Why Is Social Media So Toxic?

Posted by Ed 49 days ago
The desire to improve our social standing is natural. What's unnatural is the toxicity of doing so through social media.

It seems self-evident that the divisiveness that characterizes this juncture of American history is manifesting profound social and economic disorders that have little to do with politics. In this context, social media isn't the source of the fire, it's more like the gasoline that's being tossed on top of the dry timber.

My thinking on social media's toxic nature has been heavily influenced by long conversations with my friend GFB, who persuaded me that my initial dismissal of Facebook's influence was misplaced.

Our views of all media, traditional, alternative and social, is of course heavily influenced by our own participation / consumption of each type of media. Those who watch very little corporate-media broadcast "news" find the entire phenomenon very bizarre and easily mocked, and the same holds true for those who do not have any social media accounts: the whole phenomenon seems bizarre and easy to mock.

As for alternative media, many people accustomed to traditional media have never visited a single blog or listened to a single podcast.

Part of my job, as it were, is to monitor all three basic flavors of mass media, and do so as objectively as I can, which is to say, seek out representative narratives and commentaries across the full political and social spectra of each media.

So why is social media so toxic to healthy dialog and tolerance, and to those who live much of their lives via social media? I think we can discern several dynamics that direct the entire social media space.

1. The feedback loops within each "tribe" strengthen the most divisive, toxic narratives and opinions.

In the anti-Trump tribe, for example, those calling most vociferously for Trump's head on a stake are "rewarded" by praise from other members of the tribe via "likes" and positive comments on the "bravery" of their extreme language.

Others note this feedback and are naturally drawn into trying to top the extreme language: I want Trump's head on a stake, and then let's set it on fire, etc.

In the real world, expressing such extreme views soon draws negative or moderating feedback from those outside the social media's claustrophobic "tribe." More reasonable people will politely suggest that such extremism isn't very helpful, or they will start shunning the frothing-at-the-mouth firebrand.

But in the social media world, there are no moderating feedbacks. Anyone who dares question the extremism being reinforced by the "tribe" is quickly attacked or ejected from the tribe. Attacking moderate voices increases the potential "rewards" / likes from tribal members.

2. All human social interactions have a potential impact on the perceived relative status level of the participants, and jockeying for higher status is embedded in social animals such as humans. So naturally we're drawn to organizing our participation in social media around the implicit task of improving our status / upward mobility.

In the real world, it's relatively arduous to increase one's social status, especially as the widening wealth/income gap effectively disenfranchises an increasing percentage of the populace.

In the real world, increasing one's social status depends on one's class, i.e. who we hope to impress. Raising one's status usually requires some expenditure: a trip abroad to an exotic locale that few other social climbers have visited; a new fully loaded pickup truck, another graduate degree, a trip to Las Vegas, etc.
In the social media world, increasing one's perceived place in the pecking order of "likes" (or views), number of "friends", etc., depends less on conspicuous consumption / bragging (without appearing to brag, of course) and more on pleasing the tribe in ways that garner more "likes" and "friends." 

In the real world, to raise one's status, we need to flash the diamond ring, show off the new luxury car/truck, flash photos of the exotic locale, display the graduate diploma, etc. But online, there's very little in the way of verification: we are who we present ourselves to be.

As opportunities to upward social/financial mobility fade and downward mobility becomes the norm for a great many individuals and "tribes," the appeal of a cost-free way to increase one's status increases proportionately.

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Ed 48 days ago
TikTok and our Last-Ditch Desperation for Social Mobility
Social media offers hope of achieving higher social status, something that is increasingly out of reach in our winner-take-most economy.
I've often addressed the decline of social mobility and the addictive nature of social media, for example, Why Is Social Media So Toxic?
I have long held that the decline of social mobility--broad-based opportunities to get ahead financially and socially--is part of a larger dynamic I call social depression: the social decay resulting from economic stagnation and the decline of social mobility and financial security. America's Social Depression Is Accelerating.
Japan offers a real-world 30-year lab experiment in the negative social consequences of economic stagnation, a topic I've addressed since 2010: The Non-Financial Cost of Stagnation: "Social Recession" and Japan's "Lost Generations"
The conventional explanation of social media's addictive hold is that it activates the human brain's reward circuits much like an addictive drug: in effect, we become addicted to being "liked" and to checking our phones hundreds of times a day to see if we received any "likes".
FOMO, fear of missing out on some emotion-stimulating "news" or a "like" from someone in our network also feeds the addictiveness.
The innate addictive appeal of social media is pretty clear, but that's not all that's at work here. Being social animals, humans naturally seek to identify their status in the pecking order and improve their position by whatever means are available as a way of increasing their reproductive success and their relative share of resources.
Traditional societies were bifurcated into a small elite and a much larger mass of commoners. As a general rule, social mobility was limited to those extraordinary commoners who were especially valuable to the ruling elite as soldiers, scribes, etc.
From its inception in the early 1800s, the American Dream was to acquire the "good life" via mass produced luxury goods via conventional employment or entrepreneurial drive--two avenues available to the masses. This access to the social mobility of higher earnings enabling the purchase of status symbols that boosted one's social status has been the mainstay of the modern consumer economy.
The downside of mass-produced luxury items (status symbols) is that in a credit-based economy, just about everyone can afford to own them. Thus just about anyone can qualify for a mobile phone plan that offers a status-symbol iPhone as part of the multi-year contract.
As a result, the upper classes have been forced to greater extremes in cost and scarcity to differentiate themselves from the masses. For example, now that exotic travel is a affordable to anyone with credit, travel has little status value, unless it's extremely costly or difficult to duplicate.
The same is true of the arts and other cultural status markers, along with the traditional markers such as yachts and second (or third) homes.
As the underlying economy has stagnated, access to higher social states via earned income has decayed, and so commoners have been forced to find some other non-financial means to improve their social status.
Social media fits the bill perfectly: it's essentially free (since everyone has to pay for Internet service anyway) and the only "investment" is in time: time snapping and posting photos on Instagram and Facebook, time posting comments and links designed to attract tribal "likes" and so on.
A commoner with essentially zero social status economically can with enough effort become a "big shot" in some social media platform.
The bar is low enough to attract millions of players: a few dozen "likes" is still a potent reward to most people, as are having a couple hundred followers / readers.
Social media superstars with millions of followers on YouTube have cult-like groupies and all the other social status rewards of recognition and fame.

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