Alluring, disappointing and downright noxious: social media is junk food for the digital age
What kind of industry stoops from being perceived as novel and fun to bloated and untrustworthy in less than a decade? Certainly not one that delivers, provides or satisfies. It’s time to dial back the influence of social media over our lives.
The 2017 Fyre Festival debacle is one of the most telling stories you could find to illustrate the inanity of social media and the absurd power it has garnered over people’s lives (the relentless Netflix documentary about it is worth the hour and a half of your time — and there’s a Hulu documentary out as well). A multi-million dollar promotional scam of a music festival on a Bahamian island that created an unprecedented buzz for itself simply on the basis of cryptic Instagram posts by a handful of bought-off influencers.
The mechanism is a rather classic fraud scheme where you lure people into giving you their money by selling them a dream story. But in the time of Charles Ponzi or Bernard Madoff, you had to have at least minimal credentials to show for yourself before people would trust or even listen to you. Social media has turned our world into one where buying some exposure from a few puffed-up void peddlers (in this case, people like Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski) is guarantee enough for the public that what you’re selling has worth. As comedian Ron Funches put it on a late night talk show, the fact that a few hundred people fell for such a scam as the Fyre Festival “is just Darwinism at its finest”. But true as that may be, the fact that there are gullible wealthy people in the world isn’t the point here, it’s that the tools to reel them in have never been so powerful and readily accessible.
Fake reality to fake news
Social media’s intrinsic flaw is that it pretty much instantly morphed from a friendly new means of reaching out to people into a giant lying machine. And buying into lies is like having fast food for lunch: an initially enticing experience that leaves you feeling empty and wanting for more, while actually making you sick. In their vast majority, interactions on social media don’t have much substance. They’re a warped and usually embellished version of reality that provides addictive micro-shots of pleasure and jabs at your rationality. As a result, far from providing a wealth of satisfying and meaningful exchanges, social media is instead responsible in large part for the advent of our short-attention-span world of entrenched beliefs, where values such as reasoned thought and even truth have become frighteningly disregarded.
Consider this illustration of the ridiculous influence social media has acquired on our lives: the paroxysm of the reign of the absurd in our modern societies that are virtual influencers. Or come to think of it, maybe their invention is a twisted way of going back to a certain degree of honesty: what you see on social media is so fake that you shouldn’t even bother to pretend it’s real anymore. Of course you won’t ever be as cool and perfect as that new it-girl, but you don’t have to worry about it anymore — she’s not a human being.
The full toxic effects
Of course, we all do it. Innocent daily lies are the very essence of activity on social media: a filter for a sexier sunset, an aggressive tweet to look tough, an artificially large number of interested people to puff up an event… We’ve gotten so used to those daily little lies that they don’t bother us — except for the fact they plunge us into depression. The real danger resides in the economic and political gains that can be derived from the efficiency of that lying machine. It’s bad enough that you can use social media to rip off a few New York yuppies (by the way, why has that term strangely disappeared?) by buying off some high profile Instagramers; what about fueling hate and attacking the core of democracy…?
That’s where the true noxiousness of social media really starts to kick in, and it’s been going into full effect over the past few years, just as surely as its grip has grown along with the rising proportion of its users among the overall population. And even now as repeated scandals regarding personal data leaks, election interference and the perverse echo chamber effect have started to put serious cracks in people’s trust of social media, the damage has been done: we’d have a hard time living without it by now.
Sure, social media has offered new ways to connect people with amazing facility and efficiency, blazing new paths for democracy in certain countries, for example. But for one Arab Spring, how many cyber-bullied kids, endless flows of anonymous insults making debate and discussion impossible, how many mindlessly fueled conspiracy theories and even downright lynchings, not to mention warped elections? Or just the basic, day-to-day feeding of self-hate with potentially tragic outcomes; a worrying increase in teenage suicides is currently leading British authorities to inquire about the responsibility of social media in facilitating them.
At the end of the say, social media, like the Internet as a whole, is a tool. A very useful tool that has in many ways transformed our lives, like when, say, the screwdriver was invented. But who in their right mind would grant as much power over our very mind and soul to screwdrivers as we do to social media? Perhaps the same side of us that would argue fast food is actually a wholesome source of deeply satisfying nutrition. Let’s instead reverse back to rationality, shall we? We wisely keep our tools in a box, ready for when we need them. The rest of the time, we’d be well advised to shrink social media back down to its actual importance and value, and focus on the life of reality all of us have to live.