No this is not an attention-grabbing headline. This is the result of what I have observed over the past 24 months. Social media is killing our social abilities, our social interaction, our human existence itself.
Last week I dined at a fairly normal restaurant in the heart of Hong Kong, a city fighting at the moment for its survival and basic human rights. Never mind the political kerfuffle, I found myself sitting at the bar, ordering a calamari salad, and watching every single table around me occupied by couples or groups, with every single member on their smartphones, chatting, scrolling, reading, watching, but in no case interacting which each other, except for the occasional “look at this” moment.
I went to the National Library of Taiwan — one of the best resources for pre-revolution literature and Chinese scholarship in the world, and saw banks and banks of presumably students glued to their smartphones rather than perusing the ancient tomes in front of them.
I went to my own class, the one I am teaching on international marketing and branding, and found a roomful of students scrolling through posts of I-don’t-know-what in search of I-don’t-care. Whether it is at work or in school, at home or in church, public and private spaces alike are now filled with smartphone-addicted adults who have lost all interest in their immediate surroundings.
In short, smartphones have taken over our world, our minds, and especially the minds of younger citizens. Liking, disliking, clicking, and sharing, have become the currency of human lives. Greta Thunberg in her speech at the Vienna Climate Summit said: climate change is an emergency, you can’t just like that on Facebook. She was wrong. One of the replies to her recent posts read: “I’m going to like that on Facebook!
This is the problem with social media: we have a stake (because we have created an account), we have a voice (because we can post, and we feel somewhat entitled (because other people like or even share our posts.) Social media makes us feel important, no matter how irrelevant our opinions may be.
Meanwhile, the number of real friends people regularly see continues to shrink. I myself feel so connected to a handful of people with whom I chat all the number of our real-life meetings continue to decline.
It’s the fault of app designers
Designers of apps have studied for a long time how to get people hooked on their apps. The auto-play of the next episodes on Netflix, the amplification of certain posts on Facebook by randomly showing them to strangers, the limited reaction options on Twitter and the cruel fight for eyeballs on Instagram all contribute to our addiction.
On many apps, it is now impossible to avoid advertising, and unscrupulous companies are raking in millions selling worthless products whose only virtues are the cool video or images produced to sell them.
Social media amplifies marginal, extremist voices and drowns out rational, measured posts and opinions. The mobile devices we now carry around are so addictive we forget the task at hand and the people around us.
Back in 2018 the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley pointed that out from a slightly different angle. Many researchers have warned against the overuse of social media. Yet our economy already depends on the use of social media. Even the interior design company I work for relies increasingly on social media to source products and get the new out about our own creations. Read more here.
Read also: Word of the Year: Instagrammable
Social media is also killing creativity. I used to sit in endless meetings at advertising agencies where all we had was a piece of paper, a pencil, and our brains. Now, when I look at writers and creators of anything imaginable, they first look at Facebook and Instagram or any other online resource to “get ideas”. People are creating stuff that’s merely a regurgitation of what is already “out there.” Real creativity is dying.
A painter I am acquainted with has a massive following on Instagram and Facebook but hasn’t sold a single painting online. It’s at offline shows, away from social media, that people really make a purchase.
There is no good solution to this dilemma. I take regular digital detox days and weeks where I don’t even carry my phone around. At the firm I have instituted design meetings where no one is allowed to bring a mobile device or show any existing examples. In my marketing classes at uni I regularly ask students to put away their phones and come up with their own creative ideas for a marketing campaign.
There is no other marketing than digital
But it is hard. Ten years ago, I taught digital marketing as something new you had to learn and study. Now, there is no other marketing. In a way it is empowering smaller firms and individuals, but it equally amplifies the power of big companies. You will never compete with a company or individual that has the wherewithal to gain millions of followers. Attractive young people gain a meaningless following for millions with lesser abs or breasts. They make thousands of dollars thinking that their posts, their online presence, their exposure to the digital world has some kind of meaning beyond the immediate click.
A model in Germany with over 400k followers told me that he built that audience through hard work at the gym and frequent posts, made a lot of money from sponsorship, and then, as he approached a certain age, no longer got any gigs because the sponsors he relied on were looking for younger guys. He is no a barista, his “career” in tatters.
Finally, for those lesser fortunate in the looks department, social media can be a curse. They don’t have the self-esteem to post selfies, and no other marketable skills. Youtube stars come and go as quickly as you press Like. Behind the race for approval, meaning for an entire life is lost, the bonds that anchor us in society are broken, self-worth is hard to find, and we ourselves are filled with rage and anger and many even driven to suicide.
Online shaming and bullying has become such a problem that governments and schools are looking into solutions using machine learning, AI and human monitors. Facebook is increasingly in trouble for hate speech cyberbullying, and the posting for offensive content that can destroy someone’s life.
An increasing number of researchers and experts thing that ultimately, cyber health has to become the responsibility of governments. China, which already monitors and censors most online content, may offer a look into our future. The dream of the free and democratic Internet has already naive, but now lies in its dying throws.