“The Social Dilemma” and how I use social media today

Note: I originally posted this article on LinkedIn

I recently watched the excellent documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix which talks about the rise of social media and how it influences our behavior and damages our society.

Social media today is a triple-whammy of forces. First, like any other business, the platform itself is trying to grow. This means getting more users and monetize them through advertising. Second, to get more and more users, the platform has to make users interact with each other and spend more time on the platform. They achieve this by incentivizing users to seek attention. You get attention not just when your online behavior is positive (e.g. funny and catchy) but also when it's negative (e.g. controversial and shocking). Third, social media platforms want to make advertisers happy because advertisers give them money. Advertisers want to change your behavior, which can range anywhere from the mundane (e.g. buying product) to nefarious (e.g. changing your vote — as entertainingly explained by another Netflix documentary, The Great Hack).

The intent and principles of those three things are not new. Pretty much all businesses want to grow and want to get you to use more of their products. Many businesses also get revenue from putting advertising on their properties. The difference is that today, technology has made the scale and impact of change humongous. There are more than 2 billion users on Facebook-owned social media platforms, and Facebook has detail data about each one. It has been proven time and again that Big Data and Artificial Intelligence can successfully change users' behaviors. Furthermore, social media platforms try to change our behavior surreptitiously. I think this is why our society has such a blind spot with this issue.

The impact on mental health is real. The documentary points out the increase in suicide rates among teenagers. But I'm sure the impact is not only for the young ones. For teenagers on Instagram, it may be self-consciousness about body imperfection. For professionals on LinkedIn, it may be comparing career achievements with others.

Are there solutions to this issue? The root cause is the business model of social media platforms and how this industry is currently unregulated. As long as we (as a society) prefer “free” content with ads, we will continue to have this issue.

The documentary itself proposes a solution for people to delete their social media accounts. However, I think there is still a way to gain the benefits from social media without being negatively influenced by it. My own approach is to be a stoic and use social media mindfully and purposefully. I use social media mainly as contact tools, i.e. for networking and keeping in touch. LinkedIn and Facebook are great for this purpose. I set guidelines so they continue to be useful. For example, here's how I engage with marketers on LinkedIn. I also impose limits on myself. Once I detect that my emotions get affected by my news feed — either positively or negatively — I step away and close my browser.

In the end, how each of us uses social media depends on our own comfort level. Do, however, proceed with your eyes open. “The Social Dilemma” is one entertaining way to be informed about this subject. Another good resource is Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.