By James Kotroczo - 8 min read
Let’s be honest, despite some insisting how “beyond” it they are, everyone on planet earth, in some shape or form, uses social media. As social creatures, human interaction is a necessity and social media is perhaps the greatest tool ever conceived in regards to this intrinsic need. But much like everything else in our tech-driven society, evolution and innovation create new purposes. Long gone are the days of the internet being exclusively used as a medium to chit-chat with your friends and share memes.
One would be hard-pressed to find a major company today that isn’t active on at least several social platforms. The sheer convenience of being able to communicate important information pertaining to new product lines or general business operations directly with consumers was something more inevitable than groundbreaking once it entered the corporate hemisphere as a force of nature. Much like any other generational defining breakthrough, its ability to permeate throughout every nook and cranny of modern civilization, from large and popular entities to small and obscure niches, made one thing abundantly loud and clear: there is no going back from this. While it’s obvious that the private sector will enjoy the fruits of its labor for the foreseeable future, where exactly does it leave the rest of us? In its current form, social media is now at the forefront of corporate streamlining while simultaneously being the driving force behind a culture operating under a single currency: vanity.
It’s not fair to say that it’s the source of it, but the one thing that is certain is that it is the vehicle from which it operates. It has created a brand new paradigm that has breathed life into a toxic culture thriving off empty validation. We’ve all been guilty of it at some point, when you post some random nonsense on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, etc. and get a positive reaction, you get a high from it. Sure, it may not be as potent as a bump of coke, but it still releases that sweet dopamine all the same. In a sense, it has turned communication and social interaction into a point system, spawning a whole new breed of addicts fit for the 21st century.
Much like a gambling addict anxious to make another wager, far too many of us are just as eager to check our phones at any given moment. What’s worse is that this is completely done by design, companies like Facebook and Instagram take advantage of the same psychological trick that casinos have been profiting off for years. Our brains, particularly our dopamine neurons, have a neat little feature called reward prediction error (RPE) encoding which acts as an “enjoyment” feedback loop for our brains, letting us know when and how long to stay engaged with something. If a certain action consistently results in the same outcome, positive or negative, at a predictable time, it causes dopamine activity in our brain to drop thus encouraging us to stop.
In order to bypass this evolutionary trait, casinos utilize variable reward schedules with their slot machines in order to keep people glued to them for as long as possible. Well, it just so happens that many tech giants use this very same brain hack to keep us on our phones as well. Instagram’s algorithm, for example, withholds likes on your posts in order to deliver them in larger bursts at a later unspecified time. But the truth is that virtually any notification can set off this dopamine-fueled reward system. That’s even more problematic considering the frequency of notifications most people tend to get, something that recurs more often the longer they stick with any account.
In case you were wondering if this whole system started off as a happy accident, it didn’t. Sean Parker, one of the founding fathers of Facebook, openly admitted that the purpose of Facebook was, and always will be, to take up as much of your time and attention as possible. In fact, it’s such a wide-open secret in Silicon Valley that it’s basically considered the most important factor for any app, game, or social platform’s potential profitability. Make no mistake, these companies are counting on you to get addicted to their products just as much as Big Tobacco is counting on you to get hooked on nicotine.
While it’s easy to look at people like Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Systrom, and Jack Dorsey as the pied pipers, they’re just acting as a catalyst for a far worse issue. Social media addiction is creating a validation system for one of humanity’s worst traits. It’s produced an unhealthy symbiotic relationship between dopamine and vanity, resulting in a culture absolutely rampant with narcissism. This isn’t a new feature as far as society is concerned, we all have at least a twinge of narcissism in us, but social media is essentially acting as napalm being thrown on a fire. Combined with its intentionally addictive design, it leaves us with a cultural wasteland that conditions people, especially children, to believe that being self-centered is not only a good thing but that you will be rewarded for it.
The internet as a whole is not inherently an evil thing. The whole premise of it upon its creation was for it to be the next big step for us as a society. It was intended to not only make civilization function smoother, not only make our lives easier but to unite us. To push us ever so closer to the end-goal that has been theorized and fantasized for as long as humanity has existed: a true utopia. In many regards, it has accomplished this while simultaneously keeping us further entrenched in the very same elements that have been holding us back.
We find ourselves living in a world where our capacity for knowledge, generosity, and empathy are limited only by our choices. We can instantaneously communicate with just about anyone from every corner of the globe, take part in movements happening worlds away, and access the collective knowledge and memory of all recorded human history at any given moment. Yet, all these amazing capabilities mean very different things for very different people. While some may use it to join in on an environmental cause, others may use it to cheer on a white supremacist rally. Tribalism, whether it’s left-wing or right-wing, atheism or religion, environmentalist or climate change denier, feminism or sexism, has been amplified exponentially thanks to the internet. Despite the fact that every counter-argument to our world views is readily available to us. So why are we so hesitant to broaden our perspectives? This all circles back to what we truly crave, the very same thing that social media has made us dependent on: validation.
What the internet really is, is a Rorschach test. We choose to see what we want to see and use its infinite possibilities as we see fit. With our small sample size of it as a crucial piece of everyday life, we’ve discovered something interesting about us. We aren’t just addicted to likes and follows, we aren’t just addicted to our own perspectives, we’re addicted to ourselves. However, this isn’t everlasting, this period in time is unlike any other in our brief existence on this planet. With such a powerful tool at our disposal, it’s only natural that we go through some growing pains. In order to move forward with not only the internet but us as a species, we must do what we’ve been doing for thousands of years: evolve.
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The world at large is a gorgeous place, teeming with all walks of life, each possessing their own unique story. As individuals, the things we choose to represent us says a lot about what kind of story we’re trying to tell. Whether that be your connection to a culture ancient but not forgotten, or your involvement in a movement inciting much-needed change in a static environment. Symbols are truly a gateway to understanding not only each other but ourselves as well.