Ramshankar
on systems, software & life

Why I’m a social media recluse

As of 2020, nearly 60% of the world’s population is online, with more than 3.8 billion social media users. Social media has changed the way we communicate and opened up possibilities and opportunities like never before. Whether it’s helping save lives during natural calamities or revealing atrocities committed by oppressive regimes, the benefits of the internet and social media to ordinary individuals are unquantifiable. However, I’m not going to discuss the indispensable use of social media in dire situations but rather its compulsive, casual usage on a daily basis.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “social media” as

Websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking.

That’s too broad a definition for the purpose of this article, so I’ll clarify what I mean by social media more specifically. When I refer to social media, I include the usual suspects — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. I also include group-messaging services like WhatsApp and WeChat. I exclude sites like Reddit as they tend to be far less personal.

Not interested in social media
Social media ain’t for me!

The ills and thrills of social media have been discussed to death by netizens since its inception. While everyone has their reasons for using or not using social media, I’ll flesh out my conscious, perhaps self-conceited, reasons for why I’m a social media recluse.

Privacy

Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

— Edward Snowden

This should be a fairly obvious reason for almost anyone who has opted out of social media. Issues of privacy and how our data are being (mis)used are well known.

From rampant leaks of personal photos, data theft and security breaches to sharing data with governments and other equally shady organizations, it’s clear that even mega corporations, with budgets rivaling that of entire countries, lack control over the data they collect.

The only way to secure data is to not collect it in the first place. But this is antipode to the business model of social media, because in order to maximize engagement of users, they require data about users.

Take something as simple as our birthday. Why do social media platforms constantly urge us to "complete your profile" and fill out our birthday? Publicizing our birthday to our contacts (friends or followers, in social media parlance), serves two purposes. First, it increases the engagement of our contacts by announcing our birthday. Second, it increases our own engagement by feeding us wishes from our supposed well-wishers. The birthday is merely one data point among thousands that’s harvested for maximizing the engagement of users.

The more details these platforms have about us, the higher their potential to keep us hooked. They may then share this data with their partners, third party applications and advertisers. The precise details of what gets shared and how, is quite muddled and complicated. But their common goal isn’t so complicated. Their goal is to keep people using their platforms as frequently and as long as possible, one way or another. It benefits them, their partners, third party applications and advertisers.

Initially, some of these platforms (like Facebook) didn’t even offer the option to delete one’s own account. While Facebook does offer the option today, the process can take up to 90 days and with no guarantees the data is actually deleted from their servers.⁠[1]

I value my privacy probably a bit more than the average user on social media. This naturally makes me wary when social media platforms request more and more personal information. I still use YouTube occasionally without logging in or using a throw-away account that provides as little information as possible.

What do they value?

Social media platforms incentivizes sensationalism and low-effort, clickbait content. They’ve created an escalating race to get to the top of the attention economy. Their algorithms are geared to promote not what’s substantive but what gets the most views. My gripe isn’t with the content per se. It is with the intent behind the disproportionate promotion of such content.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that the attention span of netizens has dwindled over the years.⁠[2] And social media has certainly contributed to much of it.

There once was a thriving blogging culture with long-form, insightful articles. Today we tweet ourselves silly with snippets of text laced with emojis and insults.

And what happened to the internet forums? Sure, there exists Reddit and Medium, but they’re not really comparable to the forums of the past. Reddit thrives exclusively on news, is excessively censored and has a completely inept search function. The most popular subreddits are announcements, memes, AMAs (Ask Me Anything) and cat pictures.⁠[3] I have nothing against memes or cat pictures, but sorry, it’s not a place of discussion like a traditional internet forum. As for Medium, a lot of it is pay-walled, littered with ads and a homogeneous design which makes it feel like a large factory that spews articles. I’m sure it has some great content but feels nothing like the blogs of yesteryears.

Of course, not all of it is terrible. YouTube still has incredibly informative content if you can find it, but I won’t say the same for any of the other platforms.

Rabbit hole recommendations

The goal of social media platforms is to keep its users hooked. The first step towards that was collecting our data. The second step is feeding their algorithms with our online activities. Sometimes even after we log out, they may try to collect data on our online activities.⁠[4] By continuously aggregating data on our preferences and tendencies, they model a virtual clone of our online selves. With millions of people using social media today, it’s not hard to guess how many virtual clones they have.

To paraphrase the song Every Breath You Take by The Police:

Every link you take
And every post you make
Every like you fake, every step you take
I'll be watchin’ you

Whether it’s YouTube recommending videos to watch, Facebook recommending groups to join or Twitter recommending accounts to follow; they’re all the work of algorithms, tuned and tweaked for years with an unrelenting focus on keeping users addicted. These algorithms predict with increasing degrees of accuracy, what content will keep us engaged. They are designed to retain and maximize the engagement of users by suggesting activities of similar users and monitoring the outcomes.

But why’s this a problem? So what if YouTube recommends to you videos that people like you watch?

On the face of it, this doesn’t really seem like a problem. But it’s becomes more concerning if we dig just a little. Firstly, the ability of these algorithms to predict human behavior with data they’ve aggregated in astonishingly accurate. Secondly, the ability of these algorithms to influence human behavior on a large scale should be a cause for concern.

What about cases where the algorithms recommended blatantly false or actively harmful content? I mean topics like holocaust denial, flat earth theories or the tide pod challenge that went viral. After all, these algorithms don’t know what’s good, bad or deadly; at least not yet. It’s not uncommon for social media platforms to intervene and tweak their algorithms, but only when there’s sufficient hue and cry. For instance, Facebook recently announced that content promoting miracle cures will rank lower in news feeds,⁠[5] and that they are removing holocaust denial content.⁠[6]

By deliberately apportioning us content that reinforce our biases, we’re being funneled into deeper and narrower echo chambers. The beliefs of a large section of our society is shaped by hive-mind inspired algorithms controlled by Big Tech. What’s particularly pernicious is the nature and scale of this manipulation.

If our worst selves stem from a seed in our psyche, social media (among other things) certainly seem to help water and make them flourish. People develop their propensity to bring out their worst selves whenever their framework of reality is challenged. Needless to say, when members of opposing echo chambers eventually collide, the results aren’t pretty.

People are influenced every minute of their lives in some way. Maybe it used to be the newspaper and the television, and now it’s social media. As inputs to these algorithms, we play a vital role in what unfolds. How much of our behavior is the consequence of deliberate habituation by these social media platforms? If things get out of control, which it clear has on many occasions already, shouldn’t we take a step back and examine not just our technology but ourselves?

Fake news

We’ve finally reached a point where the information on the internet is completely reliable, especially on Twitter and Facebook.

— Genghis Khan

Fake news is nothing new. Fake news, lies and gossip have been with us since time immemorial. From deliberate mistranslations of ancient religious texts to fairy tales told to children, fibs and half-truths of varying magnitude remain perpetually ubiquitous. For the more cynically minded among us, fake news is merely pleonasm.

What’s disconcerting is the celerity and potency of fake messages spread on social media that cause devastating, irreparable damage. Witch hunts today are not about burning witches at the stake. Instead, they manifest as online persecution, harassment, bullying and in extreme cases, instigations for suicides. Recently, there were cases of fake messages spread via WhatsApp that lead to killing of innocent people.⁠[7]

Due to their all-pervasive reach, social media platforms have been ripe targets for spreading incendiary, illegal and manipulative content. We’ve long crossed the point where social media platforms have the power to influence elections. Social media platforms remain susceptible to manipulation by malicious agents be it cyber criminals, shady corporations or corrupt governments. A recent Oxford report found evidence of organized social-media manipulation campaigns in 70 countries.⁠[8]

Prior to leaving social media, I had become an increasingly passive user, posting less and less content. I take a little bit of pride in the fact that I’ve never indulged in forwarding other people’s content. But regardless of how skillfully I could filter out fake content, being constantly inundated with fake and irrelevant content simply wasn’t a productive use of my time.

Censorship

Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

— The Dude
The Big Lebowski (1998)

Social media platforms began as creative tools that connected people from across the globe. They facilitated instantaneous sharing of thoughts, ideas and content in convenient ways like never before. But once they grew into unwieldly multi-national corporations, as with most businesses, technology and creativity took a backseat. Profit and growth became the priority. While that may be par for the course, it’s not the profit or growth that bothers me. What bothers me is censoring content simply because it doesn’t align with one’s political ideology. Whether that’s left, right or center is irrelevant. These social media platforms started out apolitical but have gradually drifted to one side of the political spectrum. They lost their lustre when the technology stopped being the focus. They lost their credibility when politics and censorship took the helm.

I understand it’s naive to want the internet of old. An internet that was pristine without censorship or propaganda. Where trolling wasn’t about screaming banal insults.⁠[9] Those days may be long gone and rightly so, I mean who wants to go back to Internet Explorer…​ but I digress. The point is I’m still against censorship.

My objection to censorship has always been its concomitant potential for abuse. There are many shades of gray that exists between what’s acceptable and what isn’t. I do recognize the need for censorship in extreme situations. I don’t have a solution for implementing fair censorship or if such a thing is even possible. I think long term solutions like value-centric education would result in fewer situations that warrant censorship, but I’m aware that it’s rather idealistic.

More information is available to more of us now than any generation in human history. The proliferation of the internet has blown the lid open for opportunities that our ancestors could’ve only dreamed of. And yet, we as a society are still at each other’s throats over fake news and petty issues. Instead of struggling to find information, we now struggle to find what’s true in an endless sea of information. In trying times like this, it sure seems the world could use more people like “The Dude”.

Lack of accountability

A body of men, holding themselves accountable to nobody, ought not to be trusted by anybody.

— Thomas Paine
The Rights of Man (1791)

These social media companies classify themselves as platforms rather than publishers. But they control, censor and edit what gets published and promoted on their platform since users have agreed to this under the terms of service (TOS). Thus, they exercise the rights of both a publisher and a platform but without the responsibilities of an independent publisher. They don’t disclose details of their algorithms nor offer any reasonable explanations for their seemingly arbitrary editorial decisions. Instead, they offer legal cookie-cutter responses and point to how they’re merely following their policies. Of course, it doesn’t matter how ridiculous their TOS are, or how inconsistent they may be at following their own rules.

While it’s true that nobody is forcing people to use these platforms, should these platforms be held accountable for permitting and promoting only certain political or sociological views? And should we address collusion among these platforms?

Social media companies blithely pretend to be neutral, non-biased arbiters of truth, conveniently hiding behind their “terms of service” and “private company” cards to absolve themselves of responsibility. Should we continue to partake in this asymmetry of accountability? Individuals are often punished severely for the slightest of transgressions, but these massive multinational corporations operate with impunity.

Under US law, it may very well be the case that there’s really no legal distinction between platforms and publishers. Perhaps the laws themselves (like § 230 of the Communications Decency Act) need to be improved because governments haven’t been able to formulate sensible means of regulating social media. Governments are either too illiterate on technology and demand the impossible, impractical, or downright insidious. Or they are far more interested in propaganda and political grandstanding. Thus relying solely on governments of the world to come up with a sensible solution is a rather slippery slope given how untrustworthy, misguided and myopic governments tend to be.

Whether social media platforms need to be held more accountable, we the users, need to use social media more responsibly. We can start to address the problem only when we acknowledge there is one. I decided several years ago that I wasn’t going to be a part of the power wielded by these social media platforms. Rather than let Big Tech run rampant with their rights or trust governments to enforce responsibilities, reducing our reliance on social media is the least harmful solution.

Diversity but not of opinions

The worst kind of losers are those who silently scavenge for your past mistakes and present them to the public as latest news.

— Michael Bassey Johnson
The Book of Maxims, Poems and Anecdotes

The nature of the internet makes it difficult to guarantee that anything posted online could ever be permanently deleted. Because anyone with access to the information can make copies of it effortlessly.

Over the last six years, there has been an accelerating cultural shift in social media. Cancel culture, as it’s called, is excavating and exposing even the minutest of potentially offensive content with the sole purpose of shaming, vilifying and deplatforming people. Regardless of the age or context of the information, social media mobs are quick to draw conclusions. Sure, there are heinous people who have deservedly been exposed and brought to the limelight. But as with most well intentioned actions, when taken to extremes they degenerate into vices.

Twitter is probably the biggest offender here. Twitter has also been the most politically charged among these platforms for many years. Amidst the kerfuffle between rival ideological factions of raving lunatics; sensible, reasonable, everyday people now feel like they have a metaphorical gun aimed at their head. A gun that’s so easily triggered by the mildest of supposed offenses. Many exist as afraid and mute observers, who’re quite content they haven’t been cyber-executed yet for daring to state an opposing opinion.

Having to think, re-think and think another ten times before saying anything, such that what I say is universally politically correct — and remains so for the rest of my life — lest face the wrath of the chronically offended, isn’t a game worth playing. Personally, I wouldn’t be on Twitter even if it wasn’t this way, but seeing what it has become today just further strengthens my convictions.

My introverted nature

I am rarely bored alone; I am often bored in groups and crowds.

— Laurie Helgoe

I’ve always been a fairly introverted person. My primary school teachers would often write on my report cards, remarks like “Ram is quiet and reserved.” I’m not certain if that was meant as an observation or as a cause for concern. Nonetheless, I’m thankful there wasn’t any attempt made by my parents or my teachers to 'rectify' the situation. Being introverted has helped me in incalculable ways. One of which is making it much easier to stay off social media for extended periods of time without much effort.

It also helps that most of my time is taken up by work which I still enjoy immensely. Even outside work, most of my activities (reading, writing, gaming, painting, vibing etc.) don’t demand social interaction.

I’m aware there are downsides to restricting most of one’s interactions to a small group of family and friends. However, such is my nature and I’m perfectly content being this way.

Closing thoughts

While I’ve refrained from participating in social media since late 2016, I’m not advocating everyone to get off the grid and stay off social media forever. Neither am I claiming that social media executives are evil geniuses plotting to take over the world. I’m sure at least some of them are sincerely trying to better the situation.

As users we need to handle these issues with care, nuance and foresight. Migrating to alternate platforms wouldn’t solve these fundamental problems. New platforms take too long to gain traction, if at all; and even once they do, they’re likely to be plagued by the same problems, if not worse. But if the alternate solutions are too radically different would they retain the commonly agreed desirable aspects of the existing platforms? I don’t support shutting down or stifling these companies either as that goes against the principles of a free market economy, but perhaps they ought to be regulated in a sensible way.

I believe the problems are deeper and have to do with the business model itself; and on a deeper level, what we collectively value as a society.