Alex Kantrowitz: “Social media was once about connection; it’s now about performance. The shift’s had a devastating impact on our public sphere, argues the author of this piece, Jonathan Haidt, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business. I loved this story because it lays out the problem clearly and then actually offered some solutions.”
If you’ve ever wondered how social media is changing our society, we’re finally seeing a debate that’s not just a bunch of hot takes. Professors from the world’s leading universities are now weighing in, taking into account a vast body of studies to draw conclusions about the actual impact of Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, etc. on the way we live.
I’m a longtime technology journalist and host a show called Big Technology Podcast where some of the key players in this debate recently appeared. Today, I’m going to share the research I did before speaking with our guests. And as you read these articles—and hopefully listen to the episodes—my hope is you’ll come away better equipped to assess how these social platforms are changing our lives and communities.
AK: “Whenever I read an article with strongly held views, I want to read the counterpoint, and that’s what Gideon Lewis-Kraus delivers in this New Yorker story. Lewis-Kraus spoke to a number of academics and concluded that we don’t have enough evidence to draw broad, sweeping conclusions blaming social media for all our problems.”
AK: “Wait, is that a Google Doc? Sure. This is a rare, public working document that Haidt and fellow academics used as they tried to answer this question: ‘Is social media a major contributor to the rise of political dysfunction seen in the USA and some other democracies since the early 2010s?’ It’s long, covers all angles, and—dare I say this about a Google Doc—it’s awesome.”
AK: “I’ve long known Chris Wetherell as the founder of Google Reader. But over coffee in San Francisco in 2019, he told me he’d helped build the Retweet button as well. The retweet button’s had an extremely negative effect on society, I felt, promoting outrage-sparked virality instead of thoughtful conversations. Wetherell, to my surprise, agreed, and told me his story in this article.”
AK: “We often talk about misinformation, fake news, and filter bubbles as if these problems are established and pervasive. Brendan Nyhan, a professor at Dartmouth College, tries to bring some perspective to the question. I admire Nyhan for going against the grain and challenging the narrative’s base assumptions.”
AK: “There are plenty of good ideas for how to mitigate the downsides of social media, but simply removing algorithms—a popular demand among tech critics—always seemed counterproductive to me. Lo and behold, an internal Facebook study leaked by Frances Haugen showed that Facebook actually tried this experiment… and it didn’t go well.”
64% of Americans Say Social Media Have a Mostly Negative Effect on the Way Things Are Going in the U.S. TodayPew Research Center
AK: “Just to give you a sense of how we, the public, feel about social media sites, let me direct you to this Pew Research study that asked the question. Pew finds that, among Americans, just one in ten people say social media has had a positive effect on the way things are going. That sentiment really does matter.”
AK: “To hear from Haidt and Nyhan, you can listen to my conversations with them on Big Technology Podcast where we’ve posted interviews with each. I asked them to reckon with each other’s viewpoints and found it fascinating to listen to them defend their positions.”
AK: “If you’re interested in more, I’m going to pass the baton off to Barack Obama, who assembled a reading list before speaking at Stanford about how the digital world challenges democracy. I can’t say it’s better than his Spotify playlist, but honestly that’s hard to top.”
Alex Kantrowitz is the founder of Big Technology, a free newsletter and podcast about Big Tech and society. He's also the author of Always Day One: How The Tech Titans Plan To Stay On Top Forever and an on-air contributor at CNBC.