Here at The Reasoned Vegan we have generally had a small social media footprint, but we are currently making a push to be more involved with social media. It may simply be necessary for a fledgling organization. This is an issue I will wrestle with on a personal level in next week’s post.
Large tech companies are manipulating us to the detriment of the mental, economic and political health of our society. We need a boycott not on the internet and smartphones broadly, but on those specific platforms that hungrily gobble our data, manipulate our behavior and sell out their services to the highest bidder. This is the basic premise of Jaron Lanier’s slim volume, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. This book is crafted for the internet age, clocking in at 160 pages, it can be read in a few sittings. This is a timely book that wrestles with the important questions of how we want social media and large tech companies to function.
It must be said that Lanier is a genius. Whenever I read him I stop every so often just to marvel at the breadth of his knowledge, the clarity of his prose, and the playfulness of his wit. This could have been a deeply depressing book, and yet Lanier is gentle and good-natured throughout. His positivity is perhaps a testament to his lack of involvement with social media. He has avoided being turned into an asshole (argument number three), something few of us can say is always true.
Throughout the book, Lanier uses an acronym to use call out the basic business model he argues against: BUMMER (Behavior of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent). The companies that fit this bill include Google (and therefore Youtube), Facebook (therefore Instagram), and Twitter. It comes down to a problem of misaligned incentives. There’s an old saying that “if it’s free you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” This sums up the internet economy quite well. It is typically advertisers (Lanier prefers to call them “manipulators”) that pay the bills and are therefore the true customers of big tech companies. Advertisers have always wanted to be able to broadcast to targeted segments of the population that are primed to be receptive to their product. What’s changed is that sophisticated algorithms now study how millions of people react to certain online stimuli. They can find patterns by grouping users along all kinds of different variables. They can use that data to modify your behavior and make you more likely to purchase their product. They can even deliberately manipulate your emotions. The basic problem is that Facebook and Google are not beholden to you the user; they are beholden to any entity with the cash and will to manipulate the users base (like Russian oligarchs, just to pick a totally random example).
Whether you admit it or not, social media is changing you in ways you don’t realize. What concerns me most, particularly as a vegan, is how our beliefs and identities are cultivated by BUMMER. Social media primes us to enter into a pack mentality. We are drawn to content that allows us to cheer on our ideological comrades and heap scorn on our ideological enemies. Algorithms keep feeding us what we want until we can’t even understand each other anymore. The conclusions other people reach seem crazy because their information diet is so radically different from our own. To top this all off, the most hateful, divisive content tends to be the easiest to amplify. I’m amazed by how often social media feeds seem designed to provoke outrage.
Vegan activists have a huge problem to face in such a fractured and contentious landscape. It becomes very difficult to empathize with people and change their minds for obvious reasons. It’s too easy to spread the meme that vegans are annoying, irrational hypocrites. Our numbers are too tiny to win this kind of tribal warfare when the deck is stacked against us. Assholes win in the social media game not because tech companies are malicious or algorithms are evil. Outrage and tribalism are just the most efficient way of keeping users maximally engaged.
If there is any single goal that both social media companies and their adveriser’s share, it is to have a user base that is maximally engaged—addicted, if possible. One of the best ways to do this is quantify rewards. This is why there are so many metrics such as likes, retweets, comments and followers. Tristan Harris calls the smart phone a slot machine in your pocket to highlight this point. The unpredictable jolts of reward that comes from notifications are much like the high of gambling.
My concern for vegans is that so many of us get caught up in this game of chasing higher and higher view count. Some lifestyle vegan advocates rack up huge view counts. They may have their place in getting the word “vegan” into popular parlance, but they aren’t doing substantive work to get people to thoughtfully engage with this movement. It encourages this war for attention that social media is built on—a world in which users are quickly scanning from picture to picture and failing to meaningfully engage with veganism.
Look out for part two of this review, in which I discuss potential ways forward and how The Reasoned Vegan in particular engages with social media. Tentative title: “Delete Your Social Media (But Follow Us If You Don’t).” In the meantime, pick up Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media and consider the value (or lack thereof) that the big tech companies add to your life.
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