Monday, November 10, 2014

Seven Ways Social Media Has Destroyed Society

Ten years after the MySpace Revolution, the damage is all but irreversible.

The term “the genie is out of the bottle” became a popular expression to describe the proliferation of nuclear testing shortly after World War II. The same idiom holds true for the proliferation of social media in the wake of the Great Housing Crash -- only unlike the atomic arms race, society as we know it actually WAS obliterated by the latter technological advent.

To some, it may sound hyperbolic, but the rise of social media -- in tandem with the rise of the mobile web -- has utterly destroyed the social fabric of the United States. It’s altered our behavior, our perspectives on what’s culturally relevant and perhaps most importantly, how we choose to view each other as social system cohabitants.

How so, and to what extent, you're likely pondering? Well, here are seven irrefutable examples of the negative impact social media has had on our personal beliefs and behaviors...

1. It encourages, celebrates and rewards us for our conceits

In 2013, a trio of generic, gum-smacking blonde girls decided to rush the field during the College World Series. Prior to the stunt, the three posted numerous tweets asking their friends and families to chip in for bail money -- they then proceeded to interrupt the game, all the while holding their smart phones in front of their faces and web-casting their exploits to the world at large through, you guessed it, social media.

For their incredibly juvenile behavior, the self-absorbed, fame-obsessed threesome received heaps of retweets, Facebook postings and Vine tributes. Poetically, they then saw their shameless attention-seeking backfire on them, as scores of Internet haters and creepers ascended upon them like locusts on Egypt.

The advent of social media allows insecure people the constant ability to seek, beg and pander for affirmation and in-group approval. Each like on Facebook and every thumbs up on a YouTube video has become popularity quite literally commoditized, the new currency of a generation that perpetually demands to be told how great, special and unique they are. The ethos of the social media generation? Nothing means more than attention and acknowledgement ... even if it means being arrested in order to garner it.

2. It has nothing to do with interpersonal communication anymore

One could argue that when social media sites like MySpace, YouTube and Twitter began, they were intended for niche, localized communication only. Indeed, that was the precise point of Facebook, whose initial academic e-mail address requirement was built around who wasn’t on the service as much as it were the people who actually used it.

With the widespread popularity of such services, social media has most certainly lost its “localized” appeal. And with the entire world essentially serving as one’s in-group, it’s arguable that Facebook and Twitter can no longer be considered true avenues for interpersonal communication whatsoever.

When an individual posts something on Facebook or Twitter, the intended recipient of said message isn’t a single person. Indeed, it’s an electronic all-call to the entire planet, designed to garner as much attention and admiration/agreement as possible. Social media users aren't posting to specific people, they're broadcasting to a faceless, nameless culture-at-large -- more or less, the disembodied collective they seek to placate at all times.

3.  It gives us a false impression of what human interaction actually is

Social media communication and actual communication are about as similar as talking to another human being and muttering to a malfunctioning toaster. Sure, there’s a message, a channel and a recipient, but through the depersonalization Internet medium, it’s almost impossible to gage feedback adequately.

As a communication major, I can tell you firsthand how nuanced the art of discourse is. It’s an interpersonal activity that feeds into virtually all of the humanities, and it’s an absolute fundamental for all careers -- a skill that, more so than IQ, determines one’s success in society. If you don’t know how to talk to others, you’ll never have a job, find a spouse, be able to purchase a home or even order a meal; in essence, live a normal life.

The problem with social media, obviously, is that it’s diminishing our abilities to vocally communicate with others. Texting, e-mails and Twitter posts don’t require the same instantaneous feedback that face-to-face communication requires, nor does its really allow people to learn and understand the mechanics of communication, such as tempo, code switching and asking questions. Ours is becoming a culture that’s less sociable, and the Internet certainly plays a massive role in that. Not only are we losing our abilities to talk -- to externalize our thoughts and express needs and wants to others -- we’re also losing our ability to understand what others are saying. We can’t determine what’s serious and what’s not, what’s sincere and what isn’t, or even grasp the central content of other people’s oratory. Human communication is all about our individual subtleties … and unfortunately, those are almost entirely filtered out in social media interactions.

4. It deceives us into thinking our opinions actually mean something

The wide open public sphere it is, the Internet has allowed a diverse array of opinions and beliefs to flourish in fringe, online communities. The interconnectivity of social media, obviously, has given these nobodies the venue to share their madness/banality with the totality of humanity; subsequently, its all given us the illusion that our personal lives are astoundingly more significant than they actually are.

Bloggers and YouTubers think they have the social impact of mass media conglomerates and legitimate authors and journalists. The nominal connection to the masses Facebook, Twitter and Reddit provide also erroneously goad social media users that they, in some incarnation, are personally linked to media outlets and celebrities. In short, it's given the social media faithful a major delusion that they are indeed broadcasting something worthwhile to the world at large, when really, all they are doing is shouting wholly irrelevant nonsense into virtually insignificant pockets of online space.

By and large, people post things on social media -- from their lunches on Snapchat to political diatribes on Google Plus -- because they want others to think their musings or opinions are important. Hell, the whole reason social media has been the success it is is because global society has become obsessed with in-group approval and mass affirmation. Eventually, these people will come to the conclusion that their online gibberish has been utterly insignificant to the whole of humanity -- and the end dividends, I am afraid, could be rather ugly, indeed.

5. It’s decimating the English language … and our attention spans

Something very interesting has happened to SAT scores over the last 10 years. For all the hullabaloo we’ve heard about U.S. students lacking science and math skills, the overall STEM subject scores have been on an upward trajectory in America for quite some time. Conversely, the nation’s verbal test scores have gone down considerably over the same timeframe.

It’s apparent that more children and teens have a better grasp of numbers and technology, but at the same time, it’s also apparent today’s youth are less deft with conversation, the mechanics of written English and, perhaps most troubling, contextual comprehension.

Reading, and understanding content, requires an attention span. To really grasp the context of the written word, you have to focus in on the wording and assess passages as standalone thoughts and ideas and components of larger contexts. Social media communication doesn’t result in the same narrative -- indeed, it’s just a jumbled mishmash of  random thoughts, YouTube videos and GIF images that tell no real story or make any sort of central statements about anything. The mandated brevity of sites like Twitter hasn’t made us wittier and more concise -- it’s just led to us mashing out banal messages, littered with hash tags and at-symbols, that more closely resemble lines of corrupted computer code than human-typed messages. The term "tl;dr" isn't just a popular Internet maxim ... indeed, it's the culture at large  attempting to downplay -- and in some ways, even embrace -- its own cognitive deficits.

6. It deindividualizes users and reinforces herd dynamics

The perceived anonymity of the Internet allows users to do and say things they probably would never do in real life. As a result, social media has led to the entire nation developing disassociate personality disorder -- we are no longer just ourselves, but ourselves as real life self and Internet self.

Forget about Gen Y’s infatuation with webutations, its today’s elementary schoolers who concern me the most. To them, the world wide web is more important than the world itself, their online spaces and communications having far greater weight than their real life environments and interactions. As mobile technologies become more advanced, I imagine an entire generation of youths such as the kid featured in this New York Times story becoming the norm. Consider this a harbinger of an impending culture, utterly dependent on technology, unable to perceive the reality around themselves without a machine doing the interpretation for them. If today’s social media obsessed throngs are deindividuated by the web, than Gen Z will be utterly atomized by it.

Another concern is the hive-mindedness social media creates. By design, it rewards populist opinions and ideals (in Facebook-Land, with a common currency, even -- likes), while sites like YouTube and Reddit are more or less dictated by ideologues who flag and vote down everything that doesn’t jive with their own convictions. Instead of expressing our own opinions, we find ourselves responding to criticisms and complex input with meme images and infantilized webspeak. The more social media we participate in, the less personal identity we seem to hold onto ... what some call "collective immersion," I would prefer to call "individual suffocation."

7. It has convinced us that doing nothing is an actual activity

Web activism is the ultimate oxymoron; the celebration of inactivity as some kind of legitimate, meaningful personal behavior. We all remember the mass movement, where everybody changed their Facebook profile pic to that of a cartoon character to combat child abuse, right? Well, do you care to take a guess as to how much capital that little cyber-demonstration raised for actual child advocacy groups?

If you guessed "absolutely fucking nothing," you sir/madam/transir/transmadam, would be right on the money. That, in a nutshell, demonstrates everything wrong with social media as cultural movement -- it's highly depersonalized and highly ineffective behavior perceived to be individualized and influential. The reality? All it is is the mere submersion of the self into an amorphous culture, hardly any different from passively watching television or listening to a car radio.The only difference is, social media users think they're doing something by doing nothing, that their online postings constitute some sort of legitimate, valuable commentary. We literally celebrate our own laziness, having convinced ourselves that simply placing a hashtag in front of the political term du jour constitutes a real response to something. 

Social media use, effectively, is nothing more than public masturbation, only with a far worse outcome. It's a vehicle for us to spit out our most insignificant thoughts, and a medium whose primary use is quickly transforming from meaningless chatter to more nefarious uses -- stalking, harassing and even facilitating actual crimes, among them. Instead of a social tool, Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat are probably only a few years away from becoming social weapons, online libraries of our worst behaviors visible to anybody with the interest. Today, social media  is mostly pointless babble, but tomorrow? Expect it to make all of our lives a real living hell.

Alas, social media appears to be here to stay, I fear. We can't eradicate it, so the best we can hope for is to contain it, keep it in check, and just pray that the worst case scenario -- could you imagine a Target / J.P. Morgan sized breach of all Facebook users? -- doesn't come to pass.

Still, it may be that the absolute worst has already happened, that all that social media irradiation has caused malignant polyps to surface on our communal body now.

And the worst part? Unlike an actual tumor, this is a cancer we can easily share with each other.


  1. Mr. X,
    Your writing is extraordinary. I have some questions I'd like to ask about this post and about "Ignoring the Biggest Problem in American Society?" Do you have a public email address where I could submit them?

    Thank you and keep up the good work.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. If the Internet could be social it would be outside social media.

  4. In a bit of an ironic twist, the use of the word "decimating" to mean "causing great destruction to" itself represents a language devolution. Directly related to the word "decimal," "decimate" once meant specifically "to reduce by one-tenth." Now it's often applied in situations in which a reduction by only a tenth would represent a gross understatement. #wordnerd

  5. Mate, you are on the money. Well researched, well written and, in fact, faultless. There's every chance this social media stuff is already a negative sum gain. Few people have noticed that the economy has left us with an 20/80 split. The 80% will become virtually serfs, cos all the money's going to the 20%. And remember, you may still think that people should be treated properly at work. That's changed as well. Previously, if you were treated badly, you could behave badly. But you can't now, because your job has been dumbed down to a series of movements and It doesn't really matter in any event. It seem the smart money is on our extinction in about 100 years, but it would have been better to retain our dignity. There was a time when there was a gin shop on every corner, and since people are weak, it wasn't pretty. And social media is like a gin shop / fruit machine that is always on, but it's far worse. The whole social media enterprise is focused on adding users and then doing whatever it takes to get them to stay online, and within the law, they will say, do or show any content that facilitates this.

    Remember Stephen Covey? In the 90's he sold about 25m copies of his 7 habits book. The chances of selling it today would be zero. I wonder if the principles will still be in force ? Looking through them is so quaint. They seem from another time and country.

    Sorry if this comes out wrong, I am in difficult circumstances, and leaving comments is unknown to me. So this is a great moment to ask - what is going on with people leaving comments in lists of over 10,000. Do they think anyone gives a toss what they think? About anything? People arrive and say 'Oi! You with the funny weird s**t. Are you stupid? The rest of you - don't worry, fools. Stop doing everything and just f*****g listen. I bring you the truth. My truth. The correct and only truth. No, I don't have any knowledge of the subject, but I think you'll find I can give you the truth on any subject under the sun. I barely need to think about it. I open my mouth and it spews out. Now f**k off, all of you. Goodnight'

    P.S. If you're expecting a 3D printer revolution to come along soon, there's a kinda sorta problem. It seems that almost overnight it will be a 100 billion market. If this is so, a lot of stuff will be everywhere. What kinda sorta stuff? We've had the kinda sorta time, since 1984, to work out what it kinda/sorta can do.

  6. This is brilliant. And timely. My wife and I were literally going through a process to 'cut the cord' to add some humanity back into our lives. There's a great book called "A Deadly Wandering" by Matt Richtel about the role of cell phones in our lives. In scientific terms, the dopamine hit we get from checking our cell phones over and over is also dangerous to our lives (the book actually uses a fatal car accident caused by texting as the backdrop). So many times, what we get from checking yet another message or news item or game update isn't terribly exciting, but it doesn't keep us from having that phone in our face more and more and more. If we know it can kill us in a car, why do we do it? And driving by the bus stop today and seeing two dozen junior high kids with the phone mashed in their faces instead of talking to their friends, why as parents are we allowing it? We've unbridled from Facebook. If I want to talk to my true friends, I'll call them and invite them out for a bevvie. :)

  7. Like all powerfull human constructs, social media is ahead of our ability to use it responsibly.
    As a species, our emotional intelligence remains only slightly better than a chimpanzee.
    We always get ahead of ourselves because of greed and the desire for material wealth and/or
    power. Socio/psychopathic behaviours permeate the Internet on every level.
    It's just the latest atomic bomb for chimps to play with.
    It still amazes me though, that I walk down the street looking at people glued to their elec
    devices oblivious to the world around them. Maybe it's just apart of a grand plan to thin the


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