A social dilemma

I’ve reached that point in the year where I’m starting to think about what I’m going to focus on next year. I’ve spent an unseasonably warm December afternoon re-watching the Social Dilemma on Netflix and right now I’m trying to figure out whether the problems we face as humans on this planet are going to be solved by engaging with social media platforms, or whether their only purpose is to divide or pacify us into certain annihilation.

Whilst technology can help us achieve some amazing things, it can also waste our time; encourage us to over-spend; disinhibit us enough to say things to people we would never say in person; and allow us to be manipulated by those with a vested interests –particularly at election time.

In or out

This year I have been merrily working on a photography project over on Flickr (and my other website), taking a photo each day and posting it to a Flickr group. It has forced me to get out of the house most days and spend time alone in the woods. Whilst there has been days where I’ve felt uninspired, the act of getting out and moving around in all weathers has been therapeutic.

I like that with Flickr, what I see in my news feed is just from the people I follow and the groups I’m participating in. I pay £6 a month for a Pro account to remove all of the adverts, plus I can add photos to albums, get them printed and do all sorts of other things with them. Yet I don’t feel as though I’m being manipulated when I spend time on the site.

However, with “free” platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, the view I see is designed to hook me in and keep me scrolling, all the while pumping in adverts and product placements. Two otherwise identical accounts, following the same people may see a radically different feed depending on how each user has engaged with the site.

Technology’s promise to keep us connected has given rise to a host of unintended consequences that are catching up with us. If we can’t address our broken information ecosystem, we’ll never be able to address the challenges that plague humanity.

The Dilemma – The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma talks about how the data that is collected by these platforms is used to keep us engaged and to push us in a particular direction –to one that is more appealing to advertisers. Unfortunately, these platforms aren’t very picky about who they sell your attention to, just so long as they have money. Another very good documentary called The Great Hack talks at length about how Facebook data was used to manipulate voters in the run up to both the election that put Trump in the White House, but also the EU referendum.

Their creative team designed “personalised content” to “trigger those individuals”, Kaiser added. “We bombarded them through blogs, websites, articles, videos, ads, every platform you can imagine. Until they saw the world the way we wanted them to… Until they voted for our candidate.”

The Great Hack on Netflix, summarised

So, we’re in a world that on the one hand, seems to depend on social media, but also one that demands that we address the climate and biodiversity crisis before civilisation shudders to a screeching halt. With that in mind, who is going to put its hands in its pockets to ensure that social media and climate action align so that we make progress? I’m not sure, to be quite honest. Climate action to date has largely been the preserve of charities and motivated groups and individuals. I very much doubt that the likes of Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion have enough cash to drown out the Koch family; the car industry; Exxon Mobil, BP and Shell.

The only way would be for social media platforms to take a stand, but in doing so would likely raise questions of impartiality that it has so far been keen to avoid. We saw what happened when Twitter took a stand following the 6th January riots in the US.

“We made a decision with the best information we had based on threats to physical safety both on and off Twitter,” Mr Dorsey said. He also accepted that the move would have consequences for an open and free internet.

Twitter boss: Trump ban is ‘right’ but ‘dangerous’ – BBC News

The question is whether the idea of an open and free internet is possible when advertising pays for the most popular websites and services on the internet today. As the saying goes, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.

Wherever there is advertising to be sold, where algorithms are in charge of what you see, there is always a vested interest in driving engagement whether or not it is the best thing for the user. We’ve already seen that advertisers aren’t precious about democracy or the viability of the planet, so what do we do?

There’s a strong argument for withdrawing from social media entirely, but perhaps by doing so we give up the middle-ground, only to be displaced by something else. I’ve withdrawn from various platforms on a number of occasions, only to end up getting drawn back in, but I cannot deny that being off them was absolutely wonderful.

As much as I like my cycling friends, cycling twitter is downright dystopian; Facebook has been awful for years and Instagram insists I format my photos in a certain way…whilst also being full of ads and selfies.

My plan for 2022

In looking for a project for the new year, I think I’ve got an idea. For 2022 I’m going to attempt to remove myself from a number of ad-supported platforms. The Twitter accounts I have will just post links to new posts on this website, but the app will be deleted from my phone, again. The Facebook and Instagram accounts have already gone.

YouTube will be a bit of a challenge. There are quite a few creators I enjoy watching on there, but most of what I see are people talking about new products –which amounts a 10-minute but undeniably verbose advert. Yet I have Netflix and Apple TV+ queues a mile long, so I’ll start whittling those down instead.

The rest of the time I plan to spend outside, in the woods.

Happy new year, everyone.

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