If this last weekend has proven anything, it’s that Twitter is a bubble of bigotry, arguments, mayhem, and grudges. While it can be a fun place to exchange ideas and opinions, there’s hardly ever any evidence that such polite discussions—or heated exchanges—actually change minds.
Political Twitter has never been sillier, never been more hysterical, and never been less like the real world outside of it. It was always a bubble, but now it’s a bubble floating off in space, millions of miles above the subjects it’s discussing. It’s a video game.
— Charles C. W. Cooke (@charlescwcooke) June 25, 2018
In fact, one tech guru says that regardless of whether social media is persuasive or not, it’s still something a person should engage in with caution and something from which a person should take a temporary break. In a piece at The New York Post, Jaron Lanier, a scientist and tech pioneer, said social media has addictive qualities that are harmful and can influence moods and most people should lay off it. “Is it possible that you yourself have a social-media addiction, that it has made you a little depressed, made you spend money in ways that weren’t in your interest, kept you from voting when you otherwise would have, erected a slight veil between you and other people in real life, or in other ways lessened your freedom and happiness, albeit slightly?” he asks.
Lanier says Facebook and Twitter’s algorithms are such that they influence moods—retweets and likes produce dopamine hits which are addictive. “I have been a computer scientist for almost 40 years, studying the effects of computation on people, and I’ve seen how fast-rising negative emotions like sadness, anger and paranoia are more easily detected by algorithms,” Lanier says. “While positive emotions are as powerful in general, negative ones end up being amplified the most by the present designs. While positive emotions drive addiction, negative ones are more effective at manipulation.”
Unlike other types of addictions like food or opioid abuse, Lanier makes the case that social media addiction could end up being far worse. Through algorithms, it tries to follow, mimic, and influence behavior, whether it’s purchasing something or voting in an election. “But social-media addiction is unlike all other dependencies because it’s nearly universal,” he explained. “It’s more subtle and gradual and possibly even more sinister because at its heart is a scheme for computer-driven, sneaky mind control. It’s not just about getting your money; it’s about steering your character and behavior.”
While I wasn’t convinced social media addiction is as harmful as many other types of abusive behavior, it’s still something about which to be cautious. Am I basing my worth on likes? Am I purchasing something because of an ad which was probably geared toward me? Am I mindlessly scrolling when I could be doing something else? Or, as Cooke insinuated, “Do I actually believe Twitter is the real world and behave as such?”