Social Media Turns You Into an Asshole

Published: 2023-03-29

Jaron Lanier said this best in the third argument of his book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now: social media is making you into an asshole. More specifically "You're vulnerable to gradually turning into an asshole, or statistically you might very well be turning into an asshole. So, no offense, but please take the possibility seriously." Social media brings out the worst versions of ourselves. It not only encourages bad behavior, but it's constantly exposing us to the worst human behaviors because that is the content that most people engage with, and therefore boosted by algorithms. It exposes you to the worst and most extreme of the "other side" and humanity in general, whether there's a political component or something as mundane as a fucking sports team. It turns people into toxic hateful assholes where their side encompassing all that "good" and the other side is basically evil incarnate. The engagement algorithms along with the advertising revenue incentives, and natural human drive to seek out "bad news" is a recipe for disaster.

The safety of being behind a screen and, to some extent, the anonymity that social media can sometimes provide, makes us more prone (unintentionally or not) to being rude or straight up aggressive toward someone else that we might not agree with. I think it's a safe bet that if you've spent any time online, you've probably expressed extreme hostility toward someone else that you'd never say in a face to face setting. I've also had threats of physical violence made toward me several years ago simply because I had shared a comment that was mildly political in nature, but far from a hot button topic (and I can't even remember right now). There's a type of person that exists that think the tough-guy persona is cool on social media, but would never act that way in person. Social media makes you an aggressive and hostile asshole, primarily only online - a behavior the majority of people wouldn't have in real life.

Often only the most extreme viewpoints make it through to the feed. A typical social media feed (and arguably most news stories online) paint a black and white worldview where oftentimes only extreme examples make it to your eyeballs. Fringe toxic beliefs are amplified by others in an otherwise minority group (flat earthers, for example), and are then falsely perceived as being a much larger issue that what they really are. And more often the not, it's trolls generating a lot of this simply to get a rise out of others online for entertainment, then these ridiculous stories are reshared by people with a "look how dumb people are, I am very smart" attitude.

Being exposed to only the extreme political views, you're more likely to stifle out alternative opinions because people in the out-group will be lumped together with the extremists. This also leads to the dehumanization of the out group where they're seen as "less human" as your in group. This can go both ways in that we only see the extreme side of the other group, but we're influenced by the extremes of our own group. This doesn't happen consciously and it's hard to blame a person for this kind of bad thinking. There is an evolutionary psychological component to this as we have an innate propensity to divide the world into "us" and "them".

Anecdotally, there are people I know that are, what I would call, "excessive" social media users that also have a negative view of the world. Fixation on world events that paint the world bleakly shapes how we perceive reality and our immediate physical surroundings despite wherever depressing terrible events occur. It actually makes one less informed of the world and distracts you from the important things going on in your own physical life and your own neighborhood, instilling a perception of the world that's divorced from reality.

Social media has been called an "outrage machine". It stokes outrage and divisiveness that feeds on peoples hate - and that is optimal engagement. Cal Newport said that rather than the "public square" metaphor, Twitter resembles more of the Roman Colosseum where gladiators from your tribe engage in combat to the death with gladiators from the other tribe, all while the crowd cheers on screaming for more violence. I'm also reminded of "2 minutes hate" that George Orwell described in 1984, which is the daily, public period during which "members of the Outer Party of Oceania must watch a film depicting Emmanuel Goldstein, the principal enemy of the state, and his followers, The Brotherhood, and loudly voice their hatred for the enemy and then their love of Big Brother". (1984 is a book that seems to get referenced a lot in modern times that no one seems to have actually read. Here's a link, go read it). We (the users) are encouraged to be hostile with one another on these platforms because it keeps us engaged, and our engagement is reinforced because we can be served more ads. This makes us incredibly divisive for the sole benefit of profits.

Social media can also turn you into an irrational asshole. Loss of rationality and crowd psychology (or mob mentality) is a common characteristic. Arguably, the majority of social media users (and this is a flaw with people in general) do not care about being logically correct. The want their emotions to affirmed, having no desire for truth. It's oftentimes futile to even attempt to engage with someone like this because pointing out the fallacy will result in them being defensive and doubling down on their idiotic belief is correct. Their belief is so emotionally engraved into their very identity, no argument can be made that could convince them otherwise. There's a saying that you cannot reason people out of a position that they did not reason themselves into.

Narcissistic behavior is also becoming increasingly common. I'm using the term "narcissism" loosely here as I'm not referring to clinical narcissism as described in the DSM5, though people with actual narcissistic personality disorder can fall under my umbrella use of the term. People are so wrapped up in themselves and seeking affirmation. It also encourages people to have an inflated self-love for not just themselves, but of their group. People, especially younger people, have a strong desire for fame and having a high volume of followers. You may not think you fall into this category (and maybe you don't) but there is no reason to share a picture of what you had for lunch with a bunch of people that are mostly strangers, and there's no reason for you to look at theirs or their filtered daily lives.

I've hinted at this earlier, but these issues could probably all be boiled down to algorithms promoting high engagement content for the sake of increased advertising revenue. Couple that to our natural human desire to seek out the outrageous, and you have your recipe.

Can people have a healthy relationship with social media where it doesn't bring out the worst in them? Sure. At best, it's a healthy relationship sometimes, which doesn't sound at all how I would define "healthy". That's like saying I have a healthy diet sometimes because two of my main meals are filled with leafy greens while the other meal is fast food and ice cream. Or it's like saying you have a healthy relationship with your spouse, but they only sometimes beat you. Smaller communities that exist within these platforms may be a temporary safe harbor from bringing out your inner asshole, however, these communities could exist elsewhere. Decentralized platforms are also less likely to have these problems, but the same issues still exist nonetheless.

Having that occasionally gross emotion of feeling like an asshole, or seeing swarms of countless others as assholes, was one of the reasons I deleted all of my social media accounts. This was one of the best things I've done for not juts my overall mental health, but I genuinely feel like I'm a nicer person and have more time for things that are more important to me.

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