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When Did Social Media Become a Prison?

With more real-world social rules, we can make Twitter and Facebook work for us if we try.

Social media is in the dock, and it seems the charges are serious. From Washington to Salt Lake to dinner tables across the nation, Americans are feverishly debating the future of our new social fora. And our verdict could have significant consequences.

Thanks to virtual networking, we now live in a world in which frenzied activists dominate our civic discourse. No public figure can speak a word without risking retaliation from Twitter mobs, which can be ginned up at any hour of day or night. Crazed zealots of every stripe can easily find one another, concentrating their fervor into great strength. It used to be that your average American read his newspaper over breakfast and then got on with his day. Now we’re regularly immersing ourselves in toxic political correctness, toxic masculinity, toxic feminism, toxic everything. Who knew humanity was so toxic?

Even if you’re not a zealot, social media can still wreck your life. It’s created a whole new type of addiction that’s ravaging the emotional lives of our young people. Even mature adults are appalled by the time they waste fighting with strangers online. How many magical family moments have we missed because we were thinking of a snappy comeback to use on RocketMan6742? Needless to say, these conversations don’t always bring out the best in us. In the weird, warped world of social media, adults quickly devolve into snarky teens.

As if that weren’t bad enough, social media has opened a portal to a host of nefarious, shadowy influencers (Russians? Paranoid extremists? Silicon Valley elites?) who find ingenious ways to exploit its mysterious algorithms, distorting our very perception of reality. Today, normal people fret regularly about fake news, fake persons, and escaping from “bubbles” that seem to fill our whole horizon like the Matrix. Our entire civic life takes place within a twisted virtual funhouse from which there appears to be no escape.

Don your hairshirt, Mark Zuckerberg. We know you’re disgustingly young, but it will take a long life indeed to atone for so many sins.

Surveying the social media landscape, we are rightly appalled. Let’s be honest though. We’re not all going to quit Twitter, because everyone who’s anyone is on Twitter. We’re not going to quit Facebook en masse, because that’s where we see our grandparents, grandkids, and high school chums. Fogeys like me don’t get this “Snapchat” business, but I gather the youngsters are pretty attached to it. Ditto for Instagram. Nothing is going to kill these social media platforms except newer and better social media platforms. That means we need to learn how to cope with the drawbacks.

In many ways, the problem with social media is that it works too well. It’s supposed to help us talk to each other, and we’re talking. But if you toss too many people into a sharing circle without ceremony, everyone ends up needing therapy. People today are lonely, so it can be wonderful to connect with kindred spirits from Ypsilanti to Yemen. In principle we love the idea of a massive Agora in which everyone can toss in his two cents. But we need to come up with better ways of infusing decency, respectability, and civility into our new social forums, lest we end up clawing each others’ eyes out. Like most significant developments in human affairs, social media can be incredibly liberating or it can be a prison. The fault is in ourselves, of course, but that realization doesn’t make the prison more bearable.  

Let’s review, then, how social venues have historically maintained some semblance of decorum. First of all, ordered social relations always involve an element of selectivity. People make friends, then meet the friends of their friends. Social circles develop. Ideally we all stay open to forging new connections rather than huddling together in judgmental cliques. But even in a relatively benevolent social world, everybody doesn’t get invited to every party. We can’t truly enjoy the company of 5,000 people at once, and precisely because everyone isn’t invited to the party, we have good reason to behave ourselves once we’re there. If we’re boorish and gross, we probably won’t be asked to the next gathering. Then again, if we didn’t already know that, we probably wouldn’t have been invited to this one.

Even with the incentives of selectivity, people will still misbehave every now and then. That’s why a healthy social order needs rehabilitation mechanisms whereby offenders can show contrition and be forgiven. Apologies are the main thing, of course, but sometimes we need further tokens of good faith. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, it may also take time for a person to be readmitted to polite company. An apology is generally sufficient for an insensitive remark, but more egregious betrayals of social trust may call for a lengthier and more elaborate rehabilitation process. The point isn’t so much to punish people as to ensure that everyone understands what is expected of a citizen in good standing.

Finally, there need to be persons of status who have both the means and the will to assume control when a situation gets out of hand. It’s important that these people command respect, so they can’t just be appointed arbitrarily. They have to earn the authority entrusted to them, through demonstrated judgment, propriety, and appropriate compassion. Natural distinctions do matter here; older people command authority more readily than the young, for instance. Ultimately though, what should matter the most is a demonstrated capacity for exercising influence well. In the nuanced world of social status, highly respected persons must maintain the regard of the people.

Contemplating this list, the misery of social media becomes readily understandable. It takes time to develop an appropriately nuanced social order, and we clearly haven’t gotten there yet. To be sure, our existing social media platforms do make some effort to fill these functions, with different strengths and weaknesses between them. Facebook facilitates selectivity more than Twitter, but it does this by making each person the despot of his own little virtual fiefdom. That can be a problem. Twitter has more public mechanisms for awarding status to particular individuals, and undoubtedly the quest for status is one of its primary draws. However, the blue-check system is a pretty comical substitute for the natural, organic process by which status should be established. Other status markers (such as the number of followers a person has, or the number of “likes” their tweets receive) may reward exhibitionism more than judgment or compassion. Twitter has plenty of gatekeepers, but it’s struggling desperately to find virtuous gatekeepers who can make the social environment less toxic. That may ultimately be its downfall.

All existing platforms have a notable lack of rehabilitation mechanisms. Once a person has been unfriended or blocked, he literally can’t apologize anymore, so there may be no available means of challenging or lifting his excommunication.

On the technological front, the obvious next horizon is fixing the selectivity problem. Snapchat is apparently making progress along these lines, but we’re likely to find that the next incarnation of Twitter (whether that’s an updated Twitter or some new platform) is less open than the current one. The access rules will be more complicated and variegated than what we see on any existing platform. For instance, you may gradually expand your sphere of access as you gain friends, but also need to establish a track record of appropriate behavior.

Greater selectivity will cause controversy, because virtual “gated communities” have many of the same drawbacks as physical ones, including that they entrench elitism. The fact remains, though, that people don’t really want to spend most of their days wrangling with trolls. The most successful platforms will be those that offer the pleasantest user experience, and the key to that is selectivity more than inclusion. We’ll find that we’re perpetually fighting over the right balance between encouraging free speech and demanding civility, and also between the barbarism of total inclusion and the provincialism of “bubbling.” Take heart though. Those are appropriate debates for a free society to have.

Status systems develop naturally whenever humans spend time together, so authoritative persons can be expected to emerge on their own. The real trick, from the technological standpoint, is finding ways to let practical authority flow to those who actually command respect within their various virtual spheres. This is also, incidentally, the best solution to the rehabilitation problem: contrite offenders should convince the gatekeepers of their own social communities that they are worthy of re-admission. But is there an algorithm that can accurately gauge respect? Maybe it’s time for Silicon Valley to hire a few moral philosophers.

Virtual platforms do have some intrinsic limitations, which we may not be able to transcend entirely. In some ways virtual socializing is safer than corporeal interaction: you can’t literally murder, rape, seduce, or maim someone through a computer screen. On the other hand, most of us find that our verbal inhibitions are lower when we’re talking to people in little virtual bubbles and not face to face. Words can wound too, and that’s happening a lot nowadays. We need to develop more discipline in this regard if we want social media to become more bearable.

Humans are very adaptable though. Since literally billions of people seem to want this form of socializing to work, there’s reason to hope that we can find a way.

Rachel Lu is a senior contributor at The Federalist and a Robert Novak Fellow.