On the book tour for his sixth book, ‘Hunt You Down’, Christopher Farmsworth talks about the power and influence of social media.
Almost everyone I know is an unpaid content provider for at least one social media platform. Writers who get thousands of dollars for their scripts and books willingly spend hours typing up jokes and observations and stories for Facebook and Twitter. I know professional photographers who donate their best shots to Instagram. We write up restaurant reviews, add places to maps, and even give away our children’s baby pictures — all without a single dime in compensation. No matter how busy we are, we find time every day — sometimes hours — to work at this second job, tapping at our phones and computers to make Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey richer.
And it all works — this multi-billion dollar economy based on free labor and cat videos — because our brains are painfully easy to hack. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram all use a basic stimulus-response system. Every time we see a “like” or a heart or even a negative comment on one of our posts on social media, our brains react with a small hit of dopamine that acts like a tiny burst of happiness. We want to get that hit again and again, so we keep posting more stuff.
We keep checking our accounts even when it makes us feel bad. There have been studies that show people who spend a lot of time on social media feel sad, depressed and anxious. We see our friends and family members in posed photos, smiling for the camera. We get a highlight reel of their vacations. We see the news about new babies, new homes, new jobs. And when we compare their best moments with our everyday lives, we feel like there’s something lacking.
It’s like those rats that were given a lever that delivered cocaine every time they pressed it. The difference is, software developers have figured out to make us perform tricks for their benefit.
As reported by the ‘New York Times’ and Mother Jones, Facebook has even experimented on its users by showing them things in their timelines to make them depressed or to encourage them to vote. This is a technique called “emotional contagion” — the same way one person in a bad mood can spread that mood to others — carried out on a massive scale.
In other words, Facebook — and other social media sites — can make you feel things. They can influence your thinking. And they can manipulate you into doing things.
Even the guy who invented the Facebook “like” button thinks it has gone too far.
I’m as hooked as anyone else. I’ve been on almost every form of social media. I was on sixdegrees and the original Friendster. I was friends with Tom on MySpace. I have profiles out there on the Internet that I’ve abandoned and forgotten, shells of past selves with old profile pics that still stare blankly from sites that no one has visited in years. I’m on LinkedIn, for God’s sake.
At this moment, I’m struggling to keep from clicking back to Twitter to check on the latest scandal engulfing the White House, and to see if anyone has liked one of my jokes. I got 327 retweets the other day, and each one was a little affirmation, a little neurological reward that keeps me focused on the screen.
I suppose it’s possible to simply shut off social media, to abandon my accounts, or to go Facebook-vegan, like the writer Cory Doctorow. But this would mean losing touch with family, friends, and former co-workers, not to mention missing out on our relatives’ wildly incorrect opinions on politics and kale. I admit it: I just don’t have the guts.
The real problem, as always, isn’t in our apps and our tools. It’s in us, and how we use them. We now have the challenge of racing to catch up to our technology. We have to become smarter and better than the things we’ve built.
Despite all of its names and faces, the Internet is us. If we don’t like what we’re seeing, then we know exactly where we have to begin to change it.
You can pre-order Hunt You Down from Amazon and will be available to buy from good bookshops from 2nd November 2017.