Unless social media changes, it will continue to make people dumber instead of smarter

Social media is proving to be less and less effective at delivering across important messages in an increasingly complex world. The trend towards more digestible but, as a consequence, less substantial content shared on social media started back in the mid- to late-2000s when “microblogging” sites like Twitter started ramping up in popularity. As more users got their information from tweets, plurks, snaps, and memes, so too did “virality” become paramount over substance and depth. That’s a really big problem because a more complex world demands more smarts in the people expected to navigate it.

Unfortunately, the opposite is happening. For example, elections have been won and lost on the bases of what went “viral” or what “trended” on social media. All partisan camps lament this new reality as, clearly, no one party or political camp is unique in recognising that dumbed-down political messaging has been squarely meeting the minds of equally dumbed-down voters thanks to social media. By design, most social media apps enforce emphasis on virality over substance. Users determine the value of a tweet, post, or snap on the basis of how many retweets, likes, and shares these garner.

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The trouble with this is that popularity scores are poor measures of how good or bad something is. Democracy had proven this fact about popularly-elected politicians. Now social media is proving this fact about information too. Both democracy and social media are based on the notion that “crowdsourcing” and the “people’s will” necessarily yield wisdom. But, really, crowdsourcing — and elections — are just fancy terms for popularity contests.

Social media in its current form will therefore never be a solution to the problem of popular low-substance content dominating the Net at the expense of unpopular but high-substance information. As far as can be observed, there is no mechanism within most social media sites to score content on the basis of substance and quality. Without such scoring mechanisms — and metrics out of these that are as appealing to users as number of likes and retweets — substance, validity, and quality will never win against popularity on social media.

Popularity used as a primary reward in social media is, in essence, profoundly unethical. It was in the 2010s that this confronting reality about social media had revealed itself and it is this revelation that will go down in history as a key defining characteristic of that decade. This was the decade that saw the demise of the once-lofty notion of “social media for social good”. That term has now become an oxymoron.

The challenge for the new decade is to replace traditional social media with networks that work on a more ethical content scoring mechanism — one that rewards substance, validity, and quality. One need look no further than, say, blogging. Blog posts demand a lot more of their authors — like structure, comprehensiveness, range, and depth. It also encourages relatively substantial forms of engagement — like commenting. More importantly, back in the golden age of intelligent digital discourse when blogging ruled as the de facto medium of choice for online debate, a blogger’s worth was also determined by how many others in their community linked back to their work. This is good news because we need not wait for new technology for this fundamental shift to happen.

Indeed, traditional social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram need not go. They just should be regarded as no more than the digital playgrounds that they actually are and not platforms for discussing important topics that demand intelligence in their participants. If we are to seriously aspire for a future where better more sound thinking rules over the easy and the popular as input into important decisions, we should seriously consider the ethics behind the premium we continue to put on the popular, the viral and the trending. This is the challenge as we enter the new decade — one that follows a decade that revealed the ill effects of social media in its traditional form.

7 Replies to “Unless social media changes, it will continue to make people dumber instead of smarter”

  1. The problem is , media is still media. Let me explain. The traditional mass media worked as a mirror . TV , movies , magazines , newspapers, novels and comics tell you what kind of audience they are looking for based on the content they provide. You want dumb people you produce dumb content and if you want intellectuals then provide intellectual content. Now that we have social media, we all decide what content to provide to whoever will tune in. Some of us still seek popularity and try to pander to the lowest common denominator. Some of us masquerade as being critical and yet have rabbit ears when that critical thinking is reflected back. A certain onion skin professor who scrutinizes every unfollow comes to mind. Speaking of onion skin, I still don’t understand the whole protected tweet thing. Why not just write a diary and keep it in your bedside drawer? Many of us have only known mass media for most of our lives and as they say the sins of the father are the sins of the son. The medium is the message and even if social media has the potential to change the dynamic, we are still human and sometimes we believe all that glitters is gold. We take the mass media paradigm and try to replicate it ourselves. To quote Rush “glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity.”

    1. The online world only mirrors the offline (or real) world. If you see a white supremacist saying “I hate all black people,” remember that’s something they’d say even if there was no Internet. That’s been the topic of an old article I wrote. The Internet only expanded the audience, so the supremacist’s words can actually be seen by someone in Africa or Asia.

      Social media has a chance to change things only if the content is like ours – discouraging kissing people’s asses and saying people are entitled to nothing. And stop being woke.

  2. You cannot prevent people in the social media, to write : idiotic messages, being ignorant on their writings, being politically biased, and to use it as a way to further their personal agendas.

    Social Media is both a curse and a blessing to us, in this generation. It will be , on how we use it , that matters. We also cannot prevent people, from being stupid and gullible in reading anything from the social media, and believing them…it is their work, to use their brain and their common sense.

    So, we go on blogging on this uncharted territory…It is the “wild wild west” of our generation. All kinds of “Bad Guys” are there…and if you are the “Good Hombre”, be “fast to draw your gun “, and “shoot the Bad Dudes” …Happy Blogging 2020…and Happy New Year to all !

  3. It’s dumbed people down, who said it best again, that when reading and books are replaced by watching television, the vocabulary, thinking and reading skills will decay to the point where you’re easily controlled by others, fall in line with the rest, and apathetic to situations unless pointed out by the One-Eyed Monster, but guess the writer didn’t foresee Smartphones and the Internet, just recently the hottest takes from “geopolitically-astute” Filipino Social Media Users, and there’s that recent stats that just this year, 70% of Americans will have owned or used Smartphones.

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