Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
When you use social media in general, and Facebook (including Instagram and WhatsApp, of course) and Google in particular, you are not a customer; you are a product. People are paying to manipulate your behaviour on the basis of statistical probabilities that you cannot see and they cannot understand; nobody needs to know why you are more likely to buy X or vote Y if you have just seen a cat video, or a news item that makes you feel sad, but mathematically speaking you are, so that’s what the system will show you. That, for Lanier, makes it very different from traditional marketing, in which companies try and persuade you to buy X or vote Y because it will make you safer, cooler, richer, sexier or whatever. Facebook and Google don’t work that way. They work by manipulating your emotions, information networks, friendship communication, awareness of news, and social behaviour, in order to make you more statistically likely to buy X or Y. Traditional marketing monitors the sales of a product; social media algorithms track the changed behaviour of individuals. BUMMER, indeed.
Here, then, are his ten arguments (apologies for the language):
1. You are losing your free will. BUMMER is Pavlovian; it prompts you to do things by triggering responses that you (and it, of course, since the whole thing is a machine) are entirely unaware of. “Who would trust a hypnotist who is working for unknown third parties? Who? Apparently billions of people.”
2. Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times. There are all sorts of ways of making this point, but the most arresting (to me) is that “the scheme I am describing amplifies negative emotions more than positive ones, so it’s more efficient at harming society than improving it: creepier customers get more bang for their buck” (emphasis added).
3. Social media is making you into an asshole. The main reason for this is addiction, as many commentators have pointed out; you get a dopamine hit every time you are shared or liked or whatever, and that can breed dependence, arrogance, excessive confidence in your rightness, exaggeration, imbalance, pandering, ignorance, rudeness, narcissism, and Trump. “You know the adage that you should choose a partner on the basis of who you become when you’re around the person? That’s a good way to choose technologies, too.”
4. Social media is undermining truth. When people are fake, everything becomes fake. Bots, shitposts, fake accounts, photoshopped memes, scare stories, clickbait: BUMMER doesn’t care whether things are true, it cares whether things garner and retain attention, or “engagement.” Often the most outrageous untruths are popular, and the most reasonable analysis is boring; the BBC will try and give you the latter, and BUMMER will try and give you the former. “Paranoia turns out, as a matter of course, to be an efficient way of corralling attention.”
5. Social media is making what you say meaningless. “We have given up our connection to context. Social media mashes up meaning. Whatever you say will be contextualised and given meaning by the way algorithms, crowds, and crowds of fake people who are actually algorithms mash it up with what other people say.” If you’ve ever been misquoted and/or shamed on social media, you’ll know what this is like. I have, and it’s not fun.
6. Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy. “Can you imagine if Wikipedia showed different versions of entries to each person on the basis of a secret data profile of that person? Pro-Trump visitors would see an article completely different from the one shown to anti-Trump people, but there would be no accounting of all that was different or why. This might sound dystopian or bizarre, but it’s similar to what you see in your BUMMER feed. Content is chosen and ads are customised to you, and you don’t know how much has been changed for you, or why ... This is an epochal development. The version of the world you are seeing is invisible to the people who misunderstand you, and vice versa.”
7. Social media is making you unhappy. We know this: on average, social media usage is correlated to insecurity, anhedonia, depression and so on, and the more you use it the worse it gets. “There are a million BUMMER games going on all the time, and you’re a loser at almost all of them, because you’re competing with the whole planet.” And if you don’t feel like you have as much fun, beauty, sex, intelligence, popularity, influence or power as the people around you—perceptions which BUMMER is trying to enhance—you’ll probably feel sad about that.
8. Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity. “Look at how rich BUMMER companies are and remember that their wealth is made entirely of the data you gave them ... BUMMER was originally sold as a barter deal. ‘Let us spy on you and in return you’ll get free services.’ This might seem like a reasonable deal in the short term, but in the long run it’s terrible.” His concluding comment in this chapter is intriguing to me, and makes a lot of sense: “I won’t have an account on Facebook, Google, or Twitter until I can pay for it—and I unambiguously own and set the price for using my data.”
9. Social media is making politics impossible. I doubt anyone needs convincing on this one.
10. Social media hates your soul. BUMMER is a new form of spirituality, Lanier argues, in which there is a new faith, a new way of seeing the world, a new criterion for truth (virality), new sacraments (“The purpose of your life is now to optimise. You have been baptised”), new religious absolutes. Google funded a project to “solve death.” Facebook’s statement of purpose includes the intention that “every single person has a sense of purpose and community.” Lanier is not religious himself, but rightly quips: “If that is not a new religion, I don’t know what is.”
But we don’t have to play. We can email friends instead of using social media (so long as we don’t use providers that are snooped on by BUMMER companies, like Gmail). We can text people instead of using WhatsApp (which provides data to Facebook and Instagram, and vice versa). We can read news websites, or even (gasp) newspapers, instead of following feeds. “You’ll be amazed to discover how much of your time was taken up before by BUMMER schemes.” And if that all sounds a bit drastic, you don’t have to do it permanently. “Detach from the behaviour-modification empires for a while—six months, say? Note that I didn’t name this book Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and Keeping Them Deleted Forever. After you experiment, you’ll know yourself better. Then decide.”
It’s good advice. You can get the book here.
(Incidentally, since someone is bound to ask: I no longer use Facebook, and I never used Instagram or Snapchat. I try to avoid WhatsApp but retain it for family photos. I have a Gmail account which I only use for spam, and I no longer log in with it online; I’ve also just stopped using Chrome. Twitter, which I use a lot, is the exception, but a) my settings mean I don’t get ads or news feed insertions anyway, b) it isn’t really a BUMMER company, which is why it struggles to make money, and c) I delete it sporadically to take some time out. Just in case you were wondering.)