Social Media: Do You See the Hungry Shark?

April 2, 2024

green-dino_thumb_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb dinobaby. No smart software required.

After years of social media’s diffusion, those who mostly ignored how flows of user-generated content works like a body shop’s sandblaster. Now that societal structures are revealing cracks in the drywall and damp basements, I have noticed an uptick in chatter about Facebook- and TikTok-type services. A recent example of Big Thinkers’ wrestling with what is a quite publicly visible behavior of mobile phone fiddling is the write up in Nature “The Great Rewiring: Is Social Media Really Behind an Epidemic of Teenage Mental Illness?”


Thanks, MSFT Copilot. How is your security initiative coming along? Ah, good enough.

The article raises an interesting question: Are social media and mobile phones the cause of what many of my friends and colleagues see as a very visible disintegration of social conventions. The fabric of civil behavior seems to be fraying and maybe coming apart. I am not sure the local news in the Midwest region where I live reports the shootings that seem to occur with some regularity.

The write up (possibly written by a person who uses social media and demonstrates polished swiping techniques) wrestles with the possibility that the unholy marriage of social media and mobile devices may not be the “problem.” The notion that other factors come into play is an example of an established source of information working hard to take a balanced, rational approach to what is the standard of behavior.

The write up says:

Two things can be independently true about social media. First, that there is no evidence that using these platforms is rewiring children’s brains or driving an epidemic of mental illness. Second, that considerable reforms to these platforms are required, given how much time young people spend on them.

Then the article wraps up with this statement:

A third truth is that we have a generation in crisis and in desperate need of the best of what science and evidence-based solutions can offer. Unfortunately, our time is being spent telling stories that are unsupported by research and that do little to support young people who need, and deserve, more.

Let me offer several observations:

  1. The corrosive effect of digital information flows is simply not on the radar of those who “think about” social media. Consequently, the inherent function of online information is overlooked, and therefore, the rational statements are fluffy.
  2. The only way to constrain digital information and the impact of its flows is to pull the plug. That will not happen because of the drug cartel-like business models produce too much money.
  3. The notion that “research” will light the path forward is interesting. I cannot “trust” peer reviewed papers authored by the former president of Stanford University or the research of the former Top Dog at Harvard University’s “ethics” department. Now I am supposed to believe that “research” will provide answers. Not so fast, pal.

Net net: The failure to understand a basic truth about how online works means that fixes are not now possible. Sound gloomy? You are getting my message. Time to adapt and remain flexible. The impacts are just now being seen as more than a post-Covid or economic downturn issue. Online information is a big fish, and it remains mostly invisible. The good news is that some people have recognized that the water in the data lake has powerful currents.

Stephen E Arnold, April 2, 2024


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