An interview with Jaron Lanier, author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, on why Instagram and Twitter suck so bad.
GQ: It seems like social media brings out everyone’s inner troll.
Lanier: Everybody has the potential to go there. There’s this general feeling of the whole world getting darker and the online world being sort of filled with horrible people. I just don’t buy that. I think what it is is when you put normal people in this setting, it brings out the worst in them. I can give you one interesting example. We’ve certainly seen the worst in Donald Trump being brought out, but think of Elon Musk. Here’s this guy who runs this big company and he’s accomplished all this stuff, and suddenly he’s falsely accusing somebody who’s rescuing kids trapped in a cave of being a pedophile for no reason at all. That’s not him talking—that’s his Twitter addiction talking. That’s an example of someone who’s having the worst brought out of them. I just don’t think he would have gone there if it weren’t for his addiction. I just don’t think that’s who he is.
There is that other thing, which feels unique to Twitter, where each user comes from a place of being right. Shouting down at everyone else. Which is something you touch on: the lack of space for approaching a topic with a sense of your own ignorance.
It’s not a humble place. You know the story of Lord of the Flies, where these boys are stuck on an island and they turn into a wolf pack and they become horrible to each other? That’s Twitter.
You’ve written that social media is structurally humiliating, that the user is subordinate to third-party advertisers.
The strange thing about social media as we know it is that what you experience is that you’re connecting with other people. But the underlying reality is that there’s some third person whom you’re not connecting to who’s paying for the whole thing, and that person isn’t paying to connect with you but to modify you. That’s really weird.
What about Instagram? Can it be used safely if it’s just a closed loop with you and your friends and you’re just sharing cool pictures because you love each other?
Well, it’s a business. Instagram is part of the Facebook family, and the data of you and your friends sharing cool pics will eventually come back, because the only way Facebook makes money is finding some way to use that data to serve the interests of some third party who you didn’t pick. That’s the only possibility. That’s the only way anything can happen. So somehow, some way, somebody will use it to manipulate you. Of course people approach these things with pure hearts. Most of the bad political stuff on Facebook started off with decent people trying to do decent things, and then it just turns to crap later. It starts as Black Lives Matter, and then the algorithm redirects it into a resurgence of the Nazis. It just happens again and again and again. It starts with the Arab Spring, and it turns into ISIS. So yeah, what your friends do can be totally authentic, but somehow at the end of the day it’s going to be turned around and it’ll be turned against them.
Something about your habits will be correlated with a million other people who have similar habits. And then experimentally it’ll be determined that those people can be irritated by something—blue surfboards or whatever it is—and then suddenly somebody will be arranging for you to see those right before Election Day, and statistically you’ll be a little more likely to be irritated and not vote, and so the candidate you’d be associated with will get fewer votes and will lose. And it’ll turn out to ultimately have been driven by data that was entered in this very pure-of-heart way. That’s the kind of thing that happens.
Do you think it’s possible to have a positive experience on social media?
Sure! Of course I do. I mean the term “social media” didn’t exist back when the Internet was being conceived. The use of the term has therefore been associated only with designs that have the qualities that I really detest, including the addictive designs and the constant manipulation and the fact that the only financing available is third parties who are paying to manipulate you. That stuff is what we think of as social media. But of course someday, when there are other designs that are better, those will be called “social media” because there’s nothing wrong with being “social” and there’s nothing wrong with “media.” In principle there should be a form of social media that isn’t awful. I certainly believe that there can and should be.
But is it possible to use Twitter and Instagram and Facebook without feeling like shit afterward?
Not the current generation. That’s what the technology does. That’s like asking, “Is it possible to use heroin well or be a healthy gambler or cigarette smoker?”
Let’s take cigarettes: You know they’re bad for you, but if you have a few every now and then, it’s not so terrible, right?
There are always some people who smoke cigarettes who don’t suffer health effects. It’s just statistical distribution. I’d prefer to never have to judge someone else and say, “You shouldn’t do this,” because I want to live in a society where we leave each other alone. It’s just that once in a while there’s something that’s really causing mass destruction and it demands that we speak out, and this is one of those things. Public cigarette smoking is incredibly rare and mostly illegal, but it used to be incredibly common. There were people who couldn’t imagine that transition could happen. It’s just one of those things where finally there was enough reasonable argument that, like, look, this is stupid.
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