In this very timely book, the author argues that the way social media has evolved is doing more harm to society than good. This is closely tied to the way online companies are making money (advertising). What follows is the summary of the Lanier’s key points and his thoughts on how to improve the situation.
New technology makes it easy to
- Collect vast amounts of data about you
- Take ruckschluss and Adapt marketing on an individual level
Dopamine driven feedback loops allow for behaviour modification to the level of addiction.
Behaviour modification in big groups of people can become a societal problem.
Positive feedback increases engagement (dopamine loop). However, missing positive feedback does not necessarily weaken the connection, it can drive the individual to even stronger engagement in order to receive the reward.
Social pressure amplifies participation in social media. Network effects keeps everyone locked in.
Posts that create emotions like fear or anxiety are often prevalent, for no other reason that negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones and algorithms tend to spread whatever is more popular, creating a reenforcing loop.
Awareness is the first step to break free.
The problem are not smartphones, digital displays or even Social Media - it is the business model of behavior modifying ads the BUMMER system is build on.
BUMMER: Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent
and its building blocks:
- Attention is what most users seek online, drives people to behave like _assholes
- Every activity is tracked and used to conclude the nature of a person
- Personalization of Content for behavior modification
- Subtly directing users’ emotions into desired outcome (e.g. buying product; but also not voting in election)
- Business have to give money to BUMMER platforms for exposure or are left out
- When participating in BUMMER, you have to adapt your standards (e.g. news outlets need sensationalistic titles to attract attention)
- reforms of BUMMER companies will never solve the problem if their incentives are unchanged
- ironically, censoring and regulating their platforms gives BUMMER platforms even more power
- fake people / bots everywhere
Addicts are oblivious to their environment and to others. They only seek to satisfy their addiction.
The nature of Social Media steers changes personality in that way. Users can become outraged quickly, are fast to victimize or be a victim. E.g. if other users are insulted as “Snowflakes”, chances are, that the nam-callers themselves show the same traits as the insulted person.
In the end, the ability to add feedback influences creation of the content itself. It is adapted to provoke even more reactions (positive or negative).
It seems like that online communication in any form is prone to turn people into assholes. One theory that might explain it is SIDE. Lanier uses the term the “inner troll”, amplified by anonymity.
Wolves, and maybe humans can be set to either being “Solitary” or in a “Pack”. Being solitary means more connected to reality; being in a pack means that the power struggle between allies and enemies is the most important thing regardless the cost. Example collateral damage of street gangs or climate change denial by powerful people. This can be exploited by negative, tribal media or social media coverage. It facilitates groupthink and limits personal freedom of thought. Democratic elections are meaningless if the group mentality is in “Pack” mode. Party voting and authoritarianism/personality cult are signs of this.
There is social media without assholes or being “Bummer”, simply by having a practical business plan, e.g. Xing / LinkedIn.
Again, BUMMER is explained through its components:
- A_ssholes turn everyone to Pack mentality
- B_utting into everyones life / spying
- C_ramming content/lies down your throat
- D_irecting life through behaviour modification
- E_arning money with point D
- F_ake people - bots, are everywhere
Bots are ubiquitous and modify every kind of behaviour only. They’re a cultural denial-of-service attack, influencing real people. Worse, social media profits from bots through increased activity and agitation while silencing real voices.
Regulation, e.g. identifying creators of ads, might just worsed activity of fake personas.
It can get dangerous if the content spread is e.g. about anti-vaccination. However, the platforms profit from the paranoia created.
Communication becomes meaningful through context. The way we communicate also depends on the context, to whom we adress ourselves. In Social Media, the context to messages is applied after the fact, by platforms themselves: Every feed is different. This makes communication shallow, predictable and encourages sensational (Asshole-ish) wording.
Loss of context is visible in “social media proof” headline wording by news outlet. They are tweaked to maximise engagement, until everyone does the same (“One Weird Trick”).
There are almost no independent, local news outlets left that do investigative journalism. What was real news is fake news, as it doesn’t hold up in the BUMMER numbers game.
What comes close today as an alternative, are podcasts. They have not yet had to adhere to the BUMMER scheme and thus retain context. They’re authentic and maintain a person-to-person relation to listeners for profit (ads & stores) instead of person-to-crowd. This could be ruined by a podcast meta-aggregator, only taking AI-selected snippets of podcasts, mixing and editing them. Problems of bots, trolls and remaining inside the AI-created bubble could also destroy the context and integrity of podcasts.
It gets harder to empathise with other people on social media, as their context and the content they are shown is locked away.
“Filter bubbles” means your personalized feed, thus reinforcing your own views (occasional controversial posts are inserted on purpose). “Dark ads” are hidden ads masked as authentic posts. Extremist messages to sway public opinion is not new, but highly optimized, A/B tested and personalized messages are. Since everyone is in their own personalized bubble, it is hard to understand others’ experience.
We only see the resulting behaviour of people, for example extreme political views, but not the thousands of different influences. This is why people who have a different opinion from your own seem “nuts”.
“The internet was supposed to bring about a transparent society. The reverse has happened.”
The author cites various articles showing that, on the whole, social media makes people more unhappy than happy. It can have various results - anxiety, depression, loneliness from various reasons - body image problems, social status or bullying.
Social Media data is already harvested by third parties, who apply their own algorithms on it for different use cases. Examples have a wide range: Scholarship admission for college, what countries are allowed to be visited to the outcome of an insurance claim. This is the “hidden” competition of social media, dominated by statistical correlation, next to the “obvious” one of getting the most followers and likes. The novelty here is that this hidden judgement can occur unasked, without a meaning to interfer - as opposed to “asked” judgement, like when your company needs funding (needs rating of future profitability) or you need a mortgage (needs a credit rating).
Social media engagement thrives through negative emotions outrage or obsession about the numbers game. Happy users might not use the platform that often.
The power imbalance of the “Silicon Valley people” in the “high castle” vs. the powerless users is frightening. There are documented cases where employees of these companies spied on users. Facebook is the first public company controlled by one person, also owning WhatsApp and Instagram. The author notes that everyone has to be bothered by this to some degree, and the only solution is to delete all accounts.
The free software movement formed the opinion software should be open and free. Ideas that micro-royalties should be paid out whenver someone used something you created were discarded. This created both the Gig economy (your software is a free product but you get paid for services related to the software, like fixing problems) and free web services that are fueled by ad revenue. Since emergence of the internet, it became possible to keep software closed but keep the service running. The algorithms that are crucial to big Tech are kept secret, but run on open software. Now it seems impossible to move from the ad revenue model.
Going back to the initially discarded idea, the author sees direct monetization as a solution. People have their professions made obsolete by the companies that profit off their data and with it create even more disruptive services. In the long run, it brings economic instability. If data needs to be harvested to improve AI algorithms like translation, the people whose data is used should receive a micro-payment: “Data as Labor”. Likewise, the users pay a monthly fee for the social media service. If the third party (advertisers) are eliminated, social media will start working for the people, not influencing them for the worse.
Fake news that create paranoia and hate towards a certain group of people with grave consequences has flooded social media in Myanmar, South Sudan, India and many others. Democracy gives way to authoritarianism, which has been on the rise in many asian and western countries.
Egyptian revolution and the arab spring have been lauded as huge successes of social media. However, extremist government prevailed here, as the young people’s futures remain bleak. Millenials lose faith in democracy according to surveys. Many loners self-radicalized on social media.
A first-world analogue is “Gamergate”, where predominantly female voices against certain practices in Video Games were met with vile hate and vicious personal attacks.
BUMMER is not left, right, liberal or conservative. It is pro-paranoia, -assholeness and -sensationalism. The author notes that a more extreme left candidate might have won against Trump, but not that that would have been an improvement. Examples of toxic behaviour exist on the “left” (“Bernie Bros” ridiculing Hillary) and “right” (the alt right exploded with Trump).
Social Media has become a ransomware, like 21st century analogues of medieval catholic church indulgences: “Pay us or you don’t exist.”
“Black lives matter” might not have gained traction without social media. As with the above examples, the movement went through a “honeymoon phase” initially. People participating were analysed and catalogued automatically, and were predominantly black. Russian ad operatives used the ability to target these groups with anti-Hillary messages to lower voter turnout (which Facebook is able to do according to their own research). All not planned by Facebook, but side-effects of their business model.
This chapter highlights the influence of social media in spiritual terms. Some of the spiritual characteristics in BUMMER are also part of religions.
- Free Will is being handed to the platform and their owners (users have no choice on what content they see)
- The business model of BUMMER (like indulgence in religion)
- Becoming an asshole and set to Pack mentality. Religions also form “packs” and engage people intensely
- Accepting or at least tolerating falsehoods and rejecting evidence that proves otherwise
The way social media is built up is influenced by Richard Dawkins concept of a “meme”, a cultural unit that can spread, adapt or be killed by others. This can be anything, from slang words to fashion styles. If it becomes viral, it becomes the truth. The reasons are often emotional. “Meme” concept is a way to apply a theory of evolution to culture, on which social networks were founded, but applying rational thought is smarter and quicker.
The purpose of life has become optimization: SEO for your website, academics collecting citations, collecting followers for your profile. The more human activity is seen as a lifeless, analyzable, quantifiable part of a platform, the more people will follow these rules and end up believing it too. The miracle of consciousness is being downplayed in favor of AI.
Belief in tech companies potential has become religious and fantastical (Google funding startup conquering death or uploading the consciousness into the cloud). There is a lot of faith put in AI (an often inadequately used buzzword).