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For most of my life, the Internet, particularly its social media — BBSes, Usenet, LiveJournal, blogosphere, even MySpace, early Twitter and Facebook — consistently made people happier. But roughly 5 years ago it began to consistently make people more miserable. What changed?
I posted that question to Twitter a week ago, and the most notable response was the response that did not exist: not a single person disputed the premise of the question. Yes, Twitter responses are obviously selection bias incarnate — but looking at the opprobrium aimed at social media from all sides today, I’d think that if anything it understates the current collective wisdom. Which of course can often be disjoint from factual reality … but still important. So, again: what changed?
Users - Internet - Kind - Eternal - September
Some argued that new, bad users flooded the Internet then, a kind of ultimate Eternal September effect. I’m skeptical. Even five years ago Facebook was already ubiquitous in the West, and we were already constantly checking it on our smartphones. Others argue that it reflects happiness decreasing in society as a whole — but as far back as 2014? I remember that as, generally, a time of optimism, compared to today.
There was one really interesting response, from a stranger: “The nature of these social networks changed. They went from places where people debated to places where lonely people are trying to feel less lonely.” Relatedly, from a friend: “The algorithms were designed to make people spend more time on those sites. Interestingly, unhappy people spend more time on social sites. Is unhappiness the cause, or the result of algorithms surfacing content to make us unhappy?” That’s worth pondering.
Everyone - Money - Argument - Modern - Media
Pretty much everyone else talked about money, basically buttressing the argument above. Modern social media algorithms drive engagement, because engagement drives advertising, and advertising drives profits, which are then used to...
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