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We need to be liked, and it might be the fault of social media.
If our god is a benevolent one, then why did he make us crave approval?
Social media is a blessing and a curse. On Facebook, you can be connected to all of the people that you’ve ever spent time with, keeping up with their day-to-day. Lots of folks feel good about staying in touch with distant friends and family in a way that was previously impossible. A lot of people use this as their excuse for using social media, and it’s not a bad reason. For many people, like my mom, it does serve the purpose.
We take for granted the connectedness that social media offers today. Though I can’t find any sources to verify, I seem to remember that MSN Messenger had a 250 friend limit, because someone had decided that the average person has only 250 people they want to talk with. That’s wild! Imagine if Twitter only let you follow 250 people1. Facebook has a 5000 friend limit, but that's only because they want to push folks towards uni-directional relationships (follows) with people and pages.
The business model of a social network, though, is to keep you looking at ads (and to keep you pumping out content for other people to look at, to keep them looking at ads). The very essence of a good social network is creating the least expensive positive feedback loop of user engagement possible. The realization of that in the year of our lord 2023 is an infinite feed of text and videos and pictures with a sprinkling of targeted ads.
I’d often wondered whether we could replace this feed with something that gave us the same gentle dopamine hit from the connectedness of our “friends” through artificial means. And the answer is…sort of. Binky was released in 2017. It’s a fake social network. It shows you an infinite feed of stuff, but there’s nobody on the other end. The content is artificial and there’s no friends, it’s just stuff to look at and enjoy (?).
But truthfully, it doesn’t really work: the draw is not in consumption alone. The internet has no shortage of stuff to look at. If Binky could replace Facebook, Wikipedia would let you swipe through algorithmically-curated articles like the feed of Stories.
Social media works because we participate in it. We write status updates and post gussied-up pictures that show off our butts (or whatever). Or some of us, anyway. Enough people to keep the feedback loop going. We go through the trouble of it all for the validation from other people.
Now, you can say that it’s the illusion of wanting to be liked, when you’re actually envious (or jealous)—subconsciously competing against everyone else that you see having “success" on social media. It’s really the same thing: we could all be content to just sit around and scroll indefinitely, but we want those likes and retweets, too. We also want to have lots of followers. All the other people [that the algorithm highlights to you] are getting attention, and getting attention is nice! And as artificial as this might be, it works well enough for the feedback loop to continue and the stockpiles of content to remain high so the feed stays “infinite” enough to show you ads to fill all the little gaps in your day.
On a fundamental level, we want other people to like us. We want them to give us attention. We want to feel wanted. Without any of that, social media would simply collapse.
A friend of mine called me recently. He was having a bad week because a more senior coworker was being a real asshole to him. I’ve had the same happen to me, and it’s not fun. And truly, it’s hard to pick yourself up after a long day of that: if you feel like you’re not appreciated and wanted by your coworkers, or someone more senior than you doesn’t like you, it’s physically and emotionally draining. Even if there’s no chance of your position or pay or career development being negatively impacted, being disliked feels bad. When it comes to social media, being disliked and not actively being liked look exactly the same.
Lots of people routinely go above and beyond in jobs where there’s no realistic chance of additional compensation for the extra effort. We saw recently at Twitter how the remaining staff2 pledged loyalty to the Chief Tweeter or whatever the hell he wants to be called. After laying off most of the staff, cutting perks, and doing almost everything possible to cut costs, what realistic chance do these folks think they have of being recognized in any real way? There's no universe where sticking around yields any real benefit (experience, reputation, compensation). But there is the chance of being liked by a billionaire3. If you're the sort of person to think that's a good thing, the alternative (finding yourself in the crosshairs of the ire of a billionaire) feels real bad, even when it's probably the more beneficial option overall.
Let’s talk about Elon for a minute, actually. Here’s someone who could have sailed off to his luxury drone ship to smoke the dopest weed with Joe Rogan in a Scrooge McDuck pool filled with Boring Company flamethrowers. With his net worth, he never has to see another pleb like you or me ever again. He could exclusively hire millionaires to wait on him hand and foot. So why did he make himself CEO of a social network and start banning people for making fun of him? Surely if you aren’t looking to have other people like you, you don’t care about what they’re saying—or shitposting—and you just continue to microdose as you cruise around underground in your private tunnel drilling machine or whatever.
And Elon isn’t alone! Let’s talk about Mark Zuckerberg, who is a Massively Weird Nerd that—instead of getting super into Lego or buying a Segway—watched Snow Crash and decided he was going to acquire Oculus. When his own personal metaverse was laughed at for looking like it was a game you could download for free on the Wii Shop Channel, he doubled down.
Instead of letting the marketing people put their degrees to good use, Mark instead chose to take on the haters directly by spending a lot of physical effort demonstrating how his metaverse, where legs had yet to be invented, now featured legs.
As we know now, this demo was entirely fabricated. They went out of their way to get a motion capture setup together and pay people to rig some avatars in the metaverse to demonstrate a feature that VR headsets cannot posess4. It's an expensive, embarrassing demo of technology that does not and will not exist. They could have simply made the legs okay with relatively little effort, like Minecraft or literally any other video game does, but instead the Robot In Chief did some jumps and kicks to demonstrate how impressive his virtual legs are.
But the important question is, “Why, Mark?” Zuck could probably afford to spin off Oculus as a private company for himself to own so he could trot proudly around his own VR paradise from the comfort of his garage. He could live a happy, fulfilling life with his wife and two kids and preteen-with-Roblox-like fascination with VR. He could afford to buy a decent chunk of one of the flyover states and turn it into his own personal VR Neverland Ranch and never be seen again. He could make like his predecessor, MySpace Tom, and evaporate into the folds of cyberspace where he so desperately wants to exist full-time.
Zuck’s demo serves no purpose except to deceive folks into thinking an incredibly mundane problem is fixed. The success of the multiverse doesn’t rest on (stand on?) the existence of legs. And sooner or later, people were going to realize that they didn't actually figure out legs. The whole charade was to get people to like him and his weird obsession. He thought legs were the thing stopping people from giving him validation (wrong), and he went to great lengths to try to get randos on the internet to care.
In the case of both Elon and Zuckerberg, it’s fascinating to note that they’re both CEOs of social media companies5, and by proxy, are both extremely online. When I was discussing the topic of this post with a friend, they pointed out that Donald Trump is, in many ways, the epitome of someone who seeks adoration, and it strikes me that he was also chronically online. Trump admittedly does have practical reasons for maintaining a loyal following, though (namely, his anticipated reelection campaign and not being convicted of something).
I think people have always wanted to be liked, certainly. But we live in an era where society has normalized approval-seeking behavior. Kids wanting to grow up to be famous actors or athletes or singers are less common than they were; kids instead want to grow up to be influencers and makeup artists and gamers. Perhaps these are the celebrities of our time! But being a YouTube makeup artist with a substantive following is a practical, reasonable thing to be able to actually accomplish (compared to, say, becoming the next John Cena). The idea of celebrity has been taken down off of its unreachably high pedestal and distilled into a craving for attention rather than accomplishment.
It’s rare to find someone unplugged and unbothered. One of my aunts, for instance, has exactly zero social media presence, and she seems mostly happy and well-adjusted and unmotivated by external validation. I know enough about confirmation bias and causation and correlation to understand that this doesn’t actually mean anything. It does raise questions, though:
Before we lived in a connected world, was our need for validation expressed in other ways?
I think there’s a convincing argument that more opportunities to be tempted to want attention have been jammed into our days. All of the time we spent pooping in the 90s, for instance, was quiet and mostly-uninterrupted. Today, it’s spent scrolling.
Is the unlimited social connectedness of our time triggering some latent needy instincts to express themselves? Or is exposure to things like social media, which are designed to create a feedback loop, causing unnatural behavior? Or am I noticing something which isn’t even actually a new phenomenon at all and people are behaving (on the whole) the same as they always have?
Are people who are offline and don’t seem to crave attention naturally disinclined to crave attention? Or have they simply been unaffected by engineered attempts to get them to hit the social media dopamine button (through luck, poor targeting, or something else)?
Said another way, if my aunt was given Facebook (and taught how to properly use a computer) would she take to it? Or would she shrug it off?
When I consider these things, I can’t help but also think a recent (and mostly compelling) Substack post about teenage mental illness since 2012:
I’ll let you read it over and make your own conclusions. The attached document points to evidence that teen mental health is suffering (and also offers caveats to that evidence), and also lists off potential explanations (and counterpoints to those explanations). Even if you don’t think all of the reasons or evidence are reasonable, there’s certainly a small mountain of reasons and evidence.
And while the mental health of teens is the focus of this work, I also wonder what effect these same factors (or at least the ones relevant to adults’ lived experiences) have on adults. Surely the “socially prescribed perfectionism” described by the studies linked in the doc (which I’d argue is just a flavor of what I’m talking about in this post) is not an issue exclusive to Gen Z.
While it’s a leap to make these sorts of assumptions, let’s put that aside for a moment and say a few things are true: modern people have a need to be liked and, regardless of the underlying reason, the broad expression of it is a fairly recent phenomenon. Let’s also say the internet and social media make it more pronounced, even if they’re not the only factors.
When you start to think about it that way, it sounds a lot like a public health problem, like bad air quality or leaded gasoline or teflon leeching into our food. Folks have been sounding the alarm for decades about ethics in tech, or the lack of it. Is it ethical to create a dopamine button? Is it ethical to create a dopamine button whose core purpose is to monetize the time its users spend on the train and taking their morning constitutional?
I’m not an ethicist, but I agree there’s a need for better ethics in tech6. Almost anything can be distilled down into quantitative measurements and KPIs—metrics-washing, if you will—to justify a business case for giving teenagers and adults body dysmorphia or anxiety or FOMO. I think if engineering managers and directors had to frame business justifications as "We're going to do a better job of showing kids videos of lifestyles they desperately wish they had so they keep looking at our partners' ads for longer," instead of "We're going to optimize the engagement models for better personalization," or "We're going to show people profiles of incredibly attractive singles that we're extremely confident will never swipe them back because it makes them think they're getting utility out of our dating app," instead of "We're tweaking the algorithm to show users more dating profiles relevant to them," we'd have much less in the way of (perceived) ill effects.
That’s sort of the problem, right? Normal, kind, empathetic people work for companies that aren’t directly evil, but squeezing eyeball-seconds or perceived utility out of users is what pays the bills. And we know there are consequences, but in the same way the plastics industry makes plastic waste and recycling your problem, tech companies make the ill effects of these products an issue for you and your therapist to work out.
I know some folks have mixed opinions of him, but Tristan Harris (the one from The Social Dilemma) says a lot of things that make sense to me. Tristan is a former design ethicist with Google, and you might describe his job as being the guy that tries to steer the ship away from delivering the bad practices I’ve described into the hands of the public. He’s got an interesting article about the feedback loops in the products we all use every day, which I’d recommend you read. One of the images from the post is perfect:
The degree to which technology is a cause for mental health problems is probably impossible to truly, accurately quantify. It’ll probably be many years before we it’s completely understood what the impact things like social media has on public health.
Importantly though, today’s social media isn’t going to be the last thing to manipulate human psychology in a perverse way. If all social media was banned today, there’d be something else that would come along and do the same thing, but more effectively. Facebook and friends are just the incarnation that we have today.
Truthfully, I don’t know what the lesson here is. Years ago when I left Facebook, it was like I had shed responsibilities even though having a Facebook account doesn't make you responsible for anything. When I stopped using Twitter last year, I felt better. I still have the urge to shitpost occasionally, but disconnecting myself has been freeing in a way that’s hard to articulate.
I’m not suggesting you should stop using social media; social media isn’t even the real point of this post. I think it’s worthwhile, instead, to take the time to understand how the things you do make you feel. Many of us already consider how the food we eat affects us. Does dairy make you feel bad? Do you crash after drinking an energy drink? Do you need to eat a breakfast with complex carbs to feel energized in the morning? It’s normal to think about the effects of substances on our bodies, but it’s uncommon to think about how the things we put in our minds affect how we feel.
Next time you take out your phone, take the time to think about what you’re looking at or reading and what it does to you. Does it make you upset? Anxious? Excited? Longing? Depressed? Jealous? Even if you choose to do nothing about it, having perspective about what those effects are means that the next time you crave likes, you can meaningfully reflect on why.
In truth, this would actually be a really interesting thing to try, but I digress.
Let’s ignore the folks who can’t reasonably change companies due to immigration issues, because that’s a different situation.
Depending on how you’re counting, I guess?
Please, Mr. Zuckerberg, explain how a headset worn on your face is supposed to be able to see your legs well enough to track them?
It’s curious to note that Jack Dorsey didn’t seem to be as chronically needy for attention and validation. I also know very little about him, except that he once gave a friend of mine a ride when they were an intern at Square.
There’s a post worth writing about the sorry state of computer science (and business) education. I went through four years of college and earned a bachelor’s degree in CS without ever being asked to write a unit test. Not a single professor uttered the words “git” or “subversion”.
Because I had done four internships before I graduated, I was invited to a panel with some industry experts to speak to the leadership in the computer science department about the quality of program that my school was offering. They went around the table and spoke to many of the business leaders, who talked about how candidates needed better debugging skills or could use familiarity with [whatever language they were using]. I was last, and when they got to me, I talked about version control, testing, and security best practices. All of the CEOs and CTOs who had already spoken were suddenly outspoken about these fundamentals and how they were lacking. Makes you think.