4 Reasons Why Social Media Has Become So Toxic and What to Look for Next
“Guys, I am gonna be perfectly honest,” wrote Katie Bower, a mother of five and “mommy blogger” with over 52,000 Instagram followers. “Instagram never liked my Munchkin, and it killed me inside. His photos never got as many likes. Never got comments. From a statistical point of view, he wasn’t as popular with everyone out there.”
It was the sixth birthday of Bower’s “Munchkin,” a.k.a. her son, and as many mothers now do, she marked the occasion by writing a long social media tribute to everything she loved about her child. But she also used the post to lament the fact that her photos of him weren't getting as many likes as those of her other children. “I want to believe that it wasn’t him .. that it was on me," she fretted.
"My insufficiency caused this statistical deficit because obviously my Munch should get ALL the love, and squinty eyes are totally adorable."
Bower’s post went viral after hundreds comments lodged negative feedback about Bower's assessing her child's appeal based on likes received. Though she later deleted the post, the incident highlighted just how far social media has come from its original, humbler purpose: to connect friends and family.
Nowadays, moms like Bower aren’t just posting family photos to share their lives -- they’re doing it for money. The new “influencer marketing” industry is expected to grow to a $10 billion dollar industry by 2020, according to Mediakix. And that means that that old promise of connecting people has evolved into a toxic, commercialized landscape that seems to have forgotten what it's supposed to be about. Here are the four main factors that have caused this toxic environment:
1. Social media has become a marketplace first.
Facebook is a prime example of a social network that has become more about quantity and commercialization rather than a place to connect with friends and family. While the platform’s actual viewership has slowed considerably in recent years, its ad revenue actually jumped by 42 percent in early 2018, demonstrating the company’s aptitude for making money over its aptitude to forge connections.
Facebook has been acquiring other popular social networks only to see their founders quit shortly thereafter. An example: The co-founder of WhatsApp left over data privacy clashes, after Facebook pushed it to change its terms of service to give the larger social network access to WhatsApp users’ phone numbers and to look into advertising.
Similarly, both Instagram founders quit this year after tensions with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg mounted over the direction of the app. Reportedly, they wanted to keep Instagram independent from Facebook, while Zuckerberg wanted to further integrate the app into his platform.
Related: How Humans Relate to Social Media
He hasn't stopped his efforts: As Facebook shares continue to fall due to slow user growth, Zuckerberg has been searching for ways to continue monetizing the platform through other social app acquisitions, rather than making fixes to Facebook that will keep users engaged and active.
2. Commoditizing social status via likes is detrimental to mental health.
Multiple studies have shown that the psychological effects of likes, comments and shares are proving detrimental to the mental health of the general population.
One study reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that liking more posts was tied to worse mental and physical health and “decreased life satisfaction,” while another study by the University of Copenhagen found that many people suffer from “Facebook envy,” the concept of being jealous of friends’ activities on social media.
The design of Facebook in particular has caused what researchers have called a context collapse, where users are locked into a single persona by the platform. This occurs despite sociologists' agreement that we have, and display, different aspects of our identities depending on what contextual situation we’re in -- when we’re at work versus at a bar. The single persona we create on Facebook has led us to “self-edit” what we share, to create the perfect version of that public persona, another factor leading to Facebook envy, and a reason many people are actually buying followers on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.
This has created a market for commoditizing social connections even further, while skewing the perception of popularity on social media and starting the vicious cycle of Facebook envy once again.
3. Personal data is being bought and sold to the highest bidder.
Third-party data brokers, or companies that buy and sell information on customers, have become massively influential in the era of big data. For social media platforms, which capture large amounts of data, these transactions present an enormous new stream of revenue.
Most social media users don’t understand the value of their personal data, and it’s become more common to accidentally expose themselves to malicious activity. Facebook users, in particular, were outraged when the third-party data firm Cambridge Analytica got its hands on personal data for as many as 87 million Facebook users -- without their permission. While that breach was the the most publicized one, there have been additional breaches since then.
However, even these security breaches haven’t changed much about how users participate in social networks. According to a Chicago Tribune writer, experts have said "that “many users are either ambivalent toward data privacy or don’t understand what they’ve given up by agreeing to the terms of service in order to create an account.”
And, if these privacy breaches don't end, users can only expect steeper consequences in the future.
4. Users are being forced into a sensationalized “publishing media” environment
Today’s social publishing environment rewards sensationalized content, thereby damaging healthy relationships online. These platforms reward "engagement" by highlighting highly liked posts more prominently in newsfeeds, accustomizing social media users to attempting to post that sensationalized content themselves.
This attention-seeking behavior has left people vulnerable to dangerous propaganda and influence campaigns. Last year, teenagers infamously filmed themselves ingesting Tide Pods in attempts to gain more attention and followers, while, more seriously, Russian government operatives posted political proganda on Facebook that reached 126 million Americans before the 2016 election.
The platform is also being taken to task for allowing hate speech from extremist politicians in Myanmar, which later contributed to the genocide of the Rohingya people.
What was once a seemingly harmless platform, then, has now evolved into a powerful machine that, due to confusing hate speech and privacy policies, has set dangerous precedents for the future of social media.
The next generation of social networks will overcome these toxic influences
By now, we all know that the current social media system is broken. Healthy personal relationships are being drowned out by social media flare-ups with the news (real and fake), sensationalized posts and a commoditized environment that values money over genuine connections.
A social media exodus may be coming. A recent Pew survey said that one in four Americans polled had deleted Facebook from their phones in 2018, while 42 percent said they’d stopped using Facebook at all “for several weeks or more” in the previous year.
Now, new questions abound: As people do start leaving big networks like Facebook and Twitter, what will they do next? Have they become so exhausted from the toxicity that they’ll quit social media completely, or will they turn to alternative networks -- and if so, what will they look for there?
Clearly, people need a space to privately share their lives with their inner circles, while leaving the general media posts right where they belong -- in social media.
If there’s anything social media has taught us, it’s that people do still enjoy being connected. Once we move our personal relationships away from social media to networks that truly value privacy, we may eliminate the current toxic social media environment and get back to the basics.