I remember smoking bans coming into effect in pubs and restaurants in my native London and in New York, and at the time it was a contested issue. People felt strongly that you would lose the character of a place if you could not smoke there with your friends.
Now it seems like a no brainer. I don’t smoke and yet a decade ago I never thought about the effects secondhand smoke was having on me. But, I could see what smoking did for my friends and colleagues. It broke down to something like this:
1. It made them feel cool, connecting them to a silver screen mythology.
2. It created a social bubble of like-minded smokers, and even after smoking bans in restaurants, pubs, and workplaces it allowed them to connect to people.
3. That social bubble was also time consuming--meaning they had to take time out to both buy and smoke those cigarettes. (5 mins a cigarette x 20 a day =1hr 40 mins a day)
4. It was expensive (even more so now)--but felt necessary.
5. It was addictive.
6. Finally, it had a serious impact on long term health. Even if you gave up, years in the future you were more likely to develop all sorts of life-threatening illnesses.
What has this got to do with the title of this article? If you remove the word ‘smoking’ and replace it with ‘social media’ you have an almost exact match. Let’s try it. Social media:
1. Makes you feel cool and connected to what’s happening with friends and celebrities
2. Creates a social bubble of like-minded people who agree with your worldview.
3. Is time consuming, even more so than smoking. In 2016 people spent on average 50 mins/day on facebook alone. When you add in a few other social networks, that is a large chunk of your day. (New York Times
: Facebook Has 50 Minutes of Your Time Each Day. It Wants More
4. Is expensive, but feels necessary. We spend large amounts of money on devices, phone plans, and WiFi to access social media 24/7.
5. Is addictive.
6. Can have serious long term impacts on your life and career. Things you said in your teens and twenties are there forever and can come back to haunt you in the future.
The analogy goes one step further, both cigarette manufacturers and social media companies like facebook and google know full well the ill effects of their products and do little about it. In smoking’s case they used to plead ignorance of the science. In social media’s case they plead that they are just networks, not media companies. How could they possibly do anything about a foreign power affecting the results of an election in another country, for example? Social media companies know the powerfully addictive effects of their products and yet stick to their vision of “connecting everyone in the world.”
So why doesn’t everyone quit social media? We are in the middle of it; it’s like asking people in the 1950’s to quit smoking (when 45% of Americans smoked). They would have thought that you were quite mad. Smoking was at the center of culture, it connected people and formed a commonality, not unlike social media today. When I ask people to quit they often think I’m crazy--to them it’s the most normal thing in the world, why would they want to stop?
The documentary maker Errol Morris once said that “History is like the weather, there are patterns that repeat but it is never quite the same.” While social media is not smoking, its patterns seem to have many of the same effects on our culture.
Social media, like smoking, is about a system of control. The smoking industry wanted to normalize smoking so the profits would keep rolling in; social media companies want you to keep clicking. However crazy an article might be, the system absorbs it and normalizes it, giving everything the same importance and credibility. In the end all you do is read a series of manipulative headlines, and decide when to click ‘like.’ Consider the dangers too, when the two come together--as the Juul, which is spearheading an increase in underage smoking, is promoted to young people almost exclusively through social media--a perfect storm of the confluence of the two lists above. (New York Times
: Did Juul Lure Teenagers and Get 'Customers for Life'?
The filmmaker Adam Curtis has a similar idea about how social media works, he notes that social media algorithms are always looking for patterns of information which they turn into feeds of news they think you will like, a steady drip of the same kind of news to create stability and uniformity.
“What results is a system which cocoons us and makes us feel safe. And that means we have become terrified of all change. But that fear of change is in the interest of a system that wants to hold everything stable. And stops us from ever challenging it.” - Adam Curtis ("Hypernormalization" movie
The only constant is change. In the same way that in 2018 it seems to most of us like a bad idea to take up smoking, I hope that social media will also seem like a similarly poor choice in the next few years.