Is social media ‘destroying society’? Hang on… I’ll just check my phone…

Is social media ripping society apart? Former Facebook boss Chamath Palihapitiya, believes so, and his fears are splashed over this morning’s newspapers.

Palihapitiya was vice-president for user growth, whatever that means, but left six years ago.

In a speech last month to Stanford Business School, he said: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”

In remarks reported by a tech website called The Verge on Monday, he also said: “This is a global problem… It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”

Newspapers moaning about social media usually have an ulterior motive, as social media threatens their very existence.

There are two examples of this trend today. First, the Daily Mail makes the Facebook story its splash under the headline: “FACEBOOK ‘RIPPING SOCIETY APART’”. The story, or the snatch I read, says that Facebook leaves its users feeling “vacant and empty”. Funnily enough, that’s just how your blogger feels after reading the Daily Mail.

Over at The Sun, Twitter is accused of being a “playground for paedos” because it “allows perverts to share their vile fantasies”. Twitter denies the accusation and says it removes content that promotes child sexual exploitation.

I don’t know the truth of the Twitter row as reported by The Sun, but let’s stick with the idea that social media is changing or harming society.

It’s certainly changing society on the sofa of an evening. Here’s how a typical evening shapes up. The television is on and the two occupants of the larger sofa sit with phones to hand. Their eyes flick between the TV screen and the smaller screen. My wife’s attention is mostly drawn to Facebook; mine to Facebook, Twitter and my three email accounts. I also check headlines on the Guardian and the BBC.

My wife spends more time than me trawling through Facebook in the evening, but this is only because my working life allows me to dip into that box of repetitious delights and distractions, and hers doesn’t.

The days before Facebook – BF – are eons ago now. Back then, I always had a newspaper on my knee on that sofa. That still happens, but it doesn’t get read as fully as before. Eyes that flick between mobile, television screen and newsprint take nothing in at all.

Facebook isn’t the problem so much as Facebook and everything combined with smart-phones. Perhaps I should try removing Facebook and Twitter from my phone, leaving them for the laptop. That way the newspapers I still buy might receive fuller attention.

Social media is part of a massive, barely controlled experiment in how society operates. Pleasure can be had in seeing what your friends have been up to. Sharing is good too, and you stumble across all sorts of things you wouldn’t otherwise see. And it keeps us in touch with our distant daughter during her year in Oz, so that’s good.

Right now, I can’t imagine life without Facebook and Twitter. They give more than they take, but only up to a point:  determining where that points lies is tricky.

Too much time frittered on Facebook is time wasted. Yet there is pleasure – and that dopamine hit – in spotting what’s been liked, and seeing comments good or bad.

Is Palihapitiya right to say that the social media phenomenon he helped to bring about is tearing society apart? It seems to be a thing for the social media barons to wring their hands at what they’ve done. Former Facebook vice-president Sean Parker said last month that the site was made to exploit human ‘vulnerability’.

On that Colehouse family sofa, we are both certainly vulnerable to Facebook, but are we being exploited or just having idle fun?

The thing is, life seems to change more rapidly now ever before, but is there anything we can do about that? We can’t uninvent the internet or put Facebook back in the box.

Modern, connected life is a bottomless pit of dangers and delights held the palm of your hand. Sometimes that seems good and sometimes it seems  alarming. And no one knows where it will end, but we can always have a look on Facebook.

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