppable menace, right?

    Are you really that scared of social media?

    • TheZvi says:

      Relax. You can rest assured I will not be advocating a revolution.

      I can say “I will take this doughnut by force” without indicating a willingness to engage in a violent revolution to secure said doughnut. I meant that government is force. Taxation is secured by force, whether or not it is theft. Regulation is force. The power for them grows out of the barrel of a gun. And in general, people use force all the time.

      I also said reasonable response, rather than appropriate or necessary. As in, I get wanting to pass a law here. Nothing more. I’m skeptical enough of passing laws in general that I’m not outright advocating even that.

      But yeah, I’m pretty freaking scared of social media, and I think if you’re not, you’re not paying attention.

      • Kenny says:

        I’m not particularly scared of social media, but then I’m pretty ‘allergic’ to it personally, so it’s very possible I’m NOT paying attention.

        But what I do anticipate as being likely is Facebook, Twitter, and the other big social media companies, capturing any regulatory apparatus eventually arrayed against them. I’m extremely skeptical that any force short of revolution is likely to ‘stop’ them.

        I think what makes me NOT scared is that (a) this seems like a familiar drama, e.g. printing, radio, TV, video games; and (b) the ‘immune response’ has already begun. I admit that my personal view, expressed, may not be part of a necessary overreaction that is in turn part of why this isn’t that big of a deal.

      • TheZvi says:

        I agree that they are likely to capture any regulatory apparatus, which is why the necessary rules have to (as always) either be an outright ban, or remain simple and be about ensuring things like inter-site compatibility.

        Here’s the thing about those familiar dramas. Yes, they happened and we’re all still here, but they shouldn’t make one optimistic. All of those had immune responses, but all of them are huge parts of our lives. All were shaped by the rules we set for them in ways that had huge impacts on us. All of them radically change how we process information, relate to one another, spend our time, and so on.

        But the whole ‘everyone was scared of TV and that it would rot our brains and it was all fine’ argument? Are we sure it didn’t just actually happen? Cause I think it kind of did happen. Consider from Google:

        In 2017 alone, an average U.S. consumer spent 238 minutes (3h 58min) daily watching TV. According to a Nielsen report, United States adults are watching five hours and four minutes of television per day on average (35.5 h/week, slightly more than 77 days per year).

        That’s… kind of insane and scary. Do we think this is making them happier? Smarter? Healthier? Wealthier? More virtuous? Better citizens? Or do we have a very serious problem?

      • benquo says:

        I think what makes me NOT scared is that (a) this seems like a familiar drama, e.g. printing, radio, TV, video games; and (b) the ‘immune response’ has already begun.

        The ‘immune response’ to printing and radio was not sufficient to prevent the Terror, multiple wars on a huge scale, Stalinism, the Holocaust, etc.

  13. orborde says:

    > I did manage to get a bunch of my friends and readers off of Facebook, such that the equilibrium shifted to a better one. It can be done. But it is damn hard.

    What did better equilibrium did you shift to?

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