If social media is the problem, what is the solution?
"I believe I did what honor dictated and that belief sustains me, except for a slight desire to be dead which I'm sure will pass.” —Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1962).
We are living through a crisis of faith. Not in a religious sense, but one affecting our faith in other people. Social media shows us every day millions of people who do and say things we abhor and we sit and stew in it and start to believe that mankind is worse than it is.
Like all sorts of panics, there is an inkling of truth that gets it started. Social media and the rise of negative partisanship have led to an increase in the not insignificant number of people who act in bad faith. On Twitter, in Washington, at your dinner table.
This is a problem you know about. It’s a problem that swirls around the word disinformation and bubbles and breathes with a culture war made total war.
But the bigger crisis is the one that has come in response to that: social media has made us all paranoid. We assume too often that people are acting in bad faith and plotting and hatching schemes when they’re really not. It’s a crisis that afflicts far more people than the first. It makes us interpret everyone in the worst possible way.
None of these are brand new phenomena that social media literally created, but they are on the rise because of social media.
Social media is a place where Occam doesn’t have a razor and if he did, he’d be planning to do something devious with it.
A few weeks ago, I laid out the case against social media as the primary cause of our current discourse nightmare in more detail. A common response was, ok, but what’s the solution?
The answer is…tough!
Social media isn’t going anywhere. The psychological elements that make everyone act weird in groups aren’t going to change completely. There is no magic pill that solves the problem. And yet I still am optimistic about the future. The main reason is that social media is very new. It’s only been an omnipotent part of the culture for a decade or so. It takes a long time for people to get used to massive technological revolutions.
But it’s a bit of a cop-out to say “well, we’ll just get used to it and time will solve everything.” But since that is sort of my belief, let me draw out what I think will happen in time.
The problem but also the brilliance of social media is that it is relatively frictionless. The platforms are designed to make you talk on social media the way you do in life when you’re speaking. You push a button, dash-off a thought, hit SEND, and then are rewarded with endorphin from juicy reactions. It is smooth. It makes people write in more organic ways than they do in other mediums. It’s why affectation is a killer on social media while authenticity is its virtue.
One of the hallmarks of writing (as opposed to talking) is editing, or rather the potential for it. There is, not wrongly, an assumption that if you’ve typed something out and hit publish you probably were being more deliberate about it than if you were just rambling in person.
This is a Platonic virtue of literature.
Plato hated poetry. But he didn’t. What Plato hated was the oral tradition. When we think of poetry we think of poetry for poetry’s sake, but when Plato thought of poetry he thought of a system of handing down knowledge. From the dawn of time. most knowledge had been handed down through spoken verse. Cats and kittens would be taught these songs of yesteryear and they would repeat them rote. And Plato hated this. Because if you’re repeating things from memory you aren’t engaging with them. You are just saying them. (Actors will disagree but most of the regular salt of the earth Athenians weren’t very good actors.) Then people started writing things down and preserving them and literature was invented. Readers had time to consider the meaning of the thing and grapple with the substance, and writers had the chance to compose their words without being chiefly concerned with how easy they were to memorize.
Social media is not people repeating memorized songs (well, mostly) but it is people publishing unthinkingly. You might think that you self-censor and maybe you do but most people don’t as much as they would in any other medium. The platforms are designed to get you to talk. They are chat rooms. But talking is haphazard.
Everyone talks stupid. They say dumb things they don’t mean. They say “like” more than they should. Whatever. A common bit of universal advice is that you should think before you speak. And you should. But no one is perfect and most of the things you say you don’t think too hard about in advance. If everyone did, conversations would take much longer. But the world continues to spin on its axis because this is universal and understood and listeners have built into their brains leeway in how they interpret extemporaneous speech.
As we get further along into a world where social media is omnipresent, people will start to apply this same sort of leeway to social media content.
You can wake up very early and stay up very late and spend every waking hour hoping beyond hope that people will stop and think more before speaking but it will not happen. Push against the ocean with all your strength. The ocean will not move. So what do you do? Blow your brains out? No. Just structurally assume—like we do when people talk extemporaneously—that people’s intended meaning is maybe not as dumb as their presentation would have you believe.
People are many things but constant is not one of them. Not the way some things are. The number 4 is constant. When you wake up, 4 is 4. When you go to sleep, 4 is 4. If you are French, 4 is 4. If you are on the moon, 4 is 4. Humans are not the number 4. We’re hungry or tired or depressed or excited. We’re in love or we’re heartbroken. We’re hot and then we’re cold. We’re changeable. Maybe that’s our most consistent trait. And so sometimes we feel regret and other times we don’t even recognize the things we’ve thought or done even moments later.
Capitalism has a lot of problems but one of its nice metaphors is Adam Smith’s idea that everyone acts out of self-interest but that those individual actions when combined together, pushing against one another, produces, in most but not all cases, larger social benefits. It is a cynical but realistic view of human nature.
The way we interpret social media content is as though it were a system designed to elicit our best selves, all the time. But that’s ridiculous. Systems designed on everyone being their best selves are destined to fail, because we’re only our best selves once in a while. Every other blue moon.
The platforms themselves can make various design changes that increase friction in the publishing process and would probably get us to on the whole act better more often. But then again, when Twitter tried to suggest people read articles before tweeting them, everyone hated it and the company walked back the experiment.
And friction isn’t just a guardrail for publishing.
The CEO of Substack Chris Best was interviewed by my friend Ryan Broderick a few weeks back and discussed the benefits of friction for the reader:
This is why we started Substack in the first place. What if there were different laws of physics for internet culture? Where instead of trying to feed the engagement beast for never-ending growth, you could make something thoughtful and consider that people would sort of have a higher friction, but higher commitment way to pay for it, both with their attention — when you sign up for an email newsletter, you're not clicking on a recommended video, you're making a decision to trust someone a little bit, right? And even more so, of course, if you pay, you're saying, “hey, this is worth chipping in five bucks a month, 10 bucks a month.”
There's a fundamental similarity between a newsletter and a podcast. Just like how many people use it, right? Signing up for your newsletter and signing up for your podcast are both a high-friction decision to invite you into my life, in my mind, over a period of time. And there's a difference in how you make it and there's a difference in a bunch of things, but that kind of thing is the same. And I think the model, the Substack model, which is basically, “sign up, give you an internet thing, and then pay for the thing if you like,” helps make the thing better and works really well for both.
I love Substack, and I’ve really enjoyed writing this newsletter and engaging with the beautiful wonderful people who subscribe to it. Substack has more friction on both sides of the equation than social media: you have made a more intentional choice to read this than if it had been retweeted into your feed as a Twitter thread, and I have been more intentional about the post because I had to open a CMS and write a post.
Substack isn’t social media. It’s its own thing. Like, blogs were their own thing. You had to make more deliberate choices about what blogs you read as you do with magazines you subscribe to. The streaming era of television has much more friction than actual television, which you can turn on and then sit and watch whatever comes on after the show you want. The streaming apps will play something for you after your show is done but in general, you are choosing to demand a specific show or movie and then you see it. It isn’t as passive.
But it takes all sorts to make a world and the number of people who use social media vastly outpaces the number of people who ever read blogs, or subscribe to magazines. There is room in the world for both the frictionless and friction-full. They compliment each other nicely.
I personally use Twitter three ways: to socialize; as a sandbox; and as a discovery tool. I talk to friends and strangers; I work out my own thoughts; and I find interesting things to read and watch that make me a smarter, funnier person. Which is to say, I actually use Twitter one way: as a chat room. All of these things happen when humans talk to each other.
If social media is a cocktail party filled with strangers, then tweets are those early bids for connection you say to a bunch of people, and newsletters and other things like them—deliberate things—are the semi-private conversations you have once those bids have been evaluated and people have shuffled into groups.
Twitter killed blogs—and Google was an accomplice when it axed Google Reader—and for many years it became the spot for both extemporaneous casual conversation and also semi-formed blog post-type publishing. That didn’t help anyone. Twitter threads making thesis arguments didn’t help anyone. It made it harder to tell the difference.
Substack, the successor of the blog, is a publishing platform. Twitter and Facebook have at various times been described as publishing platforms as well but in a sillier and less-helpful way. They’re chat rooms, where humans bang into one another. They’re a Slack chat with a billion members. I love it! And I hate it! And I am addicted to it! But my hope is that as we all continue down this river of time, everyone will get better at thinking about what they encounter on social media like that. Excited and unexcited utterances.
The world will be better when this day comes, and it is coming because otherwise, we're all going to go crazy lol.