Two Fundamental Things Wrong with Social Networks

There are many things wrong with social networks and I won’t cover all of them here. But I’d like to address two.

Productivity

Tech really shines when it comes to making tasks more efficient. But I don’t want my relationships to be more efficient!

There was a time before social networks where I had lists in my head of people I would call daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. I didn’t realize this happening, but the more I got entrenched in social networks, the less I made these calls.

Why call when I can check in by visiting a profile? That’s more efficient, but it robbed me of the actual interaction that built the relationship further. Even a positive comment on a post cannot come close to the connection built via a five-minute conversation.

One positive thing that did happen was that I became closer friends with people I wouldn’t have expected to because of what they were posting or commenting on other friends’ posts. This is something I would miss if I wasn’t engaged in social media. But the flip side is also true: There are people I grew away from because I didn’t like the way they conducted their online interactions.

Another example: I used to call people to wish them a happy birthday. Now Facebook efficiently reminds me whose birthday it is today so I can write on their wall. This seems nice, efficient. But I’m not speaking with them, my wishes become just another post to “like” on their wall.

Relational

The relational aspect has two parts, but they’re both about how we interact through social networks. I’m a bit of a philosophy nerd, so please bear with me here. I promise it will pay off.

Martin Buber describes in his book “I and Thou” two types of interactions: I-It and I-Thou.

We each live inside our own inner worlds, and we experience the world outside from within, filtered through that inner world.

All the things that happen, as we go through our day, occur from within us. Everything we encounter is an object, “It” in the I-It.

Those who experience do not participate in the world. For the experience is “in them” and not between them and the world…

Usually, when we interact with most people, this is also true. By default we treat people as we treat the objects around us. That’s normal, it would be exhausting and strange to always do otherwise.

Buber describes another type of interaction that is two-way. This is a relationship. It isn’t simply a reflection of our inner world — consequently disregarding the other person.

The I-Thou relationship is special. It’s bi-directional. It’s the complete focus on the other person and them giving you their complete focus.

Buber explains that you cannot truly love in an I-It interaction, but you can love in an I-Thou relationship.

The human being to whom I say “You,” I do not experience. But I stand in relation to him, in the sacred basic word. Only when I step out of this do I experience him again. Experience is remoteness from You.

You cannot have the I-Thou relationship through a social network news feed.

When you comment on a post, you’re interacting with their post and not relating to the person who posted. They certainly aren’t simultaneously relating to you. This simple truth is the root of much of the animosity online.

We thought that the internet would lead to a pure exchange of ideas. We didn’t consider that when you remove people from that exchange you’re losing the humanity inherent in a healthy exchange of ideas.

Additionally, the underlying design of social networks today — the follow count, likes, and all the metrics that measure how successful you are at social media — these metrics quantify interactions in a way that subverts and attempts to reverse the I-Thou, but perverts it instead.

A social media celebrity has so many likes and retweets and shares and comments that they cannot relate to any of the interactions on any level other than the superficial. By default all those interactions are I-It.

Social networks are designed for increasing interactions, not increasing the quality of relationships.

A social network turns the person posting into someone who seeks out that everyone who follows them treat them as the Thou in an I-Thou relationship, but without the crucial reciprocity that underlies the I-Thou relationship.

All the people retweeting and posting are trying to achieve that I-Thou interaction with the person posting, but it is impossible to achieve this via these platforms.

The great measure of a Twitter profile is the ratio of followers vs following. The greater the ratio, the more of an “influencer” that person is–it makes them important. This importance gives the semblance of being the Thou in I-Thou: All those people are dedicating their attention to the influencer. But it cannot be I-Thou without both the I and Thou.

By forcing all friendships to be accepted on both sides before connecting, Facebook sets up a healthier relationship. But their user experience design and their timeline algorithm ruins whatever possibility for the two-way connection needed to enhance any semblance of I-Thou.

I don’t think you can have a healthy relationship via social networks, fundamentally.

I do think technology could provide a platform for exchanging ideas, but it would be extremely challenging to build it in such a way that it promotes healthy conversation.

I also think that technology could be used to promote healthy relationships, but such a platform could not look anything like current social media networks.

Solutions

I’ll ask questions instead of posing solutions here:

  • What would a social network look like if it were designed to make facilitation of enhancing relationships more efficient, instead of the connection itself?
  • How would people be allowed to interact on a platform that enhanced connections, instead of interactions?
  • How do we break the game of trying to win social media, rather than increasing the value of people interacting in a healthy manner?
  • How do we foster healthy conversation online?