Reading Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now wasn’t the first time I’ve been advised to delete my accounts. I’ve been told this many times before, less out of concern for my emotional safety and more out of frustration and anger. The most noteworthy time, I’d attempted to inject a little bit about the nature of human dignity into a Twitterverse that was, at the time, reveling in a video of someone sucker-punching a neo-Nazi.
Of course, what was meant as a humble (okay, maybe not-so-humble) reminder of human dignity was interpreted instead as a coy defense of bigotry. My actual argument was quite the opposite: Dignity is such a crucial, fundamental quality of the human person that totally reprehensible views—even dangerous views—do not justify a unilateral act of violence.
Soon enough, Twitter at-large saw my tweet plucked away from the tweets that instigated the argument in the first place, outside the context of my own Twitter account. It was retweeted by more than a few popular activists, with frustrated and insinuating commentary. At that point, the ball was rolling, and it could not be stopped.
An Attack on Our Souls
Lanier, a pioneer in virtual reality technology, confesses to grave doubts about the world he and other Silicon Valley dreamers have created: “We have given up our connection to context. Social media mashes up meaning. Whatever you say will be contextualized and given meaning by the way algorithms, crowds, and crowds of fake people who are actually algorithms mash it up with what other people say.”
In other words, my somewhat innocent, if careless attempt to inject balance into a loaded discussion was never going to stand on its own. It was destined to clash with an existing narrative—one in which my argument, true or not, was being used as a tool by those with far less noble intentions. Those with opposing views run into the same gauntlet.
Rather than a good-faith negotiation, the context social media provides is really more like a football field. We’re all trying to gain ground by way of attention. My tweet got low-key “ratioed” (Twitter-slang for when a tweet gains more replies than likes or retweets, signaling a general sense that the internet has condemned your thought). Both by the standards of Twitter and by the standards of a writer, my tweet failed. Not only did it get more argument than appreciation on the surface, but it also failed to engender understanding or change minds. The question at hand is why?
Central to Lanier’s argument is the idea that the social media revolution (and more importantly, the economic model on which it is based) is an unprecedented attack on a virtuous society. As the title of his book suggests, this attack is a holistic one, mounted not only against our character, politics, and pocketbooks but our very souls.
Lanier aims to unveil the seedy underbelly of what he calls a “statistical machine that lives in the computing clouds.” It’s an economic model with profound implications. He writes, “What has become suddenly normal—pervasive surveillance and constant, subtle manipulation—is unethical, cruel, dangerous, and inhumane.”
The language Lanier uses to articulate the problems with this machine is more colorful than necessary, but they can be summarized like this:
- Attention is the primary commodity, which leads people to behave badly in order to be noticed.
- We are all under constant surveillance.
- Our behaviors are being influenced in subtle, sneaky ways.
- The above factors are shopped out to the highest bidders for money.
- False pretense rules over civil discussion.
Put more concisely, when attention is the most important thing, people will lay themselves bare, even contorting themselves into the types of people who get the most attention—usually jerks. And they will do so without true self-awareness or authenticity.
If the claims of this book sound like cynical fear-mongering, then it’s time to wake up. The downsides of social media are no longer up for debate, and this is coming from someone who has esteemed its virtues for years. The structure upon which social media has been built, in the big picture, brings our meanest, dumbest, most impulsive tendencies to the forefront of public life. And this is not relegated to the online world. Every other medium is following suit. TV reports regularly on the content of celebrity tweets. Book proposals live and die by the size of an author’s social media “platform.” Even the way we consume music, movies, and television is affected by the knowledge that the quicker we tweet out our takes, the more attention they will receive.
The Chance to Make a Better World
After my dispiriting foray into the neo-Nazi-punching debate on Twitter, I spent most of my time doing damage control, attempting to clarify my statement and thinking deeply about what I wish I’d done differently. Of course, within the context of that battle, none of it mattered. I’d lost the argument before it even really began. Still, zoom out from that single event and we can see the good that came out of the dialogue that ensued, however blunt and one-sided the dialogue might have seemed at the time.
Rather than lash out at the naysayers, I spent time internalizing their frustration and pain, amplifying their good and true arguments, and considering what my own failure meant for how I would approach conversations in the future. My original tweet came from a place of feigned humility; where I ended up afterward was a place of true humility.
Social media can often feel dark and divisive. Very often it is dark and divisive. And yes, at times it is manipulating us into acting out of vice rather than virtue. But for all the worthy insights Lanier brings to the table, I believe his critiques are ultimately short-sighted.
Some may feel as though the social media environment is training them to act worse over time. Others, like me, would counter that it is only exposing our worst tendencies—ones that were bad to begin with. That may seem like a slight distinction, but it is a real one. It’s the difference between being caught in a downward spiral and grabbing hold of an opportunity for genuine personal and spiritual growth.
Christians are called to redeem a broken, toxic world, and Twitter is one microcosm of that world. It is perfectly reasonable that some people find it necessary to opt out of a particularly damaging environment, but the moment Christians embrace the call to abandon an environment wholesale, we offer its audience up as well. In some cases (as in pornography) this is appropriate. In others, we ought not make this case without fear and trembling. What we abandon is not a mere technological medium, but the chance—however unlikely—to make a better world.
Ironically, the approach the book takes to the problems of social media and its economic model is reminiscent of social media itself. The chapter titles are overstated (“You Are Losing Your Free Will”), needlessly provocative (“Social Media is Making You Into an A**hole”), and overly speculative (“Social Media is Making You Unhappy”). Lanier lays out the problem with remarkable accuracy, but he refrains from really showing us what might take social media’s place. Nor does he spend much time dwelling on how individuals and communities might work together to short-circuit the current status quo.
Ten Arguments is a succinct, incisive look at the dark temptations offered up by social media, but it overstates its case. The warnings it offers up are crucially important. Not only should we consider them; we should internalize them as we enter this depraved new world. But some of us will be called to enter it nonetheless, rather than simply delete our accounts.
Richard Clark is editorial director for SmallGroups.com and Preaching Today, and he produces CT’s Quick to Listen podcast.