It has been a while since I published on this blog. I stayed away because I strongly objected to some of the content and statements made by my fellow contributors. My disagreement to some of these posts has not changed, but I see the opportunity to examine this tiny internet blog in relation to the greater social media environment.
My utter lack of phycological training is obvious, but my life experience makes me believe that people do and say things that bring them some kind of reward within the society they inhabit. Once they learn the rules, most people quickly figure out how to succeed and make choices to bring them success. The rules drive behavior which also means that dysfunctional rules tend to drive dysfunctional behavior.
The internet is a wealth of information and a very powerful tool, but the society and reward systems that have emerged through social media create a distinct set of problems. People who participate in social media are accepting a set of rules which measure their worth with views, likes and shares. We are led to believe that smart, interesting and creative people get a lot of them and low achievers, not so much.
Once immersed in this manufactured, online, middle school, it doesn’t take long to recognize that attention is lavished along the lines of cuteness, comedy and conflict. The cuteness section is dominated by puppies, kittens and other small animals doing adorable things. The comedy section falls along the lines of visual slapstick while conflict is about choosing sides and dominating the conversation. Being successful in the first two areas of cuteness and comedy require a certain degree of talent and luck, but the area of conflict is universal and much easier to master.
What makes it so easy to dive into conflict on social media is the firewall that allows us a certain amount of anonymity and separation from those we choose to engage with. This separation encourages a level of meanness and vitriol that we would never use in person. In fact, increasing the level of attacks brings a higher likelihood of reward through increased views, and shares. It encourages conflict as entertainment without the hinderance of having to recognize our targets as people. This behavior did not start with the internet, but social media seems to have all the attributes required to rev it up into high gear. We can say almost anything without real, negative consequences and increase the likelihood of our popularity with “like-minded” social media followers. We are rewarded for being assholes.
This brings us to the rise of the social media troll. This is the person who intentionally publishes inflammatory posts and comments with the intent of increasing getting someone to engage with them. These posts are focused on aggravating others and increasing negative responses. This is the point where “likes” are not as valuable as “views”. The troll wants to elicit a response, and it does not matter if the response is positive or negative. For trolls, getting increased views is their crack cocaine. Over time, they have to come up with more outrageous postings to entice responses from their increasingly immune audience. It’s an addiction.
Since the beginning of social media, hackers, marketing firms and dodgy consulting companies found ways to prey on our gullibility and quest for social media recognition through the collection of more and more of our personal data. Facebook became the star of data appropriation scams through traps like online personality polls, and “like the puppy” trackers. Eventually, our data was used by paid trolls to increase conflict and confusion through fake postings and sites. It turns out we were (and continue to be) an easy mark.
By now any reader has figured out that I am disappointed with the promise of social media, but now that we understand the rules and behaviors they drive, we have an opportunity to make a change. Part 2 will start to look at how we can do this.