Psychology Social Networks

Social networks and their impacts on personal psychology & society

I’ve been using social networks for many years. My original masters thesis revolved around the then emerging technologies of social networks. I coupled the ideas of early day twitter & Facebook & combined them with a virtual learning environment for universities.  Back then, I thought that social media, the semantic web & Web 2.0 as we called it, was the future.

Through the years I’ve adopted more of these platforms and integrated them into my life. I’ve continued to study them from both a personal & a societal point of view, and in the last few years my view has shifted radically.

The networks which started out with so much promise have turned sour. The tools given to us to allow for greater collaboration & communication, have been turned against us.

First came the overwhelm with platforms. I used to only manage my twitter account, which was a massively different beast. Back then, you could post a 140 character micro blog, which included links in your character count. A re tweet meant writing RT and then including someone’s handle. We didn’t have the trending bar. Hash tags where used sparingly. Brands and businesses didn’t bother posting at all. We didn’t have an app, or smart phones.

Fast forward to 2018 & I have Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Last Fm, Good Reads, Google+ & Spotify. I still have a Facebook account, but this has lay dormant for around a year. With all of these extra accounts to manage I feel like I’m spread too thin & duplicating posts. I feel more like a manager now than a user utilizing a tool. The platforms themselves have become more complicated, sapping more attention than I can spare.

Take for example Instagram. Instagram used to offer simple tools to filter & post an image. The image could be filtered with an array of real time filters & the initial offering was Insta-nt. It would take a picture, in the moment on your phone camera, filter it & post it. Now we have Inbox, we have instagram stories, IG TV, video posts, multiple image posts & enough hashtags to make descriptions feel more like codewords.

Instagram also allows the use of pictures taken on any other device. Photographs can be taken in studios, or with professional grade camera equipment, edited in lightroom and posted to a standard previously reserved for glossy magazines. The instant element of insta(nt)gram have been lost, and much of the human feel of the platform has been lost as a result.

This bloat is reflected across all of the networks. Twitter is a mess of “such a person liked this” or “you may like this” or “trending topics”. The introduction of advertising tweets, algorithmic twitter feeds, extended text & the like button have made twitter bloated beyond recognition when compared to the initial simple offering. Another massively bloating feature is the re-tweet button, which allows all users to re-tweet all tweets ad nauseam, filling everyone else’s time lines with irrelevant and distracting content. The simple addition of a like button and re tweet button have turned an endorsement or recommendation into an almost obligatory spamming tool.

Another addition which has ruined twitter (in my opinion) is the tweet thread. What once would be a conversation between two users, which would largely go unnoticed by the Twitterati at large has become an arena to attack peoples views or jump into a conversation which doesn’t concern anyone other than the people holding the conversation. It has made general conversation & collaboration via twitter something to avoid, and even means users are guarded with what they say, for fear of awaking the trolls or critics.

The last nail in the coffin of social media in general is money & stealth advertising. Social networks started as as just that, social. A means to communicate & converse with those in your circle. A way to start conversations with like minded people & develop new friendships. Much like the forums and instant messenger apps that went before them, social networks promised to connect like minded people and allow users to trade ideas and knowledge. Twitter, for instance, was actually known as a micro blogging service. Now, I fear we have entered the commercialisation of social networks.

The money rolls in, from brands, from political actors, from foreign governments & big business. Users proliferate ideas or recommend products as an all expenses paid lifestyle. A recommendation via a twitter user or Instagrammer has lost credibility in the age of ‘the influencer’, and it is this money which has tainted the platforms and also our psychology.

Social Media quickly developed into a tool to show off with. Humans are inherently competitive animals, and we like to show off to establish our social standing. This used to mean buying a fancy suit for work, or perhaps a fancier model of car, but social media has amplified this social one-upmanship to new levels.

We are nearly all guilty of curating our best selves on social media. Presenting our lives in the best possible light. Posting pictures of our awesome lunch or an amazing hotel room, to compete with our peers. I’ve lived on the south coast of England for years, and the small harbour village I live in is very picturesque. I’ve posted so many pictures of emerald green seas and coastal walks for the sole purpose of showing off. It shames me to say it, but I don’t think enough of us admit why we are doing these things.

Self expression has rapidly mutated into self promotion. Individual identity has morphed into the human as a personal brand.

The problem we face now is that money & funding is often opaque online. We are bombarded with perfect, luxury lifestyles, amazing holidays, fancy clothes & cars and we believe (as outlined by establishing our social status as humans) that we are somehow less successful than those posting the pictures. This false representation is terrible for our psychological well being.

You can see this in action every day. Just take a look at your friends & neighbours car, the clothes they wear, the lifestyle they exude. Many people are clamouring to keep up with the influencers, and in doing so are falling into huge amounts of debt and stress. But the lifestyles we try to imitate are not real.

Social media influencers are able to quickly grow on social networks. They are favoured by algorithms because they receive a lot of engagement. This is due to the fact that their perfect pictures & lifestyles appeal to users who are trying to prove their worth in the social media age. We follow them and like their pictures in the hope of mimicking the perfect travel & lifestyle. What we aren’t told is that the flights & hotels are all paid for by brands, the clothing is all free, the links are all affiliate links and the influencers themselves are essentially stealth advertisers.

This taints our own experience of life. How can our car, our house, our travel or surroundings ever match up to the all expenses paid luxury lifestyles which now parade on social media as normal?

Think of an influencer as a living television advert. They are a brand, they cultivate themselves as a brand and they push products and services onto an often unsuspecting public. The difference being, a television advert is obvious whereas an advert masquerading as one of our social peers is a dangerous development in our social hierarchy.

The same goes for political influencers such as populist politicians. Often their funding is opaque, but they masquerade as a champion of the people, while being funded and guided by the wills of the rich & powerful. Social networks have allowed such bad actors to copy the template of the influencer, but they are pushing a political agenda disguised as opinion & distorting the public debate.

The cumulative affect of this can be seen in our now polarized & highly competitive societies. Social justice and social progress are being discarded in favour of personal development & greed. Forced to compete under a microscope with peers who are not our equal is extremely damaging to our psychological well being as I’ve experienced first hand.

This article is based purely on my own experience of social networks & my studies over the years, so you may have a different view entirely, but for me social networks have caused extensive stress which dates back now around 6 years.

I’ve found myself unable to create new work. My ideas have been subliminally altered by exposure to social media & I’ve found myself less interested in my academic work and more interested in cultivating an on line persona. Even knowing how addictive social media can be, I was still unable to make the connection with a decline in my own mental health & the proliferation of more distracting social media tools.

I honestly believe that social media could have been used as a great collaborative & creative tool, but the profit motive from data collection & advertising has meant that engagement and eye ball time has taken precedent over user health and well being. The networks are now competing with each other for our attention & they are turning to more nefarious ways of monopolising and holding our attention, including employing large quantities of neuroscientists & psychologists to perfect the tools to work against our best interests.

The introduction of professional social media influencers has only compounded the psychological harm done by social media. When your peers & friends become human advertising, its hard to trust the networks & the social element starts to break down. By presenting impossible lives to everyone, we can’t help but fall into depression, anxiety & debt. Without the transparency of funding, it isn’t possible to differentiate between a paid editorial user and a genuine peer.

We also don’t know if the friend we have made, who we believe holds similar values, is a bot, a user funded by a foreign government to disseminate disinformation, or a paid influencer. Money has tainted the experience & I do believe the days of social networks as we know them are numbered.

I continue to research social media & I implore all readers to regain control of their online lives. Limit your social network circles to those who you know & trust, or to those who you have been referred to by close friends & trusted acquaintances. Always be sceptical about those selling a lifestyle & try not to use the networks to turn yourself into a brand. Post honest content & try to enjoy the moment. If you ever feel like you are posting for the wrong reasons or to show off, just take a moment to ask yourself if that post will be valuable to others, and also ask if it might contribute to someone else’s stress.

I’ve since removed social media from my mobile devices & unfollowed the majority of accounts which don’t bring me value. I no longer follow brands or aspirational accounts. I’ve unfollwed all aggregating accounts and those which tend to repost. I’ve tried to reintroduce the human element to my usage. If it’s not an individual, I don’t follow them.

I’ve also limited myself to twitter & instagram. I’ve deleted my other accounts & find I have much more time & less stress. I also worry less about my situation & I don’t compare myself to others. I feel much more confident & able to write. I’ve started making notes for future work.

But the biggest change I’ve made is valuing the open internet. I’m not interested in apps. I don’t want walled gardens. I’m trying to avoid comparison sites & middle men sites. The internet is full of wonderful websites, blogs and resources.

I’ve logged back into my favourite forums and enjoy discussion with those I share an interest. A forum is great because it is self moderated & inherently more human.

I’ve also started calling & texting people directly. Conversation strictly between a closed group of people is much more open & fluid than a discussion in front of the entire world, and the small nuances you get from voice and body language make the experience much more human. Conversation is also good for your brain & general well being.

Social Networks are a walled garden of signed up users, but there is a whole world out there online. Leave behind the walls of social media and get out exploring the open internet again. It’s a wonderful place.

John Large

John Large - Uber Techie!