The Invisible Thief of Happiness

commusings Sep 20, 2020

“Come on, honey, not at the dinner table.”

Anyone with a teenager knows what this futile request refers to. And, candidly, I raise my hand, guilty as charged, for sneaking an under-the-table peak at my Instagram between helpings.

What did we used to do in the backseat on those long family drives? Sing songs? Play the alphabet game? Just be bored?

Now, we furnish our beloved progeny with glowing screens that stream endless cat videos and much worse. And they can’t put them down. Of course, while they may never listen to us, they never fail to imitate us. How many of us “grown-ups” routinely and mindlessly grab for our devices within five minutes of waking up?

Be honest. But don’t be too hard on yourself. You may be convinced of your own free will. But remember what you’re up against. Deep Blue, a computer developed by IBM, beat Garry Kasparov in chess despite the fact that he had been playing since he was seven and reigned as world champion for twenty years. And that was in 1997, a year prior to the founding of Google. Imagine the supercomputer your self-determination is vying against now.

Since I’ll spend the balance of our time together indicting social media for fostering loneliness, diminishing self-esteem, decreasing attention spans and tribalizing society, let me summarize some of its positive attributes first. Social media has given people voice, particularly the marginalized. It’s a brilliant and protean tool for organization, from the Arab Spring to Lolli’s wretched roller-skating party. It is an outlet for creativity, democratizing its distribution. And, of course, I love keeping up with old high school buddies and their Pomeranians (well, most of them).

The intention of social media was to enhance life, to foster connection in an increasingly individuated world. Unfortunately, its existence is a good case for consequentialism since it can be argued that nothing has atomized and polarized us more than the invective of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

A couple of statistics to grok the scale of social media usage. Facebook currently has 2.7 billion “users” – a term that the recent documentary “The Social Dilemma” points out is otherwise reserved for consumers of drugs. Facebook has added 100 million accounts in each of the last two quarters. YouTube has 2 billion users. 79% of all internet users have their own YouTube account. Teenagers clock an average of 7 hours and 22 minutes of media screen time daily – NOT including time spent using screens for school and homework. While this barely seems feasible given a day consists of 1440 minutes, the typical cellphone user touches his or her phone 2,617 time every day. The study found that extreme cellphone abusers touch their devices more than 5,400 times daily.

What transpires while we scan the endless scroll of phantoms held in our palms while often disregarding the three-dimensional beings in the room who we purportedly love?

Increasingly, brands use social media to market their products. You barely need to slide your index finger to be bombarded with images of unattainable perfection, six-pack abdominals and luxury getaway packages. Surfing through these targeted fantasies fosters a sense of lack or “not-enoughness.” Brands then market products, services and trinkets to you to address these perceived deficiencies. And they do so with great efficacy, paying Facebook to place these images in the feeds of people who meet their demographic and psychographic profiles.

If only, and only if, I look like this and have that then I will be happy. You don’t need to be a Buddhist to comprehend that this pursuit lacks fruit. The moment you’ve clicked “buy now,” you are already plotting your next conquest. You can’t be happy in the future. Contentment is reserved for the here and now.

Perversely, social media also becomes the forum in which we trot out curated, filtered, fish-lipped renditions of our own lives. These false projections are a double-edged sword, immiserating both poster and user. In search of approval, we anxiously await the flood of likes to swell our brains with dopamine while the scroller evaluates his woeful existence against a phony portrait of flawlessness. Comparison is the invisible thief of happiness.

Neuroscientists are researching the impact of social media on the brain and discovering that positive interactions (such as someone liking your yoga selfie) trigger the same kind of chemical reaction that is caused by recreational drugs.

To better understand our addiction to social media, one can draw on the work of American behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, who posited that actions which are reinforced tend to be repeated. Positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence that is rewarding. For example, when you get a social media notification, your brain delivers a neurotransmitter called dopamine along a reward pathway that makes you flush with joy. The same phenomenon is also associated with exercise, sex, food, gambling and drugs – which can all become addictive when abused. Variable reward schedules up the stakes. When rewards are delivered randomly (like when a flurry of digital hearts light up your post) and checking for the reward is easy, the dopamine-triggering behavior becomes a subconscious habit.

In terms of understanding the ramifications of the global and nonconsensual psychological experiment of social media, we are barely glimpsing the tip of an iceberg. Here are some disturbing correlations. There is growing evidence social media increases loneliness and depression. Recent surveys indicate 73% of heavy social media users consider themselves lonely. The pressures of social media appear to be particularly severe for teenage girls. Teenage suicide rates for girls since 2009 have grown 70% (and 151% for girls 10 – 14). Similar increases apply for non-fatal hospital admissions among the same cohorts. (source: The Social Dilemma)

The impacts of habitual overuse of social media on our personal wellness is alarming, but the deleterious impact on our societal well-being may be even greater.

Society has become increasingly politically polarized and tribalized. Forty years ago, less than 25% of us lived in landslide districts, where one candidate won in a landslide over another. Now that number is 80%. We’ve bunkered ourselves in echo chambers so resonant that often all we hear are modifications of our own voice. Our ability to have healthy public discourse has eroded and debate on social media almost always devolves into all caps screaming matches that only further divide and dehumanize.

How does social media contribute to extremism and the widespread espousal of unfounded theories? This quote from tech philosopher, Jaron Lanier, succinctly sums up social media’s core endeavor:

“It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.”

The modification of your ideas and how you act upon them are the product of this industry. This is what marketers, candidates, rogue groups and special interests are paying companies like Facebook and YouTube to do. The primary key performance indicator for YouTube is watch time. The more time you spend in the YouTube ecosystem the more ads they can serve up. The average visit length on YouTube is 40 minutes and the algorithm is optimized to keep you there for as long as possible.

YouTube garners approximately 1 billion hours of watch time per day according to Guillaume Chaslot, an artificial intelligence (AI) expert and former Google engineer. More than 70% of views come from YouTube’s recommendation engine. These personalized recommendations appear as thumbnails in the right margin on your desktop or below your video window on your mobile phone. 

The recommendations are personalized for you through AI that tracks your every view and the digital behavior of others like you. This may seem innocuous enough if you are like me, searching for Mooji meditations and getting served up Eckart Tolle or Deepak Chopra. 

Unfortunately, it’s often significantly more insidious. For example, Chaslot reports that YouTube’s algorithm detected an outlier trend that a small subsection of people watching fitness videos were also interested in pedophilia. So, it began serving up pedophilia videos among the recommendations while people were watching their high intensity interval trainings. It turns out the watch time of these lurid videos is quite high. And It appears that, in general, there is a correlation between extreme content and longer watch times. The algorithm is just doing what it is designed to do: keep people on the platform as long as possible. The problem with AI is the complete absence of moral filter. There is no ethical arbiter between creator and viewer.

Fake news, which may include spurious conspiracies, proliferates across social media at a rate 6 times the truth. The content is often scandalous and elicits emotions or disgust. The value-neutral algorithm’s affinity for sensationalist content may be the primary reason for the explosion of unfounded theories and movements like QAnon. Alex Jones, the founder of InfoWars, was a primary propagator of theories such as Pizzagate and Birtherism, and that 9/11 and the Sandy Hook massacre were hoaxes. Before he was de-platformed by YouTube, his videos were recommended at minimum 15 billion times. It is no wonder some of these ideas have taken hold.

I have little idea how much revenue (if any) YouTube or Alex Jones generated from these video views. However, at a $5 CPM (cost per thousand views), 1 billion views would yield 5 million dollars. YouTube keeps 45% of this revenue and passes the balance to the creator. There is a financial incentive for social media to trade in dangerous and often specious content.

Many people no longer get their news from establishment sources. The endless drone of “fake news” has undermined trust in traditional media. And some of this skepticism is certainly valid. Increasingly, though, people are finding their news on social media from unreliable sources including phony news channels, celebrities and influencers, who may have good intentions, but little training in journalistic ethics. Influencers, often unwittingly, peddle weaponized misinformation and subsequently become funnels for more nefarious groups looking to undermine democracy and spread chaos. Sometimes it would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous.  Like the Tik Tok influencer who went viral with a post claiming that the recent West coast wildfires were planned, as evidenced by the fact that they stopped at the US-Canadian border. She was referring to a US-only databased map. She is reported to have 2 million followers.

The proliferation of misinformation is aided and abetted by the algorithms. You can run this experiment yourself. For example, watch a Bill Maher or Robert Kennedy Jr. video about anti-vaccination on YouTube. Both of these gentlemen are whip smart, if sometimes too smart, and raise legitimate concerns about this issue. (As an aside, my wife points out - and I agree - that it is often the inability of the mainstream press to have intelligent public discourse on deserved topics that can push folks further toward the fringes). If you watch these vaccine-skeptical videos for a few days, like them and comment on them, you will start to be fed new video recommendations. Maybe an anti-mask wearing video. Maybe a “report” that COVID fatalities are exaggerated. If you engage with this content, the recommendation engine will progressively serve up more tantalizing fare, until you’re suddenly watching a 40-minute diatribe about the Archons, an inter-dimensional race of reptilian beings who have hijacked the earth.

Slowly, invisibly, Lanier’s thesis takes root. Persuasive technology, algorithmically gamed against us, can make us feel as though we are “doing the research” and developing our own opinions. However, behavioral modification is often imperceptible to the user.

I joked with Schuyler that if you espouse the theory that, through a mandated vaccine, we’ll all be microchipped such that our whereabouts and proclivities will be surveilled by an elite cabal trying to instantiate a new world order then we can all relax. We already pay $1000 for a device and $100 per month voluntarily for this privilege. There is a server whirring in some non-descript bunker that knows me better than my wife of 32 years, and perhaps better than I even know myself. And access to this knowledge of who I am is being sold. This is the perhaps the “conspiracy” behind all the others.

Enough doom and gloom already. The key to addressing the deleterious impacts of social media in your own life is found in a familiar place: Awareness.

I have touted “The Social Dilemma” numerous times in this screed. It is a documentary chock-full of former Silicon Valley executives blowing whistles with the goal of spreading consciousness about social media. The Center for Humane Technology led by co-founder Tristan Harris created this documentary and is dedicated to articulating the problem and the path forward towards a new era of truly humane tech.

In the meantime, here are my humble suggestions for navigating social media consumption and happiness:

  • It will help you stay present, conscious and aware.
  • Actively cultivate in-person face-to-face time wherever possible.
  • Engage in nuanced, respectful conversation especially with folks with whom you do not agree.
  • Find ethical sources for news that that rely on legitimate experts and multiple sources, independently fact-check, have minimal biases, and publish corrections.
  • Read or listen to long-form content that can capture nuance and expand attention span. (Check out the podcast from CHT)
  • Be aware of modifications and radicalizations in your own behavior and ideologies.
  • And … limit your social media time. Turn off the wi-fi at night. Put your phones in a basket during dinner.
  • Be present for each other.

As always, feel free to email me with your thoughts. But then put your phone back down ;-).

In deep gratitude,

Jeff

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