“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works… No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And its not an American problem—this is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem… So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion. It is eroding the core foundation of how people behave by and between each other. And I don’t have a good solution. My solution is I just don’t use these tools anymore. I haven’t for years.”
– Chamath Palihapitiya
Advertising has gotten so good that it is basically direct manipulation now.
What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale.
Even though social media companies know YOU extremely well, they do not know their advertisers, who are using data about you to manipulate you, essentially unchecked.
This manipulation is subtle and can be difficult to spot. For example:
You might be targeted before an election with weird posts that have proven to bring out the inner cynic in people who are similar to you, in order to reduce the chances that you’ll vote.
It is easier to be engaging when you are looking to create negative reactions from your audience. Since social media rewards engagement – regardless of whether it is positive or negative – and since negative reactions are cheaper and easier than positive ones, the bulk of viral, engaging content tends to inspire a negative emotional reaction.
With nothing else to seek but attention, ordinary people tend to become assholes, because the biggest assholes get the most attention.
Lanier defines a category of company called BUMMER companies. BUMMER stands for: Behavior of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent. The two companies most reliant on BUMMER business models are Facebook and Google.
The two tech giants that are hooked on BUMMER, Google and Facebook, are *way* hooked. They make the preponderance of their profits from BUMMER despite massive investments in trying to start up other types of businesses. NO matter the scale, a company based on a single trick is vulnerable. Sooner or later some disruption will come along, and then a BUMMER company, no matter how large, will quickly collapse.
In hindsight, this statement was surprisingly prescient. OpenAI and ChatGPT put Google on its heels, into a self-declared “code red”, basically overnight.
People oscillate between “solitary” mode and “pack” mode – like wolves. When solitary, we roam free and think for ourselves. But when we are in ”pack” mode, relations with others take precedence above all else.
When people are locked in a competitive, hierarchical power structure, such as a corporation, they can lose sight of the reality of what they’re doing because the immediate power struggle looms larger than reality itself…“
The BUMMER machine not only makes users insane, it makes the entire economy insane. Consider any business that relies on feeds for distribution – news media, the creator economy. All of them have taken a nosedive in terms of quality, usefulness, and reliability, in order to satisfy the algorithmic feeds that control our attention.
One newsroom I visited recently had big screens all over the place… showing up-to-the-second statistics about each post created by someone in the room. Presumably the writers and other creators are supposed to be glued to these numbers in order to maximize “engagement”. They are forced to become components of the BUMMER machine. I feel sorry for them.
Hyper-customized and totally inscrutable social media feeds means that each of us is engaging with the world in an entirely unique way. This makes it harder for people to empathize with one another, as there is no more shared frame of reference through which to view the world.
So what can you do to escape?