Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
by Jaron Lanier
Henry Holt, 2018
Jaron Lanier, the author of You Are Not a Gadget, was one of the architects the digital world in the 1980s, has carved out a literary niche as one of the highest-profile digital prophets crying out in the wilderness against the danger and toxicity of the Internet. In his new book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, he takes aim at what he calls BUMMER systems: Behaviors of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent – a cumbersome term with a key word at its heart: modified. Lanier's concern in this skimpy little book is superficially about the social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat – that take up so much of our time, but the underlying problem here isn't technology, it's technology modifying itself in order to modify its users. Very nearly every human on Earth, as Lanier points out, currently carries with them at all times hand-held devices “suitable for mass behavior modification.”
As promised, the book consists of ten arguments: 1) You are losing your free will, 2) Quitting social media is the most finely-targeted way to resist the insanity of our times, 3) Social media is making you into an asshole, 4) Social media is undermining truth, 5) Social media is making what you say meaningless, 6) Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy, 7) Social media is making you unhappy, 8) Social media doesn't want you to have economic dignity, 9) Social media is making politics impossible, and 10) Social media hates your soul.
Obviously, and Lanier's narrative tone notwithstanding, these aren't incontestable. Lanier includes generous, extremely responsible footnotes for everything he writes, but if you chase down those links and parse through the scant studies they reference, you'll find as much confirmation bias as confirmation. Quitting social media is the most finely-targeted way to resist the insanity of our times – but the insanity of our times is largely conducted via social media … quitting is not resisting. Social media is making you an asshole – or social media is revealing that you already were an asshole. Social media is making what you say meaningless – but social media can start careers and end them literally overnight. Social media is making you unhappy – or your own unhappiness guided you to the polls that allowed you to make your feelings known. Social media hates your soul? Social neither knows nor cares that you even have a soul. And right on down the line.
Lanier writes clear, fast-footed prose that's easy to read and very smoothly convincing, but for most daily users of social media, all the rest of these arguments will boil down to #7: social media is making you unhappy. This is the conclusion that's made the widest rounds in the commentariat, with many “think pieces” referencing “the latest studies” in order to expound on this neurotic addiction that's now spread to 5 our of the planet's 7 billion humans. Counterintuitively and extremely persuasively, Lanier maintains again and again that the unhappiness actually fuels the addiction, tapping into a primal level of the human brain:
Suddenly you and other people are being put into a lot of stupid competitions no one asked for. Why aren't you set as many cool pictures as your friend? Why aren't you followed as much? This constant dosing of social anxiety only gets people more glued in. Deep mechanisms in the social parts of our brains monitor our social standing, making us terrified to be left behind, like a runt sacrificed to predators on the savannah.
“But as ridiculous as it is, when it happens, I find I can't just put it out of my mind.” he continues. “There's some little demon in my that's competitive. Most of us probably have this creature inside us.”
The strong and endearingly old-fashioned faith of Lanier's book is that people can overcome that inner creature – provided they're not hampering their own efforts by constantly strengthening the demon even while weakening themselves. Lanier urges his readers to look at how they actually use social media, how visiting all their familiar platforms really makes them feel. “Look into yourself. Seriously, are you being as kind as you want to be?” he asks. “At what times are you more like the person you want to be, and when do you get irritable or dismissive?” The times when you're more irritable and dismissive? Those will be the times you're online, dealing with trolls and bores and alt-right Nazis when you could be taking a walk, or reading a (printed) book, or lunching with good friends. “Your character is the most precious thing about you,” Lanier writes. “Don't let it degrade.”
Readers who feel that social media platforms are mostly harmless venues for fun, trivia, and staying in touch – that they are at most tools, which like a spade or a knife can either help or harm depending on how responsibly they're used … those readers will likely find Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now excessive or even silly. But if the US presidency can rise or fall in significant part because of the canny manipulation of social media on the unsuspecting, none of Lanier's jeremiads can be dismissed. Ten Arguments for Seriously Thinking About Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is certainly not as catchy a title, but if it can get its readers to do that, every cellphone sold anywhere in the world ought to come with a copy of this book.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.