There are plenty of voices decrying the pernicious effects of social media on society, but when one of those voices is an architect of Facebook’s rise to near omnipresence, it draws a bit more attention. That was the case when Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, spoke to a group of graduate students at the Stanford University School of Business last month.
“I feel tremendous guilt,” Palihapitiya, currently the CEO of Social Capital and owner of the Golden State Warriors, said. “I think we all knew in the back of our minds — even though we feigned this whole line that there probably aren’t any really bad unintended consequences — I think in the back deep, deep recesses of our minds, we kind of knew something bad could happen, but I think the way we defined it was not like this.”
“It literally is at a point now,” he continued, “where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. That is truly where we are.”
Palihapitiya explained how online popularity is a vicious circle, prompting more and more outlandish and extreme behavior to keep the “likes” coming. “The short-term dopamine driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he said. “No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”
“We curate our lives around the perceived sense of perfection,” he added, “because we get rewarded in these short-term signals. Hearts, likes, thumbs up, and we conflate that with value, and we conflate it with truth. And instead, what it really is, is fake, brittle popularity.”
“It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave,” Palihapitiya said.
To anyone on Facebook or Twitter who has ever watched their post go viral, this sounds familiar. The feeling of validation that comes from a popular post is psychologically comforting, but also addictive. You want to keep the affirmation coming. That requires more viral posts
The easy way to get your posts noticed above all the background noise of the internet is to be extreme. The truth of the parental wisdom that some children misbehave because any attention is better than being ignored is proven everyday online.
“I don’t have a good solution,” he said. “My solution is I just don’t use these tools anymore.” He also said that he does not allow his children to use social media.
“You don’t realize it, but you are being programmed,” Palihapitiya said. “It was unintentional, but now you have to decide how much you’re willing to give up.”
While social media is not inherently evil, it is engineered to keep users coming back so that companies like Facebook and Twitter can generate more revenue from advertising and other services. The ultimate solution is for people to discipline themselves to limit their consumption of social media sites. For some, that might mean deleting the apps from your phone to keep yourself from compulsively checking your notifications every few minutes. Others might find it necessary to delete their accounts altogether.
The world can live without knowing our political opinions or what we had for dinner. We can live without knowing all the little details of other people’s lives as well. We have one life to live. We should make the most of it. Each of us must decide whether we want a real life or virtual one.
“If you feed the beast,” Palihapitiya said, “that beast will destroy you.”
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