Key insights from
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
By Jaron Lanier
What you’ll learn
Jaron Lanier has been building technology in the Silicon Valley since the 1980s and is often referred to as a founding father of virtual reality. He also has serious reservations about how certain technologies are being harnessed to harvest personal data and use it to alter people’s behavior. He encourages people to delete social media in order to discover who they are apart from it, and to galvanize social media companies into creating more humane business models.
Read on for key insights from Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.
1. In relationship to social media, be a cat—not a dog.
On the whole, cats have proven more meme-worthy and funnier than dogs. Part of the humor is owed to the predictably unpredictable behavior of cats. Unlike dogs, who have shown blind loyalty to their human masters for thousands of years, the partially domesticated cat marches to its own drum. Cats might come when you call; they might not. If you have ever seen a video of a cat circus, it is evident that, even in these remarkably trained felines, there is a sense of uncertainty about what they will do. They seem to go through some mysterious process of deliberation. They might perform the trick as trained, or they might nonchalantly meander toward the audience.
When it comes to navigating the online world in general and social media in particular, the cat is the animal we want to emulate. We adore dogs, but we don’t want to become animals who act with unswerving predictability when given the right set of treats and punishments. Some of the largest companies in the world make their money by learning how to find and fine-tune these combinations of treats and punishments to which each of us is most responsive. Their profit is tied to the art of manipulation.
Be a cat. Cats live in a high-tech world without becoming cogs in the machinery. No matter how sophisticated the algorithms get, you don’t have to worry about your cat getting hijacked. Your cat will continue to do exactly what your cat considers best. Shouldn’t we aspire to the same?
There are numerous good reasons for deleting social media, but here are 10 that relate to the author’s expertise:
1. Social media is dismantling your free will.
2. Quitting social media is the best way to push back against the craziness in our world.
3. Social media is turning you into a jerk.
4. Social media is killing truth softly.
5. Social media is rendering your voice meaningless.
6. Social media is ruining your ability to empathize.
7. Social media is making you less happy, rather than more.
8. Social media is intentionally harming your economic dignity.
9. Social media is poisoning political process.
10. Social media hates your soul.
If you decide to take these arguments seriously and get rid of your social media, you will have taken a vital step in a cat-ward direction.
2. Social media companies are “behavior modification empires,” perfecting the techniques behaviorist psychologists pioneered decades ago.
We are living in an unprecedented moment in human history. Beginning a decade ago, technology advanced to such a degree that people could bring a sophisticated device called a smart phone with them everywhere they went. Every button pushed, every place visited, every app opened, video watched, post liked, online storefront browsed is data stored and processed by algorithms to deliver increasingly individualized offerings.
It’s not just what we click that is noted, but which videos we watch in their entirety, our facial expressions in response to what we view, where we are and what we are doing just before making purchases. Advertisers used to create billboards, come to your door, or make cold calls, but today’s advertisers (or manipulators) are feeding information to you in order to change you and modify your behavior.
These manipulators are relying on (and perfecting) techniques developed by a group of psychologists known as behaviorists. B.F. Skinner and others developed all kinds of methods to get certain actions from dogs and rats. Many of these techniques work well on humans, too, and can be conducted without people even realizing what’s happening. It’s incredibly creepy, and has been fodder for thrillers and horror movies for decades.
The most powerful manipulators are connected to “behavior modification empires”—more commonly known as social media empires. Thankfully, some of the founders of these behavior modification empires are coming clean, admitting behavior modification’s corrosive effects on people’s free will and on the relationship between individuals and society. Many of the founders have deleted their social media accounts because they don’t see another feasible alternative.
Social media companies are fueled by addiction through algorithms that bring together the most sophisticated math and the best research on the human brain. Online gambling programmers were the first to bring these together. Some in the digital gambling industry are bitter that social media has encroached on their business and been exploiting the same mechanisms as gambling (reward systems, the appeal of mystery, the delight of randomness, and so on), but most just ride the social media wave and let it lead them to the biggest suckers on the web.
We are becoming lab rats in the largest behaviorist experiments to date. Put slightly more mildly, we are gradually becoming obedient dogs and are constantly telling social media what makes us slobber. They just use symbols instead of doggie treats now. These little devices that were supposed to free us up and make life so much easier have become a cage, a cage that we carry with us.
3. The problem is not technology per se, but a business model that some tech companies use to manipulate their users.
Ultimately, the problem is not smartphones, social media, the internet, or clever algorithms. The problem lies with how these technologies are employed and to what end. The worst of the worst in business strategies can be described as BUMMERs, or “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.”
There are six parts to a BUMMER machine, which can easily be remembered with the ABCs of the business model:
“A is for Attention Acquisition leading to A**hole supremacy.”
“B is for Butting into everyone’s lives.”
“C is for Cramming content down people’s throats.”
“D is for Directing people’s behaviors in the sneakiest way possible.”
“E is for Earning money from letting the worst a**holes secretly screw with everyone else.”
“F is for Fake mobs and Faker society.”
Beyond China, the only two tech giants that are complete BUMMERs are Google and Facebook. Twitter is another, though it doesn’t always run its BUMMER machinery effectively. Other companies that are partial BUMMERs are Reddit and 4chan. Some tech giants (Apple, Amazon, Microsoft) dabble with BUMMER machinery, but theirs are not quite as comprehensive.
BUMMER machinery is contributing heavily to our world’s insanity, but there is reason to be optimistic. The problem is localized. We don’t have to completely abandon the digital world. There are many things about it that are laudable and make our lives better. We can hone in on the BUMMER companies and platforms, and cut them out of our lives, while keeping the technologies that are serving us instead of using and changing us.
Some critics have likened social media companies to the tobacco industry: addictive and bad for our health. A better comparison would be paint with lead. When it was established that lead was poisonous and that it was a horrible idea to coat the walls of our homes with the stuff, many people refrained from buying paint until more suitable alternatives became available. In the same way, if we delete BUMMER companies from our lives, there will be an opportunity for less toxic alternatives to emerge. It’s the kind of pressure the Silicon Valley needs to start making things right.
4. Social media makes it easy to oscillate between the poles of fake-nice and total jerk.
Unbeknownst to most people outside the tech world, there were already very rudimentary iterations of social media as early as the 1970s. There were no likes, no content-curating algorithms. Just comments. And sometimes comments could get nasty—often over nothing important. People would try to one-up each other, make another look stupid, ruin someone’s reputation. It happened enough that it became part of the network’s culture.
The author was part of it, and had to come to terms with the fact that he teetered between total jerk and “fake-nice.” When someone said something that insinuated he was ignorant, the inner troll started coming out of its cave, setting out to destroy his accuser. He had to walk away because it became too toxic and he didn’t like what it stirred up in him.
It was the same cycle in the early 1990s when the author’s friends created an online social space called the Well, and then again with another program called Second Life some years later. Positive comments would elicit silly, fleeting satisfaction, and the negative comments—the effects of which are more easily activated and longer lasting—would activate a base-level rage that could readily escalate as the exchanges continued. The author had to quit.
In our own time, decades later, this dynamic has changed very little. We (hopefully) want to be genuinely kind, but on BUMMER platforms (“Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent”) people vacillate frequently between savage, snarky jabs and a syrupy, artificial, diplomatic tone.
Part of the problem is that BUMMER platforms encourage a “pack” mindset rather than a “lone wolf” mindset. We each need to operate like lone wolves, not in the sense that we isolate, but in the sense that we don’t simply follow what others are doing. With packs come rivalries, both within packs and between packs, as people jockey for higher standing. Unfortunately, being a jerk is a strong currency that helps you move up the pecking order. It is no coincidence that pack leaders on BUMMER platforms are alpha jerks. It’s a structure that harms business and politics, but, paradoxically, each person acting as an autonomous individual and not waiting for signals from the herd is the most effective way for a society to function well.
BUMMER platforms are created to be addictive, and BUMMER addicts show all the signs to varying degrees—including changes in personality. Among the most common changes are:
-growing anxiety, nervousness
-becoming overly preoccupied with events and encounters that no one else considers significant
-arrogance, with a penchant for hyperbole, often as a smokescreen for insecurity
-the growth of a mythology, with self as hero at the center of the drama
-seeking out not just the dopamine hit (“likes” and other positive feedback), but the suffering that precedes the hit (anger over an incendiary comment, negative feedback on one’s post)
The BUMMER addict is quick to take offense, and may be, at least in part, seeking out an opportunity to be offended and start a fight. Aggression is also common among addicts, and we see this in social media. Responding to offense is compulsive. Victimize or be the victim. While it might be difficult to identify or be honest about these qualities in yourself, you've definitely seen it in others—especially in those you don’t get along with.
Donald Trump is a perfectly sobering example of how an addiction to a BUMMER platform changes a person. Twitter is his drug of choice. The author has met Trump several times over the past decades, but has noticed a definite shift in his disposition, one that became most pronounced when he hopped on Twitter. He was always a shrewd, hard-driving New York businessman, but he’s become very quick to take offense. He teases so-called snowflakes, but his own skin has never been so thin, nor has he ever seemed so eager to find an argument. He is among the most powerful in the world, but his BUMMER addiction is more powerful than he is.
It is important to remember that the world can’t be divided between trolls and non-trolls. Everyone has an “inner troll.” Even if you’re not a BUMMER addict, you’re probably becoming shades meaner the longer you stay on social media. If you feel your inner troll coming out and staying out, stay away from situations that bring it out (this holds true not just for social media, but relationships and work, too). Go to where you are kindest. If you have a hard time staying civil on social media, you are not a quitter but a winner for bowing out.
5. You don’t really have much of a “voice” on social media because you’re the consumed—not the consumer.
Context makes what you say meaningful. Without context, a statement can be interpreted in a number of different ways and hijacked for any number of purposes—some of them quite dark, most of them unknown.
This has also made it difficult to understand or be understood by others. People don’t know your context and you don’t know theirs. What they say is divorced from the circumstances surrounding their comments and posts. Without that vital context, or worse, seeing their words put into contexts they never intended or anticipated, it becomes hard to understand where someone is coming from, and it is harder for them to understand where you are coming from.
If you simply read, “Hey! Stop! Get off of me!” but don’t have the benefit of knowing who said that, or when, or why, then you are left wondering if someone’s shooing away their dog or fending off a predator. With our online posts as well, we have no idea how something will be understood because no one has the surrounding context that would make better sense of what you are saying. And there’s nothing you can do about that.
BUMMER machinery simply doesn’t care what you’re trying to say. The BUMMER machinery (those statistical machines in computing clouds that tweak your offerings to manipulate your behavior for the third parties) interprets your identity as a series of data points. You are not a name but a collection of numbers. It might sound dramatic and dystopian to say so, but BUMMER hijacks what you do and say on social media to support someone else’s profits and ambitions.
You don’t have a voice, but social media’s true customers—the advertiser-manipulators—sure do. One of the clearest, and probably most extreme examples of this, was a problem that YouTube had years ago when ads for something harmless like body wash would be aired in conjunction with a video recruiting young people for a terrorist organization. Advertisers complained, and YouTube heard their complaints and compensated them for the losses in an effort to keep their customers happy. If you, the product, has a similar issue, YouTube will not respond with the same alacrity—or, far more likely, will not respond at all.
Social media doesn’t care about you or what you have to say. It is rendering your virtual identity and your voice meaningless along with everyone else’s. This is yet another reason to consider getting rid of your social media until they become better for our health, relationships, politics, and culture.
These insights are just an introduction.
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