Home Articles The decline of social media in the 2010s: A status report

The decline of social media in the 2010s: A status report

Facebook hasn’t made folks happy in a very long while. Maybe it’s because its new stance on privacy looks just like its old stances on privacy. Perhaps the whole Russian disinformation thing looks bad. But could it be even deeper than that?

If the striving for social status is to be used as a major explanatory variable for social behavior then it becomes particularly important to reach clearer understanding of the nature of social status itself. We need a theory of social status explaining how the various members’ relative rank and status is determined in social groups: a theory explaining what makes social groups grant higher social status to some of their members, and what makes these members themselves seek higher social status within the group.

  -John C. Harsanyi, University of California at Berkeley
  A Bargaining Model for Social Status in Informal Groups and Formal Organizations, 1966

“We don’t have the strongest reputation on privacy right now,” admitted Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at his company’s conference last April, as he was rolling out yet another new vision for Facebook’s infrastructure.

Typically, social media has been the world’s most effective system of disseminating hyperbole, so Zuckerberg’s statement on stage that day was comparably extraordinary. Facebook’s privacy incidents over the years have been so numerous and so severe, ZDNet has already established a kind of hall of fame for them. At the summit of this list is an incident that may literally have changed the world, covered in depth by ZDNet’s Charlie Osborne: the policy-breaking sharing of at least 87 million personal records of Facebook users worldwide, with the political operations group Cambridge Analytica.  As ZDNet’s Zack Whittaker reported, this firm has been linked with disinformation campaigns responsible for stirring political activism favoring the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, and favoring the Republican candidate in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Last February, a UK Parliament select committee laid much of the blame for this illicit connection, and the extraordinary aftermaths that have followed, at the feet of Mark Zuckerberg. As the committee’s report found [PDF]:

The scale and importance of the GSR/Cambridge Analytica breach was such that its occurrence should have been referred to Mark Zuckerberg as its CEO immediately. The fact that it was not is evidence that Facebook did not treat the breach with the seriousness it merited. It was a profound failure of governance within Facebook that its CEO did not know what was going on, the company now maintains, until the issue became public to us all in 2018. The incident displays the fundamental weakness of Facebook in managing its responsibilities to the people whose data is used for its own commercial interests.

Facebook, according to recent statistics compiled by Web analytics firm StatCounter, remains responsible for generating about two-thirds of the world’s social media-related web activity. Its millions of users (many of them real), find themselves in a situation that would have astounded Ray Bradbury. The powers that would resuscitate the Soviet Empire were found by intelligence services to have conducted a disinformation scheme targeting the Western world, especially the United Kingdom and United States. The scheme’s primary tools were Facebook, Instagram (part of Facebook), Twitter, Google Plus (now defunct), and YouTube (part of Google).

The apparent aims of these powers, directed by Russia, did indeed come to fruition, and spectacularly so. Citizens of the UK voted in favor of their country exiting the European Union. A reality show host with no public service experience was elected President of the United States. And a comedian who had the good fortune of portraying on television the President of Ukraine — an adjacent country whose territory these powers would like to see annexed — was elected President of Ukraine. There is no evidence that disinformation campaigns were directly responsible for any of these events — that agitation by social media changed people’s votes, or that these trends are directly correlated. But that has always been the case with disinformation: It masks its own evidence trail.

All this may explain the serenity and self-confidence, if indeed his emotions can be read so clearly, with which Mark Zuckerberg wrote off this incident, along with all the other in the growing mountain, as a glitch.

Reward center

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“As our world has expanded,” Zuckerberg told his conference audience at one point, “we face a new challenge: We all need to find our place in this much bigger world, and it can be hard to find and feel like you have a unique sense of purpose when you’re connected to billions of people at the same time. Privacy gives us the freedom to be ourselves. It’s easier to feel like you belong when you’re part of smaller communities, and amongst your closest friends.

“So it’s no surprise,” the CEO continued, “that the fastest ways that we’re all communicating online are private messaging, in small groups, and in stories. As the world gets bigger and more connected, we need that sense of intimacy more than ever.”

Anyone who’s written or outlined public speeches for a living can detect when a paragraph or a passage has been specially constructed to move the listener’s attention past a glaring mistake. Zuckerberg’s is the kind of language defense attorneys use to plea with juries. It wraps us in the warm blanket of an altruistic society, and casts his platform as the source of that warmth. It invites us to make judgment calls that relocate the focus of our deliberations to how we feel, and whether we’re happy.

Happiness is a chemical reaction. The neurochemical considered primarily responsible for the feeling of pleasure, is dopamine. Human beings often choose behavioral patterns that streamline, or even hard-wire, the reception of dopamine. Addiction is often the result of hard-wiring the brain’s dopamine-consuming reward centers in such a way that the behaviors triggering these rewards seem unavoidable.

Dopamine enters our story of the decline of social media at this point for a non-coincidental reason: Facebook’s entire premise, some researchers and psychologists believe, is as a system geared to trigger the reward centers of its users’ brains, as a means of continuing and ensuring their usage patterns.

Anxiety attack

The notion that social media can become the object of an addiction is by no means new, especially to this publication. Almost nine years ago, ZDNet contributor Zack Whittaker shared his personal story of the similarities he noticed in his life, between when he gave up Facebook for a week and when he gave up smoking. Later, Zack shared his observationsabout the conditions one should recognize, both in one’s life and mindset, that should serve as signals of being addicted to using social media platforms.

As ZDNet reported, researchers developed a quantitative means of rating one’s interactivity levels with Facebook, to determine whether one officially crossed the threshold into obsession. Quickly, someone designated an appropriate acronym for the catalyst of this obsession: FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). In 2013, the Oxford Dictionary officially adopted the term as a legitimate word. ZDNet’s Eileen Brown reported on a survey claimed to present evidence that everyone suffers from FOMO to one degree or another. Which turned out to be a good thing, as marketers discovered clients could leverage FOMO to their advantage in attracting and retaining customers.

As with any substance that loses its rewarding effects over time, marketers should be warned that leveraging FOMO as a customer attraction tool, has its limits. As Harvard Medical School summarizes it, “Addiction exerts a long and powerful influence on the brain that manifests in three distinct ways: craving for the object of addiction, loss of control over its use, and continuing involvement with it despite adverse consequences.”

According to the Rand Corporation, results of a 2018 survey published by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health found a correlation among people aged 14 to 24 between use of Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook and negative mental health symptoms. This correlation, argue the authors of King University’s report “The Psychology of Social Media” [PDF] is a physical one that, with the right equipment, can actually be seen:  “The ventral tegmental area (VTA) is one of the primary parts responsible for determining the rewards system in people’s bodies,” King U. explains.  “When social media users receive positive feedback (likes), their brains fire off dopamine receptors, which is facilitated in part by the VTA.”

Around the same time, a University of Pittsburgh study published in the American Journal of Health Behavior examined the social media behavior patterns of 1,730 individuals ranging in age from 19 to 32. Participants in this study used social media to varying degrees, and were clustered into categories based on their usage patterns. What concerned these researchers most was an apparent correlation between the high-usage “Wired” group’s online behavior, and their other personal traits which are already associated with anxiety and depression:

It may be that this particular pattern of SMU [social media use] is indicative of a preoccupation with, and hyper-vigilant surveillance of, one’s social media.  For example, Wired individuals may routinely engage in attention seeking behaviors, reflected in high volume SMU, such as frequent status updates and subsequent checking for “likes.” This preoccupation may lead to depression if the individual does not receive the desired feedback from his or her social media audience.  Similarly, “fear of missing out” (FOMO), characterized by the desire to stay continually connected, and “Snapstreaks,” metrics of consecutive daily “Snaps” between friends on Snapchat, may contribute to a hyper-vigilant social media surveillance.  These social media-derived behaviors may mimic and contribute to symptoms of anxiety. 

A subsequent project, this time not by psychiatrists but by the business school of South Korea’s Sangji University [PDF], attempted to draw relationships between these and other, similar studies being conducted at the time. This project used statistical analysis to correlate what psychiatrists were seeing with the phenomena that social media users themselves were reporting in their survey results.

In fairness, the Sangji report ostensibly casts its own conclusions as “hypotheses.” Yet it makes some bold, stark propositions: High social media use, particularly with Facebook, may initially be driven by people’s need to belong. This need is especially intense among people prone to narcissistic personality disorder, whose dopamine centers are triggered by the needs for self-presentation and for admiration. Once the cycle of social media use begins, users who exhibit the traits of addicts also display traits of voyeurism, observing other people’s lives as a substitute for the human relationships they have been unable to build for themselves.

False positive…

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