This coming weekend (May 1st and 2nd 2021) football teams in the English Premier League are going to boycott social media in protest at the ongoing abuse that many of their players receive on these platforms. This is the latest step by players and officials in one of the world’s most popular and high profile sports league to do something about what has become a toxic problem.
Routinely, players are the targets of hatred and insults of the most vile nature, spewed out by anonymous social media users, emboldened by their anonymity to ignore any norm of civil behavior. Much of the abuse is racial in nature, and persists even in the face of sustained efforts by many people and organizations over decades to rid the game of racism.
This boycott comes as more and more people in the public eye are stepping away from social media. Chrissy Teigen, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Andy Murray, Kayne West, Paul Roehrig and Alec Baldwin are just a few world famous stars who have decided that enough is enough, and that they don’t need the ugliness of social media in their lives anymore. As (irony alert) “influencers”, these names will influence those that feel that social media is having serious negative effects in all sorts of areas – a feeling that is growing more and more widespread.
In our new book, Monster – Taming the Machines that Rule Our Lives, Jobs, and Future we have a chapter called Off? where we discuss the likelihood of people turning social media off. When we wrote this chapter – in 2018 (getting a book written and published is a loooooong process) – the idea seemed unlikely, but was interesting to contemplate. Now in 2021, it is clearly becoming less unlikely.
In fact, the perspective we landed on – that social media won’t be turned off by politicians, but that people will just drift off – is seemingly becoming more prescient. As we wrote, “The next thing will come along and social media will go the way of all things – cave painting, real tennis, opera, music hall, radio, movies, newspapers, books, TV – in becoming less cool and less interesting and a small flatlining niche that’s far removed from the mainstream of where the action is. People will drift off and find other things to do. And then, 20 year after the fact, politicians will act – as they did recently with the cookie, regulating its use decades after its introduction”.
Assuming that the social media platform companies themselves won’t take affective steps to clean up their platforms, and that government mandated regulations will take years, if not decades, to hit the statute books, anyone or any organization offended individually or generally by their experience on social media really only has one option; like it or lump it. Call it a boycott, call it “off”, call it what you want. People and organizations of good will, will increasingly lump it, and find those other things to do.
Amongst them will be new ways of connecting; Clubhouse, an audio only conversation platform, is the hottest app in inside-the-rope-tech-circles currently, and recently closed a round of funding valuing it at $4bn. Substack, a newsletter platform backed by Andreessen Horowitz, has taken a seemingly old-fashioned idea, and made it the place where cool, edgy writers and commentators (Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan et al) are going to escape “Big Publishing”, and traditional social media. The Light Phone is a simple 4G LTE phone, designed to be “used as little as possible”. Funded through one of the most successful crowd-funding campaigns of all time, the Light Phone is simply that; a phone that is light – physically and metaphorically. It lets you make calls, text, see a map, and set an alarm. No email, no apps, no video, no social media. In an era, where our phones have become globally ubiquitous, but a phone’s least used feature is making a phone call, the Light Phone is a redux antidote/detox to social media addiction.
The need for connection is of course at the heart of the story of social media and how we “tame” it. Social media tapped into our very human sociability, but in doing so, also tapped into other less positive human attributes. When used responsibly, social media can be a wonderful thing. Particularly now, during the pandemic, it has been a lifeline against isolation and loneliness. But social media has unlocked the narcissistic rage that humans (some, most of the time; most, some of the time) have felt since time immemorial which has historically been repressed (into back pain or atrial fibrillation) or expressed in other ways (abuse and cruelty at a micro scale, war at a macro scale). A narcissistic rage that people feel toward a world indifferent to them and that doesn’t recognize their talent/ genius/uniqueness. Now this deeply human characteristic can be funneled straight into the phone at the moment it’s felt. Social media — ever present in your hand in the socially distanced checkout line or the car— has become the medium for all the world’s rage: unfiltered, unfettered, uncontrolled by the traditional inhibitor of having to say something to someone’s face. Now, Instagram monetizes the 16-year-old girl’s rage that she’s not Kim Kardashian. Twitter monetizes the rage that the 50-year-old man feels that he’s not rich enough and that the “elites” are more interested in the rights of transgender folks than him. Elites like sports stars, movie stars, politicians, bosses. Anyone in fact, on the other side of the screen, becomes a target for this rage – a rage that is without beginning or end. Unfathomable.
So, this weekend, as you settle in for Manchester United v Liverpool (that’s my son and I at Anfield a couple of years ago in the picture above) or Burnley v West Ham, and fume at other aspects of the issue with “off” – offsides; VAR be gone! – ponder on what steps we can take to ensure that social media platforms elevate the best in us. One idea we suggest in our book is a social media licensing program, akin to Twitter’s blue verified badge system, for all social media platforms, so that free speech is protected, but free speech has to be owned. Steps like this can ensure that football stars and actors and ordinary civilians like you and I can use social media in the way that it should be used, and its founders intended. Now that would be a result worth cheering.