The breakdown of social media's sociology model

A summary of some people's greivances, and a new project I'm working on

Some of us remember the early days of the social media craze, when applications like Friendster and MySpace and Facebook first started popping up. The promise was that it was going to connect the world and improve our lives. Despite this, we’re now in a situation where there’s a growing body of research suggesting that high amounts of social media usage can be damaging to our mental health. Higher rates of depression are observed in people who spend more time on social media.

Ironically, this seems to conflict with the body of research pointing to extremely long-lived individuals and extremely happy individuals having extensive social networks. The most famous of these was the 75-year-long Harvard Grant study, which tracked a few Harvard sophmores starting in the 1940s throughout their lives. They found that the strength and number of connections to friends and family was one of the strongest predictors of overall life satisfaction.

So why is there this massive difference? Social media is supposed to be making us more connected, and yet we’re seeing so many effects that could be described as the opposite of what we see in research on meaningful social connection.

Not long ago, I was hanging out with a few friends at a happy hour. We somehow got into this group conversation about how quickly an AI overlord could take over the world. We seemed to agree that if the AI got our (poorly-guarded) social media history, the same info that helped make Brexit a reality and helped put Trump in the White House, we would pretty much have no remaining choice but to beg for mercy.

And then the conversation took an interesting turn. Once we got on the subject of social media, nearly every person in the immediate group was commenting on how much they disliked it. Some seemed intensely passionate about how much they disliked social media. Some neighboring people in the bar said it was distracting. They said that there were too many ads that they couldn’t get rid of.

And yet, even those that disliked it couldn’t stay away from it. They couldn’t bring themselves to delete the apps from their phones. Some even felt like they were obligated to participate since everyone else around them was. Interestingly enough, many of the people around them also felt like they had to participate or else they would be left out, but that the experience of using it often felt like something they wished they could take a break from.

What happened? When did this many people start viewing social media usage as more of a chore?

The answer is pretty simple. Social media isn’t doing that great a job at providing actual meaningful connection between people. Despite some users having numbers of friends or mutual followers on social media platforms that number in the thousands, this doesn’t always translate to proportional improvement in life satisfaction. Estimates for Dunbar’s number, a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships, range from only 100 to 250. Many of us have witnessed “connections” of ours becoming little more than ghosts on these platforms.

There’s also another problem. At some point in the development of these globe-spanning networks, the incentives of the companies creating the platforms diverged too much from those of the users. The users wanted to connect and communicate, and the companies wanted to milk the users’ attention spans to drive up advertising revenue.

Some of the brightest minds of our time are being encouraged to research methods that can be used to make apps more addictive, how to use existing users to attract other users, and how to make advertisements more persuasive. It would be a safe bet that the level of research on ways to improve users’ benefit from using these services is much smaller in comparison.

This is what HelloFriend aims to fix. Part of HelloFriend’s mission is to hit the reset button on what we think we know about how social media is supposed to work. This involves everything from finding monetization strategies that don’t require carting a userbase in front of targeted ads, allowing the users themselves to benefit from the expansion of the network, and encouraging in-person interactions.

We look forward to the day when the goals of the users and the platform align well enough that increased social media use results in benefits to health and longevity typically associated with more traditional interpersonal connection.

If you are interested in learning more about HelloFriend, you can find more information at HelloFriend’s website, or join the conversation on HelloFriend’s Telegram.

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