It’s popular to hate social media. I don’t. Here’s why.
The first social medium was, and remains, air. Groups of human beings, communicating: this is our society. Speaking to others is significantly underrated.
As I like to tell the various beautiful young companions accompanying me throughout my life: my people have a long oral tradition.
Writing systems have been around for a long time, but weren’t very meaningful to the whole of society until they became cheap and mass produced. We celebrate Gutenberg for the invention of mass-produced written communications, carefully ignoring the fact that the first mass-produced work was a horrific and contradictory collection of ancient desert superstitions. Fortunately, the technology was not permanently constrained to printing such nonsense, and for hundreds of years our society has had libraries full of all types of information available to millions. Paper was the second social medium, and its use was tightly controlled by existing power structures for a long while. Despite that, Sam Clemens once famously wrote “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”
The electronic age brought us several new forms in relatively rapid succession. Telegraphy and radio, followed by television and mobile IP networking all basically happened at the same time (within 100 years) on the timescale we are discussing.
To bring it back to basics for a moment: humans talking to other humans is a good thing. It is what enables us to have a society and a culture. It is what enables us to organize for peace and prosperity. It also enables governments, militaries, war, and other types of criminal conspiracies. It allows those same groups to normalize and even glorify violence, racism, nationalism, and all other sorts of ingroup/outgroup rallying that our human history has found to be so senselessly destructive. But, also, recall: without human communication there would be nothing to destroy!
Communication is a tool, and it is overwhelmingly a force for good, from the authorship of a book to a phone call with a loved one far away. Human beings use communication to create and love billions of times more often than they use communication to destroy.
For the first time in history, many millions of everyday people are granted access to technology that allows them to speak to billions of people, essentially for free. For the entirety of human history, this powerful ability was always reserved for the sole and exclusive use of the preexisting powerful. It is still not universally available, but it is available to several billions—several billions more than the tiny fraction that jealously guarded it for centuries.
Think of the common complaints against modern social media: spam, trolls, harassment. Remember the size of the audience into which someone is publishing. Sites like Facebook or LinkedIn are one-to-40 publishing, where your posts are usually visible only to those you have accepted as “Friends”. Sites like Instagram and Twitter are one-to-7 billion: you are publishing to the entirety of Earth (or at least the half that is connected to the internet). Add in replies (from that same group), and things get really interesting! Everyone can say anything they want, nobody can shout over them, and everyone can reply in full, to everyone else. Sounds great, huh? The network effects of fully linked human communications should be superlinear, and benefit humans everywhere.
Unfortunately it turns out that modern social media is run by a small number of large corporations, designed explicitly to extract rent over preexisting normal human contact by and between friends or speakers and their audiences. I believe that this is a temporary state of affairs, but a terrible one nonetheless. They serve as gatekeepers to further their own interests (specifically, not those of you or your friends).
If anyone can talk to anyone without gatekeeping or third party interference (as it should be in a free society), then pretty much every communication beyond “the sky is blue” or “it is rainy today” is bound to receive all manner of replies: advertising things indiscriminately, telling you you’re wrong, telling you that your mother does unsavory things dockside, et c.
For a moment, put aside the fact that you may or may not want to read any of that, or spend time thinking about any of that. Any time that doesn’t happen, considering how many people are on the internet and the theoretical ideal of any-to-any communication, then some communications are being censored (or you’re posting about the weather/your kids and your content is so boring that nobody bothers to read it). The why and the how of that censorship should interest you, even if you like or benefit from it most of the time (such as not seeing constant spam in your DMs).
Who is permitted to create accounts to speak? What money, rights, privacy, or information must they give up to do so? Who doesn’t have access to the prerequisites for an account and is excluded from the public square? How many different accounts are people permitted? Can people create new accounts anonymously? How much or how often are they permitted to post? On which topics? How many people are they permitted to message? You can’t follow every single account on Twitter, for example. You can’t DM a million people in one day.
You, a normal user of social media services, have probably never bumped up against any of these invisible walls. They’re designed specifically so that you’ll never know they’re there—their surveillance systems know exactly how many “normal” users would be negatively affected by different thresholds, and they are set appropriately so that you’ll never notice.
However, make no mistake: they bind you, and they bind everyone else that uses these platforms too. You are living in an invisible cage when you post content to a site you do not control. Your every post and interaction enriches them and attracts more flies to the pool of honey, and grants them more and more power to control the most fundamental and common communications in our society.
A good example: You can use Twitter to organize the overthrow of many governments; just not the one in power where Twitter’s executives live.
A better example: I didn’t find out about the death of a friend until months after their funeral, because the machine algorithms in use by the big social media services do not present information in standard reverse-chronological order: they sort by showing you the things that are most likely to be interesting/enticing first, in the hopes that you will use the site longer and view more ads and generate more revenue for the operator. (They also spy on you and everyone else, silently, to keep track of how much time you spend in the app and what you read within it, so that they can tune that same sorting algorithm for maximum effectiveness.)
They’ve inserted themselves in between you and your friends, or you and your audience/customers. If your friends’ posts are deemed by their algorithms to be less likely to generate them the maximum amount of interaction and ad revenue, to the bottom they go. If you don’t scroll enough, it is as if your friend had never posted it, or as if the service had intentionally deleted it.
It’s impossible to prioritize some entries in a list without simultaneously de-prioritizing others. Algorithmic “timelines” are censorship, plain and simple.
As one of my favorite people sometimes says, “miss me with that shit.” I will miss reading his stories on Instagram when I delete my account this Friday.
“Instagram is so thirsty, yet gives you Death by Water”
—@elonmusk, after deleting Tesla and SpaceX pages on both Facebook and Instagram
I personally feel that contributing to these systems of centralized and arbitrary censorship is a dangerous choice, not only for the immediate and practical effects, but because of the network effects: if you use a system, your friends are more inclined to use that system as a result of your implicit endorsement, and we all as a group turn over more and more power and control to these invisible, unaccountable organizations that divide us as often as they connect us. (More often, perhaps, as most content posted is not very “engaging”.)
I opt out. I publish on my own website, on my own domain name. If my provider decides to censor what I write, I will get a new provider, and you will always read what I have to say as I said it, when I said it (if you wish). If my domain registrar decides the same, I will get a new domain name and I will email all of you for whom I have addresses and tell you about it.
I encourage you to do the same. Stop using these services that censor your most basic communications between friends. Delete your accounts on Instagram and on Facebook. Uninstall their apps. Delete Twitter if they ever disable the ability to view a chronological list of messages from those you follow.
I commonly hear people complain of Instagram and Facebook, saying that they would delete them if they could, but their existence as businesspeople requires that they use it for marketing and brand awareness. To that I say: find another way. If you continue to use these systems, you implicitly endorse them, and your customers and audience and friends will continue to use them, and every single day you lose more and more power against them.
(If Tesla and SpaceX can get by without an Instagram account, you probably can too.)
Already, centralized systems like Google are starting to marginalize email, one of the last remaining methods of true any-to-any communication, by marking as spam any message (not just spam!) not sent from a large, centralized email provider, so that your customers or friends are less likely to see messages from you if you use a different provider.
Anil Dash puts it plainly. “Link In Bio” is a slow knife:
We don’t even notice it anymore — “link in bio”. It’s a pithy phrase, usually found on Instagram, which directs an audience to be aware that a pertinent web link can be found on that user’s profile. Its presence is so subtle, and so pervasive, that we barely even noticed it was an attempt to kill the web.
Instagram is engaging in an all-out assault on the free and open web. This should concern you if you care at all about publishing of any kind.
I highly recommend that you read the rest of his short and excellent article on the topic.
These companies are not here to connect you. They are your adversaries, and they are here to extract as much money as possible out of you and your friends, by performing constant surveillance of your every social interaction, or by selling you ads to ensure placement in the streams of your audience who is already following you. They exist to make it as difficult as possible to exit their systems, to perpetuate their control. This is not help, this is gatekeeping and toll collecting.
Delete your Facebook. Delete your Instagram.
Get your friends’ email addresses, and communicate directly. Don’t give away your power of basic communication to third parties to decide what is read, when, or by whom. The more normal that constant surveillance and universally censored communication becomes, the more danger our society faces.
It’s your basic responsibility to those around you in human society to reject use of these systems and to warn your family and friends.
Sign up to receive updates directly from me, and reject corporate control over what you’re allowed to see and read: https://sneak.berlin/list.
Jeffrey Paul is a hacker and security researcher living in Berlin and the founder of EEQJ, a consulting and research organization.