The history of the world since the 2010s is intertwined with social media, driving social movements and changing the political landscape in multiple countries.
But why is social media so powerful? The answer comes down to two important technical innovations: the Like and Share buttons.
While these features shaped platforms in powerful ways, they’ve also contributed to the way the social media experience has been ruined for many users.
Why the Like and Share Buttons Are So Powerful
The first social media website was SixDegrees.com, which was launched in 1997. Other early sites included MySpace (with many people still feeling that MySpace was better than today’s social media) and Friendster. Facebook and Twitter followed soon after in 2004 and 2005 respectively.
In those early years, people used social media as a sort of digital photo album and a place to keep up with what family and friends were doing. Social media was generally a nice and friendly place where most people were on their best behavior, just like in the physical world.
But in 2009, everything changed. Facebook introduced the Like button and Twitter introduced the Retweet button, changing the way we give feedback to and share content. Facebook later copied Twitter’s Retweet button with its own Share button.
In just a few years, all social media platforms also had their own Like and Share buttons. These two buttons gave users the power to decide which post gained wide public exposure by liking and sharing it, a phenomenon we came to know as going viral.
According to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, writing in The Atlantic, “Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly”. Authentic and meaningful connections no longer mattered.
This made our lives “uniquely stupid”, writes Haidt, as social media became a dystopian space where authentic interactions were replaced by performative interactions designed to attract the most likes, the most retweets, and the most shares.
Because going viral on social media has become so important, it has brought out the worst in us.
Here are the ways the Like and Share buttons ruined social media, drove us apart, and changed the world…
1. The Volume of Noise and Outrage Has Gone Up
When the share buttons showed up, the process of spreading posts became easy and nearly instantaneous. As a consequence, users started sharing more on the basis of emotion and impulse without thinking about what they were sharing. And what they were sharing the most is what angered them the most.
This caused outrage and disinformation to consistently go viral on both Twitter and Facebook, drowning out everything else. As a result, the press, politicians, and many users and content sites started to tailor their posts to spark outrage in hopes of being shared or retweeted.
2. The Level of Trust Has Gone Down
Although social media use increases the participation of citizens in the national conversation, it also increases political polarization and decreases trust in each other and institutions.
An experiment conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank found that heightened social media engagement increases distrust in these engaged groups. In other words, the more users engaged with and shared tweets with others, the less trust they had in institutions and others.
The study notes:
This shows how engagement, a crucial feature of the social media era, magnifies the declines in trust… That is worrisome indeed given the correlation between high trust, economic growth, social progress, and stability.
3. Common Truths Have Been Replaced by Conspiracies
As the saying goes: “A lie travels halfway around the world before the truth has put its boots on”. Well, it has never been more true. According to a paper published in Science, a lie on Twitter can reach up to 100,000 people before the truth has reached only 1,000 people.
Another paper in the Political Behavior journal, found that social media is not responsible for spreading conspiracies among the general public. However, social media has a powerful impact in spreading conspiracies among individuals and groups that “are attracted to, or otherwise predisposed to accepting, such ideas”.
4. A Minority Have Gained Too Much Power
Social media empowers trolls while silencing normal users. According to a 2018 report called Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape:
America’s tribal politics, from social media trolling to debates in the halls of Congress, are repelling a majority of Americans. The Exhausted Majority is uncomfortable with the ideological conformity and the outrage culture that have taken hold in the most highly engaged tribes.
Social media doesn’t make people more aggressive, rather it enables a few hyper-aggressive people to dominate discussions, and turns off the non-aggressive people.
5. Mental Health of Teens Is Negatively Affected
According to The Wall Street Journal, Facebook’s internal research shows that Instagram has a negative impact on the mental health of teen girls. However, Facebook has downplayed this.
“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” says an internal Facebook document seen by the paper. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”
Among users who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% in the UK and 6% in the US traced them back to Instagram, according to the same report.
According to the Mayo Clinic, greater social media use by teens is linked with worse sleep quality and higher levels of anxiety and depression.
Like buttons contribute to this as chasing validation online is one of the ways social media makes us sad.
Without a doubt, the Like, Retweet, and Share buttons have demonstrated their power to alter our social and political realities. They will go down in history amongst the most consequential technical innovations of all time.
Unfortunately they have also shown that a retweet by an influential person could cause a cascade of events that may well lead to devastating consequences or rising divisions.
Big Tech has a responsibility to proactively regulate their platforms in order to avoid government intervention, which could lead to unwarranted censorship. However, if they fail to do so, regulators will have no choice but to step in.
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