You may have noticed that increasingly comparisons are being made between social media and unhealthy habits like smoking. It’s not a surprise given that many first generation innovations started life unhealthy until we worked out a better alternative.
The narrative today is that we’ve become unnaturally addicted to our screens and social media is the suspected cause as it appears purpose built for frequent usage. I don’t know for certain that is true but the evidence is mounting up. This report by Broadbandsearch.net estimates an average of 2-3 hours spent on social media in 2020 but you can imagine that has grown out of control during Covid. All that screen time and distraction could be taking a toll on our mental health (here’s a piece I wrote before ‘Beware of Social Media Empathy Burnout Fatigue Syndrome).
Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’ documentary rightly pointed out that tech companies don’t refer to ‘customers’, they call them ‘users’. Maybe we shouldn’t read too much into that but we can’t deny their goals drive unhealthy amounts of use. The performance indicators revolve around number of views, clicks and shares – as often as humanly possible. In the industry you regularly hear questions like ‘how do we hook in users?’, ‘how can we lock our users into a daily habit?’ (Or even ‘hourly’). This unhealthy objective is a persuasive argument to stop and think.
On a positive note we should consider that this is normal for any new technological innovation. It’s the path that we humans always seem to take whenever a new, popular product enters our everyday lives. We are wired it seems to try it, get carried away, push it to it’s limits and figure out where the boundary is, then try to fix it. However, we do try to course correct as soon as the alarm starts ringing. There are daily stories of the impact of social media over use and the negative long term effects.
So where have we seen this before? I’ll start with a few selected, broad examples of new innovations that started out hugely popular but ultimately unhealthy in their first generation.
One of the most influential innovations in history occurred within food production and distribution. Synthetic fertilizers dramatically increased crops, but they also came with consequences. Toxic pesticides released into the environment stubbornly remain behind, harming humans and animals. Once we became aware, we sought alternative food sources and safer chemicals. The organic produce industry originated out of a demand for healthy alternatives. At first, people objected to the cost and couldn’t ‘see’ a difference in organic. Now we see it everywhere. Many of us seek out the organic option and are willing to pay for it. Maybe an organic version of social media will emerge that doesn’t immediately present its benefits.
The growth of the auto industry meant more fossil fuels for powering and manufacturing automobiles and most modes of transport. We have to balance the convenience and benefits with the impact on the climate. After decades of growth we finally see an alternative in the form of electric vehicles starting to take hold. There are plenty of tradeoffs by switching to electric and some might argue, the manufacturing process of EV’s still harm the environment. The big picture outlook for all electric transportation seems better than what we have now. It’s this same outlook we need for social media. Yes there may be some tradeoffs at first but as we develop the technology, the gaps will disappear. A new type of social media could feel the same as we get used to a slower, less noisy web.
Almost every product these days has a ‘Clean’ version. Skincare, hair products, makeup, body lotions, soaps, everything now has an equivalent without the added harmful ingredients. We innocently used these products for years, not realizing they contained chemicals that are now known to cause various illnesses. Maybe we got away with it because the amounts were so small that we didn’t immediately notice their effect. In the same way we consume social media in small increments and probably won’t notice the effects building up. Cleaner versions are usually more expensive (you sense a theme here) and sometimes don’t work as instantly as their originals. It’s made up for in the satisfaction you feel that you’re protecting your body. Perhaps that’s how the future ‘clean tech’ might feel too.
There are many more examples. Industrial manufacturing, Plastic, Cleaning products, Medicine, the list goes on.
Everything we consume is undergoing a personal reflection. We are asking ourselves first – Is it good for us and the planet?
Generations of innovative technologies follow this pattern – we improve once we realize the true impact. As usage grows exponentially, it’s hard to know (or notice) that harm is being done. While we’re in that exciting early stage, data that could help us recognize the effects might be ignored, suppressed or not yet available. We don’t know if it’s intentional or just inevitable human nature.
The next generation
Eventually it does catch up with us. The pollution, the health problems, the effects on the climate, it all reveals itself. It takes a long time for us to recognize and it’s not in everyone’s interest to let the dangers be known. Someone is likely lose money. But with every change, there are new, better options. Further down the road, these can also make money. Organic produce, electric vehicles, recyclable packaging, clean beauty, organic clothing, these are thriving industries. The same could go for social media.
One day we may look back at our ‘primitive’ social media and ask ourselves – why we put up with so much negative impact?
Why did we let our mental health suffer just to relieve our boredom? Why did we let ourselves be swayed by misinformation so easily?
It’s still early. The internet is young and impressionable. I hope there will be a ‘clean tech’ or an ‘organic tech’ one day. The closest thing we have now is a movement building on a ‘human centered tech’. It’s a start and it’s gaining momentum. Whatever we call it, there is a fast growing school of thought that it’s time for something different. A healthier, more responsible version of the social media we have today.