The Social Media Epidemic - Part Four

Part Four: Slowing the progress of humanity

This is part 4 of a 4-part series on the cultural impact of social media. Be sure to also read Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.

Social media is damaging. It’s damaging us as individuals by increasing our insecurities and loneliness. It’s damaging our relationships by fooling us into thinking we’re interacting with our friends. And it’s driving our communities apart by widening the gaps that already exist between us, leading to increased racism, sexism, and prejudice. That’s a lot of issues. But what is social media’s biggest threat to the progression of humanity?

The previous three posts in this series have built the case that social media presents us with these serious issues — and have looked at some examples. In this post, we’ll look at how our ability to harness our collective ideas to move forward is hampered by social media platforms.


The growth of humanity

Humans are the world’s dominant species. Our success over all other animals is attributed by many to our intelligence — or, more specifically, our ability to collect, create, and store information. This ability is what originally enabled us to survive, even when everything around us was trying to kill or eat us.

Luckily, that’s not the daily reality for most of us anymore, and our intelligence has evolved since then. Our ability to store the information we needed to survive (things like “don’t poke that lion”) is important, but there are some lessons better learnt from others than from first-hand experience (the lions again). Once we learned to share knowledge, we grew as a species.

Being able to share information with each other meant that we were able to vastly increase the amount of information we could hold as a species — we could distribute it amongst ourselves. We ensured information wasn’t lost by passing it down to our young, allowing our collective wealth of information to continue to grow long after individual lives ended.

The collection and storage of this information is what enabled us to survive. But what really started to move human progress forward? We moved from surviving to thriving when we started to form new ideas and create new information.


New ideas are formed through interactions

Stop for a second and look around. Our lives are absolutely insane! We have digital hunters (Seamless), indoor suns (lights), and no one needs the North Star anymore when we have Google Maps. This is all the result of trillions of interactions. New ideas are formed through interactions — they’re like our equivalent of information chemical reactions. New ideas are formed when you combine two things that weren’t combined before. For example:

If you only have the color black, you can only make black.

If however, you are given the color white, you’re now able to combine the black you had with the new white and create grey, an entirely new color.

Now the black, white and grey can continue to be mixed, with each iteration creating more and more shades, and this is all possible with only one tiny addition.

Basic ideas can be created by an individual by thinking. Thinking is accomplished by combining different pieces of information within our brains — basically, it’s a kind of internal interaction.

Below is a basic example of how a series of thoughts over a second or two can take us from feeling hungry… to planning a friend’s birthday party:

  1. “Hmm, I’m hungry.
  2. What should I eat tonight?
  3. I do have that leftover chili…
  4. There’s a lot though.
  5. Mike likes chili.
  6. I wonder what Mike is doing tonight?
  7. Let’s see if he wants to come over!
  8. Oh, and we can make plans for Phil’s birthday while he’s here!

These are straightforward thoughts. But bigger ideas, decisions, and solutions to problems need interactions between people, not just between random, loosely connected thoughts.


We need interactions (and lots of them)

Complex ideas and solutions require many interactions between many people. Essentially complex ideas require information creation. This information creation must be specific and well-founded — two scientists talking about football won’t cure cancer.

Interactions between people also provide the key to our success, as they provide different perspectives. It’s basic math: different people with different experiences provide more outcomes. A chemist set with only three elements will be very limited as to what she can create. As we increase the number of elements, what we can create — the possibilities — increase drastically.

Note: This is also why companies benefit from diversity in the workforce — not just so they can check off politically correct boxes, but because diverse workforces are much more likely to come up with creative new solutions. Diversity in the workplace (and everywhere) isn’t a burdensome PR move, it’s a huge advantage when it comes generating ideas.


Is social media up to the challenge?

The type of interactions that occur on social media platforms are incapable of complex exchanges. Without complex exchanges, we simply can’t solve problems that are even remotely complicated.

Social media platforms lack the tools for back-and-forths — there simply aren’t enough exchanges of data, and the data that is being transferred is filled with noise. Not too mention that so much of the information we trade back and forth is either fake or half-true — and our ability to tell the difference is limited, with so much data flying back and forth.

As our lives become more digital and we continue to replace more and more of our real world interactions with social media, we can reasonably expect that any measure of the growth of our ideas — say, new ideas per capita — will level off or even decline.


A new generation

Social media has built us a connected world. We’re able to keep in touch with friends and to share updates on the daily details of our lives — 24/7. But while we’ve been busy posting photos of our lunches and clicking the like button, we’ve ignored the complexities inherent to human interaction. We have reduced our ability to truly interact with others, and we continue to use social media platforms that damage us a little more each day.

Social networks have been incredibly valuable in creating a connected world. The internet is here to stay, and it’s unlikely we’ll stop using our phones anytime soon. We need to harness this technology to create a better society — and stop letting divisive platforms pull us further apart. It’s time to focus on the next generation of digital communication platforms. We need to turn our connected world into a connecting one.