by adam mathes
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Social Media is an Amoral Force Of Destruction

Our algorithmically optimized systems of media distribution today are not self-correcting for anything but engagement and retention. They optimize for addiction.

That’s what they are designed to do. That’s why consumers use them, that’s why advertisers buy attention in the form of advertising. That’s their business model.

We should not be surprised that misinformation, hate speech, abuse, trolling and other worst case scenarios have become rampant.

This is the unfortunate logical conclusion to an advertiser based business model that optimizes for audience growth, scale and usage.

Only Software Companies And Drug Dealers Call The Clients Users

To complain about it, and demand those who own these systems take responsibility for it seems to me a bit like complaining to a drug cartel that they aren’t selling a version of cocaine that creates a more wholesome, productive environment amongst the community.

You’re trying to reason with a drug cartel. To make drugs less sellable.

It’s against their interests and anathema to their culture.

So good luck with that.

(In the case of Facebook, it’s more like trying to argue with a giant pharmaceutical company that enjoys profits from selling prescription versions of opiates.)

Change The Context

The drug analogy is extreme but useful framing. I don’t advocate prohibition of social media anymore so than I advocate it for drugs. (I voted to legalize marijuana last week in California, as did the majority of voters here.)

You don’t solve the problems of drug addiction by going after drug addicts or dealers, as the US has realized in a pointless war on drugs for decades. You treat addicts with compassion and offer help, and you change the economics and dynamics of the industry by movimg it from an underground economy to a regulated industry.

Beyond that, fundamentally, you have create a world where selling drugs and taking drugs aren’t the most appealing options available.

As technologists and designers in the sphere of consumer internet and media, we as an industry have utterly failed when hyper-optimized feeds fueled by incessant integrated advertising is the best we can do after decades.

This is how we want people to exchange ideas and communicate?


Telling people to quit social media is like telling humans to become luddites, stop talking to their friends, miss out on the dominant means of communication and publishing and audience, and retreat to a weird abandoned backwater that is the formerly fun but now ghost town independent internet.

Sure, you can do it, but it’s not practical. The fact that I can do it is a rare privilege and is not without significant personal cost.

Asking users to fight against the tide of addictive social software that constantly optimizes itself, and customize the software and modify their behavior to use it in a less “awful” way is an equally difficult ask. (Please use opiates responsibly!)

We can build tools to help, but fundamentally the whole mechanism of media now is asymmetric warfare for our minds.

No, I Don’t Blame The Media

For the record, I believe institutional forces for globalization that have ignored the impacts on normal humans for decades are the fundamental ‘why’ behind 2016’s presidential election results. I don’t actually think media is at fault but it’s clear that both social media platforms, and establishment media outlets aren’t coming out of this unscathed.

For me, this is the sad, inevitable result of seeing the power of the independent internet movement coopted by giant companies. I’ve been writing about this and trying to make sense of it for years:

When people talk about how Facebook needs to change to deal with this, what seems saddest to me is that we are even having this conversation. We seemed to have a decentralized system that arguably was able to self-correct, or at least change itself rapidly and be responsive. Adapt. Without single points of failure.

Instead of that we are now left with centralized gatekeepers that are even less responsive and responsible than the old gatekeepers.

Traditional broadcast stations are regulated by the FCC and have to serve the public interests, theoretically.

Journalists, as a profession and as part of institutions, tend to act as though they have certain ethics and norms to uphold independent of the profit motive. (Sometimes. Sort of. In theory. You get the idea.)

We as people let Facebook and other companies get into this position by giving up freedom for convenience and audience.

Social media isn’t moral or immoral in its distribution and choices – it’s much more terrifying. Being optimized for engagement is amoral. And that is something that is going to be somewhere between very, very difficult and impossible to ever change in the current powerful entities.

What Then

I want to rely on decentralized, self-correcting systems that have different incentives aligned with the betterment of people.

That’s what I’d like to find a way to change.