From My Sent Folder: On Social Media Tradeoffs

The non-neutrality of our tools, and the ways wisdom plays out in our using them.

June 14, 2019Filed under Blog#ethics#from my sent folder#social media#wisdomMarkdown source

Assumed Audience: anyone willing to think hard about social media and its place in our lives.

I got a particularly thoughtful email from a friend about his family’s use of Facebook in response to yesterday’s essay. I’ve reproduced most of my response here because I think it’s a helpful extension on that essay.

I (a) totally hear where you’re coming from, and deeply sympathize; and (b) deeply disagree about the notion that they’re “just tools – not good or evil in themselves.”

I agree in the strictest sense that the tools are not evil in and of themselves. But I think that particular framing is actually extremely misleading. Tools have shapes, and those shapes form us in ways that may prove out to be particular bad. The usual example is: use a hammer for hours a day every day, and you’ll end up with calluses and quite possibly some hilariously out-of-proportion forearms if you don’t figure out how to be ambidextrous at least for hammering. That tools are not inherently moral does not mean they’re neutral. (I also am not persuaded that tools are themselves always morally neutral, but that’s another discussion and a subtler one.)

In the case of the social media tools, I do think there are differences in both degree (the extent to which they shape us) and kind (the particular shapes they press us into as we use them). Thus my willingness to work for LinkedIn and my unwillingness to work for Twitter or Facebook! And with that in mind, I do agree that the tradeoffs around Facebook can look very different than those around Twitter today.

What’s more, I’d go so far as to say that a service much like Facebook but retooled in certain very important ways could be a much-less-alloyed good in the world! (There are no unalloyed goods in our fallen reality, of course.) A service that was less interested in driving user attention and therefore constantly working in ways that actively undermine people’s self-control and ability to disengage could have most (probably all!) the upsides Facebook offers you and your family today, with few of the horrid downsides we’re seeing with it at the macro scale and few (if any) of the downsides I have felt with it personally at the micro scale. It’s those vicious little loops driving me to check obsessively that I want out of—not the ability to have geographically distributed people able to stay in touch and indeed even to connect, of the sort you and I have benefited from so much.

None of that is an argument for everyone to get off of Facebook. I certainly think you and your family have very good reasons to be there. Rather, it’s more that the more of us who make the kinds of moves I’m making, the more it opens back up the possibility that those communities could form in other spaces, and creates the reminder for others that in fact many people are not in those spaces. It’s a very long play, for sure, but, you know: winning slowly and all that jazz.

In that regard it’s not so different from my rejection of Amazon: I’m under no misapprehension that I’m going to have any meaningful effect on the company itself, and in fact I have friends who I think are very wise to continue using it because e.g. Prime eliminates needless frictions from their very challenging lives. It’s that my opting out allows me to support other—healthier!—businesses and hopefully keep them going.

All of which is kind of a long way of saying: these are wisdom questions, and I think that wisdom not only allows but indeed dictates different courses for different people.